Oscars: VFX 'Bake-Off' Highlights De-Aging and Cats (of All Sorts)

Rise of Skywalker_Irishman_Cats_Split - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Lucasfilm; Courtesy of Netflix; Courtesy of Universal

Captain Marvel's visual effects supervisor Christopher Townsend got a big laugh on Saturday night when — after showing work on his film including the de-aging of Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury and a CG Goose the cat — he joked that to make this year's Motion Picture Academy VFX bake-off, it helped to have de-aging or cats in your film.

The bake-off, held Saturday evening at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater during the crucial Oscar nominations voting period that ends Tuesday, is the event during which the VFX teams behind each of the 10 films shortlisted for the VFX Oscar makes a presentation to the branch voters, who may then vote on which five films will be nominated for the Academy Award. With seats also available to the public, the gathering attracted a full house for the roughly four-hour presentation, which included looks at Avengers: Endgame, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Cats. A branch reception preceded the bake-off, which generated buzz with an appearance by Martin Scorsese, whose The Irishman is also one of the 10 shortlisted movies.

Each film's presentation began with a VFX supervisor providing an overview of the work, narrated over a three-minute "making of" reel. This was followed by a reel of finished shots from the movie and then some additional discussion and questions from branch governors John Knoll, Richard Edlund and Craig Barron.

Tom Hooper's Cats team related that every shot in their film contains VFX and work involved a performance-captured full cast with combined sets and digital background work on what was a widely reported tight schedule. This schedule was the reason given for why it was the only bake-off presentation that didn't have a submitted making-of reel to show during the opening three-minute description of the work. (As was previously reported, the VFX team worked up until the day before the premiere and continued work to enable Hooper to release a refined version to theaters after its Dec. 20 release date.)

The program started with Gemini Man (focused on the film's fully digital young Will Smith), followed by The Irishman (focused on the de-aging of Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci), which perfectly set up one of the evening's biggest laughs.

Next up was The Lion King, the photorealistic CG retelling of the Disney classic that was made with new virtual production techniques, and VFX supervisor Robert Legato deadpanned, "We de-aged Simba," joking that he "didn't want to wear tracking markers or a helmet cam.”

The team behind the recently released WWI drama 1917 then provided a look at their work to join takes together as it was meticulously filmed to appear as one continuous shot. They showed making-of clips that included background replacement and a couple fully CG moments.

Voters were also walked through the varying techniques, including de-aging and digital character work, used in VFX-extensive adventures including Marvel's Avengers: Endgame and Captain Marvel; Alita: Battle Angel; and Terminator: Dark Fate and Rise of Skywalker (both of which featured de-aged characters with looks from earlier films in their respective franchises, which were past VFX Oscar winners).

In a nostalgic moment, branch governor Edlund — who won an Academy Award for the VFX on the original 1977 Star Wars — told the Rise of Skywalker team that he appreciated the "ode to Star Wars."

Captain Marvel's team of potential nominees includes Janelle Croshaw Ralla, the only woman featured in this year's shortlist of contenders. To date, only two women have won Oscars in visual effects.

Earlier in the day, a second bake-off was held for the makeup and hairstyling award. Shortlisted movies in this category are Bombshell, Dolemite Is My Name, Downton Abbey, Joker, Judy, Little Women, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Rocketman.

The Academy Award nominations will be announced Jan. 13.