Oscars: How 'Kong,' 'Star Wars' and Other VFX Nominees Found Inspiration From the Original Films

10:00 AM 2/26/2018

by Carolyn Giardina

For the first time, all the contenders are sequels or remakes with nominated predecessors, as effects pros created new thrills for established franchises: "We wanted this to be completely in the moment."

'Kong: Skull Island'
'Kong: Skull Island'
Warner Bros.

  • 'Blade Runner 2049'

    Left, Photofest; Right, courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

    Ridley Scott's 1982 Blade Runner was a stunning VFX feat and earned an Oscar nomination in the category. "Even in 1982, it was beautiful and real. We knew we wanted the new worlds to feel real so that you felt like you were in them," says VFX supervisor John Nelson. The original relied on in-camera effects. This time, they again used some traditional techniques, such as models and miniatures, but also used digital techniques. For instance, for an ad featuring a hologram of Joi, actress Ana de Armas was shot on a greenscreen and then later "made transparent by adding a back shell so you can see that she has volume."

  • 'War for the Planet of the Apes'

    Left, Photofest; Right, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

    The original 1968 Planet of the Apes received an Academy Award for the apes — but in the makeup category. Half a century later, the makers of Matt Reeves' films decided "we needed to go CG, and we needed full digital apes, no prosthetics," says senior VFX supervisor Joe Letteri. "We wanted this to be completely in the moment now." He adds, "The original informed this film largely in style, taking that idea of just what the ape community looked like, the compound, the fact that it wasn't completely modern day. In the books, it was a modern-day society. In the film, they decided to make it something a little more rustic, not as advanced."

  • 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi'

    Left, Photofest; Right, courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

    Every film in the original Star Wars trilogy received an Oscar for VFX. "The original trilogy pushed filmmaking technology to the limit of what could be achieved using miniatures, stop-motion animation, matte paintings, motion-control cameras and optical printing," says VFX supervisor Ben Morris. "This combination of techniques gave the films a unique visual language. In space, cameras flew on simple trajectories and never so close to an X-wing that the lens could collide with the model. We embraced this limitation and avoided 'magic' CG cameras that skimmed so close to an object that it could never have been filmed for real."

  • 'Kong: Skull Island'

    Left, Photofest; Right, courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

    Kong first appeared onscreen in the 1933 classic, created by stop-motion pioneer Willis O'Brien. Since then, the 1976 and 2005 versions of King Kong received Oscars for VFX. For Kong: Skull Island, VFX supervisor Jeff White says the CG Kong took some inspiration from all prior versions but mostly the 1933 original. "We spent a lot of time looking at the footage from that original movie. If you look at them side by side, there's a lot of purposeful influence from that Kong, especially the gigantic brows, the sort of big googly eyes. Typically when you roar, you actually squint, and our Kong goes wide-eyed like the Willis O'Brien Kong."

  • 'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2'

    Courtesy of Marvel/Disney

    While a more recent example, Guardians also has Academy Awards history, as the 2014 original was nominated for a VFX Oscar. This time, Rocket and his fur become even more realistic, and instead of Groot, audiences fell in love with emotive Baby Groot, just a few inches tall. "Baby Groot was heavily influenced by Groot from the first Guardians film, in both performance and look," says VFX supervisor Christopher Townsend. "The challenge was to make the skin feel like young bark and animatable without it looking stretchy, so we created a dual-layer system, where the surface remained stiffer than the grooves of the grain, which expanded more."

    This story first appeared in the Feb. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.