Visual Effects Oscar: The Illusions Behind 'Avengers' Through 'Snow White and the Huntsman'

The Avengers (Marvel Studios)

Joss Whedon's The Avengers went on to earn $1.5 billion worldwide. 

With the Academy's shortlist of finalists due Jan. 3, a look at the effects we take for granted -- from a Bengal tiger on a lifeboat to a 3D Gollum.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 10, 2013, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The Amazing Spider-Man

Jerome Chen and the Sony Pictures Imageworks team gave Spidey a new style of movement -- informed by actor Andrew Garfield's body language -- and created a photo-realistic computer-generated version of New York at night. And what's a Spider-Man film without a scene-stealing villain? Lizard was computer animated using the stalking behaviors of cheetahs as reference.

The Avengers

You'll see traces of Mark Ruffalo, who portrays Bruce Banner, in the creation of his computer-generated alter ego, the Hulk. "He was incredibly gracious in terms of letting us do scans, light casts and taking thousands of pictures of him," says Jeff White, effects supervisor for Industrial Light & Magic.

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Cloud Atlas

Each principal actor portrays multiple characters -- sometimes as different races and sexes -- which tested the skills of the film's analog and digital effects teams. "The makeup team did a phenomenal job for the majority of the characters, but a few -- Hugo Weaving as an English female nurse -- required significant digital work," says effects supervisor Dan Glass.

The Dark Knight Rises

The Batman trilogy's finale is a tour de force of effects, including the incremental collapse of a football field as a player runs toward the camera. "This huge abyss reveals all of these layers of structures beneath Gotham City," says Paul Franklin of effects house Double Negative.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The incorporation of 3D added a new challenge to filming the Tolkien canon. "With traditional forced perspective, if you want Gandalf to look bigger, you have Gandalf closer to the camera, but when you are shooting stereo, that no longer works because you perceive the distance between the characters," says Joe Letteri of effects house Weta. "We had two cameras with synchronized movement, one following the dwarfs and one following Gandalf on two stages that were side by side." The effects team used compositing to combine the performances.

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John Carter

The Tharks -- a tribe of CG Martians in this live-action film -- "needed to be just as believable and deliver performances as good as Taylor Kitsch," who plays the title role, says effects supervisor Peter Chiang. Director Andrew Stanton had the actors who portrayed Tharks perform with Kitsch; key-frame animation was used to create their alien bodies and facial capture was used for their expressions.

Life of Pi

The film's now-famous Bengal tiger was CG, with about 14 percent of the shots using a real animal. "Having the real tigers gave us hundreds of hours of [performance] reference," says Pi's effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer. An experienced trainer advised on tiger behavior, which was incorporated into the animal's movements.


"The planet was our biggest undertaking," says effects supervisor Richard Stammers of the distant moon visited by the film's star travelers. "Ridley Scott wanted something that was tangibly real -- not too fantastical." Live action was shot in Iceland and combined with the digital landscape.

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The first Bond film in the franchise's 50-year history to embrace CG characters includes a Komodo dragon, photographed at the London Zoo by effects house Cinesite as reference. Traditional Bond techniques included miniatures, created for the explosion at MI6. "I really enjoyed mixing old-school effects with new," says effects supervisor Steve Begg.

Snow White and the Huntsman

The effects team had less than four months to complete 1,300 shots, according to supervisors Phil Brennan and Cedric Nicolas-Troyan. The dwarfs were particularly challenging because they had to interact with regular-size live actors. A combination of digital reproportioning, face replacement and live-action doubles created the convincing result.