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Crafts Roundup: Handicapping the VFX Oscar Race

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood December 12, 2013 at 2:05PM

The VFX Oscar race has come down to zero-gravity and an innovative light box, a menacing dragon, Jaegers vs. Kaiju, three dystopian adventures, a "Star Trek" reboot with Khan, "Lone Ranger" train mayhem, and two Marvel superhero stalwarts. So let's go under the hood in anticipating the likely ammunition for the Academy's January 9th "bakeoff" in paring down the five nominees.
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'Pacific Rim'
'Pacific Rim'

Contenders:

  • "World War Z": The swift, athletic zombie predators added a fresh take to the genre and were quite menacing, thanks to MPC and Cinesite. They moved in pyramid-like hordes resembling ant farms or schools of fish, requiring special rendering. They also used live actors and contortionist dancers to help shape the movement, and it all comes together in the "zombie tsunami."
  • "Elysium": In Neill Blompkamp's futuristic allegory about the haves and have nots, Image Engine and Whisky Tree created the opulent, Bel-Air style Torus space station (a computational nightmare with complex geometry for foliage, atmospherics, and water). Image Engine also animated the Raven bird of prey assault vehicle.
  • "Oblivion": For Joseph Kosinski's post-apocalyptic Earth, they shot the Sky Tower sequence totally in camera in real-time, which Pixomondo stitched together and created a 15K image that would play live on the set on the projector. Meanwhile, Digital Domain created the CG drones, the Tet space station (an inverted pyramid), and destroyed the resource gathers known as hydro rigs.


Long shots:

  • "Iron Man 3": Digital Domain, Weta Digital, and Trixter collaborated on the 14 new "foundation" suits, a rework that ensured correct physical aspects for realistic movement as well as changing proportions and component details. Plus there was DD's thrilling "barrel full of monkeys" plane rescue, shot with live actors free-falling and complete CG replacement.
  • "Star Trek Into Darkness": ILM built an expansive view of this tricked out Enterprise, both inside and out, allowing the audience to get closer to the crew, and built the architectural worlds that define the futuristic London and San Francisco, which was a sleeker and more efficient retrofitting. 
  • "Thor: The Dark World": Along with numerous battles, climaxing in Thor and Malekith's epic battle between the realms, Double Negative created a more lived-in Asgard for the sequel, patterned after the coast of Norway, with fjords, greenery and rocky precipices. Blur (the prologue) and Method (Aether crystalline projectiles) also contributed
  • "The Lone Ranger": ILM did a bang up job of creating train chases and crashes, with the wild third-act pursuit (choreographed to the signature "William Tell Overture," of course) raising the bar to a "French Connection" level of complexity and craftsmanship. While they tried to adhere to a 50/50 live-action/CG rule, the final pursuit necessitated going all-CG for the environments.


My predictions: "Gravity,"  "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," "Pacific Rim," "World War Z," and "Elysium. Now if only the Academy's Visual Effects branch will adopt the use of before/after progressions in their presentations to better grasp the complexity of the craft. "Gravity," alone, should prove once and for all the necessity in doing so. 

This article is related to: Visual Effects Society, Best Visual Effects, VFX, Awards, Awards Season Roundup, Crafts Round-up


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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.