'Button' ushers in a new age

Digital Domain back in Oscar graces with groundbreaking win

Taking home the Oscar for visual effects, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" has set a benchmark in the VFX community.

A believable synthetic human has long been considered the industry's holy grail, and the most recent developments in that area allowed lead actor Brad Pitt to age in reverse — convincingly.

The win by the team of Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton and Craig Barron also delivered lead VFX facility Digital Domain its first Academy Award in a decade and first since Michael Bay and Wyncrest Holdings acquired the privately owned company in 2006.

Founded in 1993 by James Cameron, Scott Ross and the late Stan Winston, Digital Domain last won Oscars for achievement in visual effects for 1997's "Titanic" and for 1998's "What Dreams May Come." (Over the years, it also won four Sci-Tech Academy Awards.)

Barba, Digital Domain's VFX supervisor, had a succinct take on the night's win: "We are back."

In "Button," visual effects play a key role in the storytelling, allowing Pitt to appear as an aged little man for the first 52 minutes of the film. A body actor did the performance from the neck down, and his head was replaced with a computer- generated one based on Pitt's performance. The character was created using a combination of VFX tools and techniques, some of which were developed for the project at Digital Domain.

Andy Serkis, the actor whose performance drove the computer-generated Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, paved the way. When "Rings" was released, there was a camp that felt he should have received an Oscar nomination for his performance, which sparked much debate because the on-screen character was a CG creation. This year, that debate seemed to fall by the wayside when Pitt received a best actor nomination despite the fact his character also owes a heavy debt to CG.

"When I started working on Gollum, there was no benchmark set for an actor driving a digital role," Serkis said Saturday at the Visual Effects Society Awards. "With Jim Cameron's film ('Avatar') coming out, with 'Beowulf,' with 'Tin Tin' that we're working on, there is a much wider understanding. It's a very exciting time.

"Some actors think this is taking work from actors — that's a fallacy. It will enable actors to engage in the craft of acting on a much more unlimited scale and enable them to play characters beyond what they are physically."

Sunday's VFX Oscar was the first for all four recipients as well as the first nomination for Barba, Digital Domain animation supervisor Preeg and special effects supervisor Dalton. Barron, VFX supervisor at Matte World Digital, was nominated for "Batman Returns." (partialdiff)