Fall/Holiday Preview: Five Glorious VFX Films to Watch, None Set in Present

by Bill Desowitz
September 16, 2011 2:04 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood
Bill Desowitz lists five VFX films to watch this fall and winter season, and the reasons why:
With all due respect to the highly-anticipated The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-- Part 1 and Mission: Impossible-- Ghost Protocol, in which Edward and Bella and Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt spiritually go to hell and back, the real VFXy films to look out for this fall/holiday season are Hugo, Real Steel, Immortals, Anonymous, and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. They possess the necessary CG eye candy and potential Oscar prestige, plus there's not a contemporary story among them.

In fact, Hugo (Nov. 23) is the wild card. Martin Scorsese not only directs his first kid-friendly film (based on Brian Seltzer's bestselling children's book, Hugo Cabret), but also makes his 3-D debut. Imagine the possibilities for pure cinema: An orphan boy (Asa Butterfield) lives a secret life inside a Paris train station in 1931. He encounters the lonely and forgotten Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), the father of special effects, tinkering with memories of glory and hopes of redemption.

Thompson on Hollywood

Thompson on Hollywood
Thompson on Hollywood
James Cameron's partner, Vince Pace, built the 3-D rig, and took Scorsese and his crew to stereoscopic film school: "Every shot is rethinking cinema, rethinking narrative -- how to tell a story with a picture," Scorsese told The Guardian. "It's literally a Rubik's Cube every time you go out to design a shot, and work out a camera move, or a crane move. But it has a beauty to it also. People look like… moving statues. They move like sculpture, as if sculpture is moving in a way. Like dancers…"

Hugo also cried out for extra space and dimension, and Scorsese kept pushing the depth in a theatrical way like Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder. Rob Legato, the production VFX supervisor, told me that it's going to be a treat for film lovers: Méliès's glass house studio, the painted backdrops, and fantastic costumes are sometimes "impossible for the trained eye to see what might have been restored [and] what was recreated," Legato offered.

As Chloe Moretz's character suggests, "It's Neverland and Oz and Treasure Island all wrapped into one."

Meanwhile, Real Steel (Oct. 7) takes virtual production out of the studio and into real world settings, thanks to a collaboration between Digital Domain and Giant Studios. It looks like a futuristic version of The Champ, with Hugh Jackman seeking redemption in and out of the boxing ring, only with 2,000-pound humanoid robots.

To make boxing matches between eight-foot tall CG robots feel visceral and natural, director Shawn Levy called on Digital Domain (Benjamin Button) to design a virtual production process that allowed him to manipulate the CG characters within the actual boxing rings where the plates were shot.

However, long before principal photography, all fight sequences were choreographed and motion-captured on an LA stage. Then, the CG characters created from these sessions were placed in virtual environments that matched the actual locations, for use in the Simul-Cam system made famous on Avatar.

This process enabled Levy and cinematography Mauro Fiore to "see" fighting robots on the Simul-Cam monitor during principal photography in Detroit, and follow the action as they shot each robot fight. The CG action was organically framed with camera moves captured in the moment at real locations.

We go further back in time for the stylish Immortals (Nov. 11), in which Greek warrior Theseus (Man of Steel's Henry Cavill) battles ruthless King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) and his bloodthirsty hordes. The mythological adventure takes 300 to another dimension in which Titans are digitally slashed at 388 frames-per-second.

Using motion capture for the first time, Tippett Studio worked closely with director Tarsem Singh (The Fall) and the stunt team to mix and match live people with CG characters rather than doing them all in the computer. You're not supposed to be aware that they're CG until they die.

Anonymous (Oct. 28) puts us in 16th century London for Roland Emmerich's prestige film about The Bard's plays being secretly penned by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), who is the incestuous lover of Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave).

Shot digitally with the new Alexa at the Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam-Babelsberg, Germany, the VFX challenge was to virtually recreate Elizabethan London. This task fell to Uncharted Territory, headed by Volker Engel and Marc Weigert, who serve as exec producers.

They built the entire city of London in the computer, relying on accurate maps prior to the Great Fire of 1666. They constructed tens of thousands of buildings (which were very crooked by design) in a system they created called OGEL (LEGO spelled backwards). There were three types: half-timbered, stone, and mansions along with one-offs such as The Tower of London and the Globe Theatre. They made basic variations (one floor, two floors with different roof types) and LEGO'd them together.

New projection mapping techniques and moving the assets around in the compositing realm allowed for quicker turnaround. The enormous virtual detail can also be witnessed in wide vistas containing thousands of people, ships on the Thames with flowing sails, cats on roofs, chickens and cows in the street, and laundry blowing in the wind.

Then there's the return to Victorian London for A Game of Shadows (Dec. 16), as Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) match wits for the first time with arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris).

According to production VFX supervisor Chas Jarrett, the new story takes us not only through the London we saw last time, but also out into the country by train, across the channel by steam boat, to the French countryside, and to Paris -- above and below-- then to the industrial heartland of Germany, and finally across the snowy Alps to Switzerland.

Baker Street was again shot on a backlot at Leavesden Studios; and a single row of 10 houses was extended into a full city view, across the rooftops. For the first time, we see the North and East views from Baker Street. Holmes and Watson even drive through the streets to a burlesque nightclub by the Thames. Location plates were augmented with nighttime river views, and a stage set was extended in all directions to recreate the grungy docklands environment, where Holmes fights off an acrobatic assassin.

The VFX game's afoot as we soon head into Oscar season!


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