Oscars: 'Interstellar,' 'Hobbit' Visual Effects Artists Reveal How They Did It

VFX_artists_Spill_Secrets_Split - H 2014
Courtesy of MPC Film/Disney

VFX_artists_Spill_Secrets_Split - H 2014

This story first appeared in the Jan. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Hollywood's dependence on visual effects to connect with audiences never was more evident than in 2014. Seven of the 10 movies that earned spots on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' shortlist — vying for five Oscar nominations in the visual effects category — were among the year's top 10 films at the worldwide box office, collectively grossing nearly $5.4 billion. Meanwhile, the VFX industry, which for some of the shortlisted movies created more than 90 percent of images that ended up on the screen, continues to endure wrenching downsizing, outsourcing and bankruptcies as studios relentlessly seek to control costs. Viewed in that context, the work of this year's visual effects Oscar contenders appears all the more remarkable.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Marvel's $170 million tentpole, the sequel to 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger, contains about 2,500 VFX shots that were divided among several effects houses. Industrial Light & Magic was tasked with creating digital doubles of the lead characters, including Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie). ILM VFX supervisor Russell Earl scanned Johansson, Mackie and the other lead actors and built detailed digital doubles that were deployed instead of stunt doubles. The digital doubles were so convincing that "we used them in some of the close-ups," says Earl. (Actors, consider that a warning.) ILM also created CG helicarriers and parts of Washington, D.C., near the White House and Pentagon that are off-limits to filming because of airspace restrictions.

To create a photoreal CG version of the Japanese horror-movie icon, lead visual effects house MPC began by studying such animals as bears, Komodo dragons, lizards, lions and wolves. That helped the VFX artists visualize Godzilla's underlying bone, fat and muscle structure as well as the thickness and texture of his scales. In the $160 million film, Godzilla stands 350 feet tall and was inserted digitally into settings that were photographed on location. A sizable challenge was that Godzilla was filmed in incentive-friendly Vancouver, but the movie's climactic third act occurs in the recognizable city of San Francisco. The VFX team had to create an entirely digital rendering of San Francisco's downtown, including the Golden Gate Bridge and the bay, for Godzilla to destroy. MPC's destruction simulation tool, Kali, was upgraded to complete that demolition derby.

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Guardians of the Galaxy
Filming Marvel's superhero team involved 2,208 VFX shots — about 90 percent of all shots in the $170 million movie. They were cre­­ated by 13 companies in 17 locations. In an ambitious and labor-intensive choice, two of the lead characters, Rocket and Groot, were created and hand-animated entirely in the computer. Effects house Framestore (Gravity) designed Rocket, a scruffy raccoon who is muscle-bound like an action hero. MPC created Groot, a talking tree who doesn't talk much — the VFX artists instead focused on giving him expressive eyes. There also are several complex CG environments like Knowhere, a city inside a giant severed head with neighborhoods comprising 85,000 pieces such as towers, pillars and turbines.

VFX supervisor Paul Franklin of Double Negative says the diversity of the $165 million movie's visual demands was staggering: "We had the miniatures, planetary environments, the tesseract, the black hole and the wormhole. We created new software to put these things together, and we wanted to ground them as much as possible in real science." For the space scenes, Franklin referenced NASA footage. The most challenging environment was the tesseract, where time becomes a physical dimension. The tesseract was built on a set; computer-generated lines connected objects from the past, present and future. Says Franklin, "We extended that digitally and overlaid all the rapidly moving lines that connect everything together."

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Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb
Along with animals, stone and metal statues and other museum displays that come to life, the visual trickery used in the third installment of the Night at the Museum series allowed Ben Stiller to appear as two characters simultaneously. For VFX supervisor Erik Nash of MPC, the biggest "conceptual and creative" challenge was a sequence during which multiple characters enter a lithograph and take on the art's qualities. The actors were photographed on a greenscreen stage and placed into a virtual environment. The film, released Dec. 19, also introduced a silent dinosaur-skeleton character whose personality had to be expressed entirely though primitive body language.

X-Men: Days of Future Past
In the franchise's seventh installment, which cost $200 million, Wolverine and the X-Men have to fight off Sentinels — robots designed to kill the mutant superheroes. Two versions of Sentinels were designed: a "1973 version" brought to the screen by Digital Domain and a future version designed by MPC. The future Sentinels were animated by hand instead of using motion-capture (which requires actors to wear suits embedded with sensors). The most difficult aspect was that each was covered with about 100,000 "blades" that had to be animated individually using new software. Says MPC's Tony Micilotta, "The vast number of objects proved too cumbersome, so an entirely new approach was required."

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The characters in Disney's $180 million family film Maleficent, a live-action reinterpretation of the studio's 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty, appear in two settings: a fairy world and the real world. "We had to make sure it was clear what world they were in," says Adam Valdez, VFX supervisor at MPC's London office. "The human world was very horizontal and flat; the fairy world was very vertical, with mountains, atmospheric effects and bright colors." The actors were shot on bluescreen sets, then CG environments were added. The live action in a battle scene was supplemented with CG characters created using MPC's proprietary crowd software dubbed "Alice."

Transformers: Age of Extinction
Industrial Light & Magic's Scott Farrar, the VFX supervisor on all four films in the Transformers franchise, says the $210 million movie contains about 90 minutes of visual effects during its 2½-plus-hour run time — "a huge portion." Joining established characters like Optimus Prime (far right, composited into location footage, right, shot in Texas) were new Transformers, Dinobots and Protos. "The Protos swirl and sweep and turn into flowing, wormlike characters that turn into the robot characters," says Farrar. "It's a slow, painstaking process to come up with the movement — it took preexisting software and retooling it."

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
The success of the $170 million film was dependent on believable, emotive characters — that happened to be CG-created apes. Work began with a cast led by Andy Serkis and the latest performance-capture techniques. Says Joe Letteri, senior VFX supervisor at Weta, the movie's effects house: "A character like Caesar is a collaboration between an actor like Andy Serkis, who provides the performance and heart and soul of the character, and the artists at Weta, who interpret that performance and create the Caesar you see onscreen. This gives you a unique character that feels just as real as an actor giving that emotional performance." Weta developed new software for the production used in simulating fur.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
There are numerous epic sequences in the last chapter of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, which opened Dec. 17, including the destruction of Lake Town and the final battle scene. Senior VFX supervisor Joe Letteri notes that the latter takes place in a virtual landscape. "Everything was shot on a greenscreen stage, and all the landscapes were created digitally. We had seen the landscapes before in other films, and we needed to have the landscape work in a way that we could choreograph the battle." Thousands of digital doubles were replicated for the battle, including "eight hero elves and two types of Orcs as well as about six hero dwarves," says Letteri.