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Crafts Roundup: Talking VFX with the Five Oscar Nominees

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood January 30, 2014 at 2:05PM

The "Gravity" juggernaut, the surprising entry of "The Lone Ranger," the new and improved "Iron Man 3," the ascendance of "Star Trek Into Darkness" and the J.J. Abrams factor, and the power of the eponymous dragon from "The Desolation of Smaug." We reflect on the great year for VFX with the lead supervisors of all five Oscar nominees.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

With "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," there were a lot more digital environments, including the thrilling barrel river chase, along with CG spiders, a shape-shifting CG bear and, of course, the menacing and mischievous dragon voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, which was keyframed rather than performance-captured.

According to Weta's four-time Oscar winner, Joe Letteri, there even appears to be a little less resistance to the higher frame rate. "People came up after the bakeoff and said they thought the 48 looked better this year. Peter [Jackson] tried to soften the effect with the time we spent on grading or maybe people are just getting used to it and appreciating more what 48 brings to it when compared to the 24."

Letteri was also impressed with the work of his fellow nominees (including Weta's animating "Iron Man 3's" foundation suits and their transformations). "I think the trains did become a focus for that work on 'Lone Ranger.' What 'Star Trek' has going for it is a good combination of really well-done work and tight integration with the story. It fits really well. You've got 10 films up there now and you look at the ones that didn't make it and you wonder how close it was. Digital is taking over more and more. Look at 'Elysium.' Ten years ago you would've built the ring as a big miniature. Now you can do that digitally and it looks great and it didn't even make the cut."

Iron Man 3

New to "Iron Man," Chris Townsend's task was to stay true to the rules while making the design language of Tony Stark's world more special and futuristic, yet still grounded in reality. "I think there were various set pieces with the suits flying on to Tony [from Trixter] that was an homage to the very first time that Tony suits up. And then using that idea of the suit flying to him as autonomous pieces was used as a story device, especially in the glove/boot fight. The barrel of monkeys sequence was kept real by shooting people jumping out of the plane even though they wound up replacing most of the them with digital doubles. And the blowing up of Stark's Malibu cliff house by Scanline VFX proved they could handle CG environments [as well as their signature fluid dynamics].

"Obviously 'Gravity' is the clear favorite going into it and I think from a technical approach what Framestore did to further the art of visual effects is phenomenal. But I think 'The Lone Ranger's' presentation was very good at the bakeoff and the marriage of practical effects and visual effects was beautifully done and seamless. And I think it's really nice to see a film rewarded for the technical and artistic category of visual effects even though it wasn't critically or commercially that successful. I think 'Trek's' work was great and similar in many ways to 'Iron Man 3' as a sequel. Some gorgeous set pieces with the ship coming out of the clouds. The red planet. All these space sequences. There was a beautiful aesthetic to everything. I think 'The Hobbit' is a phenomenal workload; the challenge of working at 48 frames is immense and Weta are supreme at handling that much data and putting it through. I still think it's a new way of filmmaking -- shooting at 48 frames -- and Peter Jackson has been very brave to continue to do it after the negative criticism of the first one...once you accept it, it opens up a whole new world." 

This article is related to: Crafts Round-up, VFX, Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, The Lone Ranger, Star Trek Into Darkness, Thompson on Hollywood, Awards, Awards Season Roundup, Oscars

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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.