Oscars: VFX Noms Include Actual Explosions, Real Stunts and Leonardo DiCaprio Versus a CG Bear

VFX supervisors for 'Mad Max,' 'Star Wars' and more Oscar-nominated films share what it takes to keep it real. 'The Martian's' VFX supervisor, Richard Stammers, says of achieving an earthy approach: "We strive to make as much as we can real. The more you capture in-camera, they more it’s grounded in reality."
Courtesy of Lucasfilms 2015/Walt Disney Studios
'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

This story first appeared in the Feb. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Filmmakers used to brag about how many CGI shots they pack into their movies. Nowadays, they brag about how many noncomputer-generated, in-camera elements they also included in their shots.

"We wanted to go back to real locations and build sets and have creatures and effects hap­pening in camera when we could," says Roger Guyett, VFX supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic, the lead visual effects company behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which was shot largely in those far, faraway galaxies known as Abu Dhabi and the U.K. Andrew Jackson, VFX supervisor for Mad Max: Fury Road, also went the natural route while shooting his film's postapocalyptic landscapes in Namibia. "The majority of the stunt work was done on moving vehicles," he notes. "Other driv­ing shots were filmed stationary, so we had to [add the movement]."

Even The Martian, which is set 249 million miles from Hollywood, went for an earthy approach, shooting much of the red planet's landscape at Wadi Rum in Jordan. Says that film's VFX super­visor, Richard Stammers: "We strive to make as much as we can real. The more you capture in-­camera, they more it's grounded in reality." While they shot what they could in-camera, digital effects were required to complete the look of Mars, by adding mountains and volcanoes and painting the Martian skies a "warm butterscotch yellow."

In sharp contrast to the other category films, VFX supervisor Andrew Whitehurst's main challenge — on a tight budget — was to com­bine CGI and clever wardrobe choices to bring Alicia Vikander's android to life in Ex Machina (which had a budget of only $15 million). "She wore a costume that incorporated elements of the onscreen look that also contained elements that we could use for tracking markers [to guide the placement of CG]," he says. "The shots were long — one was about 1,800 frames — which increased the challenge of tracking."

And then there's the most chillingly real­istic visual effect of the year — the bear in The Revenant. She, it turns out, was entirely CGI, with artists replicating the "nuance of the movement of the fur, flesh [and] muscle," according to VFX supervisor Rich McBride. To shoot the live-action portion of the six-minute bear-attack sequence, Leonardo DiCaprio spent three days rolling around in the forest in British Columbia; later on, the computer-generated animal was added. Says McBride, "It was very much a VFX movie that we don't want people to think of as a VFX movie."