Oscars: Secrets of 'Star Wars,' 'Jurassic World' and 8 More Visual Effects Contenders

8:00 AM 12/22/2015

by Carolyn Giardina

'The Martian' and 'Mad Max: Fury Road' are also vying for Oscar gold in the VFX category. Says Kevin Baillie of Joseph Gordon-Levitt starrer 'The Walk': "We had to build New York completely digital; there's not a single piece of real footage."

'Star Wars: The Force Awakens,' Courtesy of Lucasfilms 2015/Walt Disney Studios

This year's visual effects race includes sequels to two of the most seminal movies in VFX history: Star Wars (1977) — which kicked off the era of VFX films — and Jurassic Park (1993), which ushered in the age of digital effects. Both earned Oscars. Will history repeat itself?

The current contenders underscore just how varied VFX work has become. It creates fantastic worlds, including a certain galaxy far, far away; sites that no longer exist, including New York City's World Trade Center — not to mention velociraptors (Jurassic World) and Marvel superheroes tall (Avengers: Age of Ultron) and small (Ant-Man).

Here's a look at the 10 films that remain in contention.

  1. 1



    Courtesy of Disney

    Macro photography, CG environments and a CG version of Paul Rudd were part of the VFX work. Other tasks involved creating an army of CG ants as well as some digital Michael Douglas "youthification." Marvel always has tapped a collection of VFX houses; for Ant-Man, that included Double Negative and ILM.

  2. 2

    Avengers: Age of Ultron


    Courtesy of Film Frame/MVLFFLLC/Marvel

    Two key characters involved VFX: Ultron is fully CG, based on James Spader's on-set performance capture. Vision was based on Paul Bettany's on-set performance in costume and makeup, and then the VFX team used compositing and layers of CG to give a synthetic quality to the character. Marvel employed 21 VFX houses, including key suppliers ILM, Double Negative, Lola and Trixter.

  3. 3

    Ex Machina


    'Ex Machina,' Courtesy of A24 Films

    Ava — a robot played by Alicia Vikander — was a huge challenge "in a film with four actors, and Ava is largely CG for all of her time onscreen," says visual effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst of lead VFX house Double Negative. She wore a body suit that had tracking markers built in. Body tracking and animation were by hand because "we found that motion-capture wasn't subtle enough" for the performance.

  4. 4

    Mad Max: Fury Road

    Warner Bros.

    Jasin Boland/Warner Bros.

    Work on George Miller's visually thrilling postapocalyptic actioner included building The Citadel and other environment work while completing shots with those high-octane live-action stunts. VFX house Illoura did the majority of the work.

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    The Martian


    Aidan Monaghan/Twentieth Century Fox

    Lead VFX house MPC created a fully CG version of the Wadi Rum Hab environment using high-resolution photography taken on location in Jordan, adding extra rocks, craters and mountain ranges to create a grander landscape. Fast-moving ice and dust clouds were CG fluid simulations combined with practical elements.


  6. 6

    The Revenant


    'The Revenant,' Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

    "We studied real bears," says VFX supervisor Rich McBride, for the ILM-created bear that mauls Leonardo DiCaprio's character.

  7. 7

    Star Wars: The Force Awakens



    By their very nature, this series of films have offered the opportunity to showcase and develop new visual effects technologies — and The Force Awakens is no exception, with an estimated 2,100 total VFX shots, including effects and animation.

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    About 1,400 VFX shots saw a combination of creature and digital double work, environments and effects simulation. Of paramount importance was the creation of Tomorrowland itself, initially seen while still under construction in 1964 and eventually as a fully populated modern city. ILM was the lead VFX house on the film.

  9. 9

    The Walk


    Courtesy of Sony Pictures

    To re-create New York's World Trade Center in 1974 and Philippe Petit's remarkable high-wire performance, VFX supervisor Kevin Baillie of lead VFX house Atomic Fiction brought the scene into the CG realm. "We had to build New York completely digital; there's not a single piece of real footage." (Original footage from the period of course was only on film.) To put actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the wire as Petit, the production team built a portion of the top of the twin towers on a greenscreen stage. According to Baillie, Gordon-Levitt did some wire walking himself (with instruction from Petit), and the rest was a combination of a digital face replacement on a stunt performer (for instance, for complex moves such as juggling on the wire) as well as a full digital double of the actor. The actor was scanned for different facial expressions as well to capture textures for close-ups.

    Putting Gordon-Levitt atop the Statue of Liberty was a VFX feat.


  10. 10

    Jurassic World


    Courtesy of Universal Pictures

    The dinosaurs are mostly CG, with just a few animatronic creatures, and were aimed at honoring the work in the original Jurassic Park while also using more modern techniques. VFX supervisor Tim Alexander of ILM explains that this time around, they used motion capture to create the raptors' performances. "We had tryouts, and we cast people from ILM as each dinosaur." And to render the film's massive new dinosaur, Indominus Rex, Alexander's ILM team referenced animals including rhinos, hippos, elephants and ostriches: "It's nearly 50 feet long, weighs a few tons and can run at about 35 miles per hour."

    Tackling an Indominus Rex


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