SIGGRAPH: CG experts pick Oscar prospects

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Oscar season is still months away, but with so many leading animation and visual effects houses showing off their work at this year's SIGGRAPH confab, it's likely that the CG experts in attendance won't be able to stop themselves from speculating on which films will find favor with Academy Award voters.

Of course, prognosticating might be a little more difficult than usual this year considering that not only is the field more competitive than in years past but also that Robert Zemeckis' upcoming Paramount Pictures release, "Beowulf," straddles two categories. The performance capture-based film blends live action and computer animation techniques, meaning that no one is quite certain whether it will qualify in the competition for best animated film or best visual effects.

"For us, it's a tour de force of visual effects," says Tim Sarnoff, president of Sony Pictures Imageworks, which handled special effects on the film. "It's also a tour de force of animation."

Here's an early look at how the race is shaping up so far.

ANIMATION

"Ratatouille," Pixar Animation Studios' tale of a rat with a penchant for cooking, has received strong critical success and seems to be the frontrunner at this stage of the game. Industry leaders have praised the beautiful animation, as well as the film's lighting and rendering, but Paramount's "Shrek the Third" -- which had the most successful opening ever for an animated film and already has passed the $300 million mark -- is the one to watch considering the franchise's strong track record. (The original won the first Academy Award to be presented for best animated feature film in 2002, and "Shrek 2" was nominated in the category in 2005.)

But the competition is broader than just those two films. Also in the mix are Sony Pictures Animation and Imageworks' "Surf's Up," which incorporated new lighting techniques to create realistic ocean waves; Disney's 3-D digital release "Meet the Robinsons"; Fox's "The Simpsons Movie"; and DreamWorks Animation's upcoming "Bee Movie," due Nov. 2.

"There are a lot of movies that are extraordinary in both animation and visual effects," Sarnoff says. "What will (distinguish) them from each other, I think, ultimately, will be the performances."

ANIMATED SHORT

SIGGRAPH's 2007 Computer Animation Festival also offers a possible preview of the animated short category. Screening at the festival qualifies shorts for Academy Award consideration, and plenty of Oscar nominees have emerged from the lineup. This year, SIGGRAPH's best of show honor, which was announced in April, went to "Ark," an animated short from writer-director Grzegorz Jonkajtys, which was produced by Jonkajtys and Marcin Kobylecki and also screened at May's Festival de Cannes. In this short from Poland, a mysterious virus has nearly extinguished the entire human race, and the survivors, led by one man, set off in search of safe new land.

VISUAL EFFECTS

Although "Beowulf" is functioning as something of a wild card, Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" -- the follow-up to 2006's "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," which took home the Oscar in the 2007 visual effects category -- might be considered a frontrunner. The effects wizards at Industrial Light + Magic once again brought the CG Davy Jones and crew of the Flying Dutchman to life using its proprietary iMoCap technique, but more notably, they raised the bar with the maelstrom that is the setting for the film's climactic sea battle.

ILM is in the enviable position of having earned praise as the lead visual effects house on another serious contender: Paramount's "Transformers." Some of the film's CG robots have more than 10,000 moving parts, most of which were created by the effects team at the company.

Of course, there are plenty of other effects-heavy sequels this season to consider -- including Fox's "4: Rise of the Silver Surfer" and "Live Free or Die Hard," New Line's upcoming "Rush Hour 3" and Sony's "Spider-Man 3," for which Sony Pictures Imageworks' won plaudits -- particularly for its birth of Sandman sequence. Sony also has a contender with its February release "Ghost Rider," while Warner Bros. Pictures' March boxoffice smash "300" surely will be a competitor. (After all, the Spartans would accept nothing less.)

Looking ahead, many will be waiting to see the work on New Line's "The Golden Compass, which opens Dec. 7.

With so much outstanding work on display, Digital Domain president Mark Miller maintains that it's far too early to make any predictions. "You don't know how the public is going to react and how that branch of the Academy is going to react," he says. "Things change a lot at the end of the year, with that branch especially. Stories get told internally about what really happened and who's responsible for what. It's a tough one to handicap."


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