Without a "Gravity" this year, the wow factor might not be as strong but certainly the Oscar race is now wide open. Yet in surveying the first half of 2014, only "Godzilla" looks like a potential nominee. But there are still plenty of bake-off contenders, with solid VFX work on display in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," "X-Men: Days of Future Past," "Maleficent," and "Edge of Tomorrow."
For the first CG "Godzilla," director Gareth Edwards wanted a more believable and empathetic creature, so Moving Picture Company (MPC) delivered a photo-realistic Kaiju (under the VFX supervision of "Life of Pi" Oscar-winner Guillaume Rocheron). From the underlying bones, fat, and muscle structure to the thickness and texture of his scales, Godzilla was given lots of detail.
With respect for Toho's original "man in a suit" version, Godzilla was animated as a fluid living and breathing creature with the addition of humanistic elements to capture his attitude and personality. MPC's artists used a mixture of body language and carefully designed facial expressions, which allowed them to translate articulation without breaking believability. MPC's animation team utilized a variety of references, including the movement of bears and reptiles, as a basis for the keyframe animation that propelled Godzilla.
By framing Godzilla primarily in silhouette (exquisitely shot by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey), the experience became more intense, and they accentuated the spikes on his spine for a more graphic look.
The star of the surprisingly good "Winter Soldier" is neither Captain America nor the Winter Soldier: it's the next-gen Helicarrier, a real marvel and the ultimate superweapon that can stay in orbit while killing millions of victims at once.
To create this tech terror, Industrial Light & Magic (under the supervision of Russell Earl) did a complete rebuild from the one utilized in "The Avengers." In fact, the CG models for the three new Helicarriers represent the largest in ILM history.
The Helicarrier is about 25% larger than its predecessor and designed with more powerful Phalanx guns. It's like a modern version of a broadside pirate ship, but with a Stark Repulsor engine. (Indeed, it's hinted in "Winter Soldier" that Tony Stark got tired of being roughed up in "The Avengers" and offered his own tech to S.H.I.E.L.D.)
ILM came up with an armored, translucent polymer dome that contains nearly 70 cameras inside the underbelly, giving the filmmakers access to lots of up-close shots. And since they couldn't load all of the assets at one time, the artists broke it up by using just one or two carriers at a time. V-Ray for Katana came in handy for the first time as part of ILM's lighting arsenal, allowing better integration of high-complexity shots.
For "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," it was primarily about creating a cool and creepy-looking Electro (Jamie Foxx) at Sony Pictures Imageworks (under the supervision of Jerome Chen). This included a storm of electricity within Electro's skin to visualize his rage, as well as constructing a library of bolts along with a residual glow of electricity.
Mesh lighting, a new piece of tech, came in handy. You can take any piece of geometry, such as the bolt itself and, through simulation, turn it into a light source and branch it out in different shapes so it casts appropriate lights and shadows. At Sony, they finally let the artists be more creative and iterative, no longer worrying about how tech is going to achieve the desired effect.
MPC also took the lead on "Days of Future Past" (under the supervision of Richard Stammers), creating the Sentinel robot aliens of the future: emotionless and relentless killing machines with the ability to transform and adapt like Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique. MPC’s rigging and software teams worked together to develop a system that allowed modelers to lay out patches of non-uniform rational B-splines (NURBS) that defined the placement and orientation of scales covering their bodies.
Digital Domain animated the early version of the Sentinels from the '70s. They were made Magneto-proof with the aid of space-age polymers and designed by Framestore with hydraulic or pneumatic cable hosing.
DD, meanwhile, did some major facial capture advancement on the three flower pixies in "Maleficent" (under the supervision of Kelly Port). Using the real faces and heads of the actresses (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple), DD digitally put them onto 21-inch size CG pixies and flew them around like hummingbirds. This required a more complex facial range and considerably more dialog than had previously been attempted, and also demanded extremely complex hairstyles and multi-layered, dynamic wardrobes made of petals, thistles, leaves, and twigs.
The work takes facial capture to the next level in terms of blood flow, lip compression, and other subtle nuances that steer clear of the dreaded Uncanny Valley.
"Edge of Tomorrow" may have under-performed with Tom Cruise, but it's the early summer fave, thanks to a smart and breathless "Groundhog Day"-like conceit. And Imageworks does a nice photo-realistic left turn in creating the CG alien Mimics. Under the supervision of Dan Kramer, Imageworks animated a very scary and visually arresting shape-shifter.
Imageworks tackled two of the three Mimics: the quick-moving Grunts (which are like spidery blenders) that twirl and attack out of nowhere in the thousands, and the Alphas, which are bigger and slower and more sentient, acting as the central nervous system in charge of the battles.
The tough part was building a rig for a model that wasn't fixed, so Imageworks built a Maya plug-in built around a center curve that could grow and twist tentacles. The result was skittery terror.
Here are the second-half highlights: ILM's latest iteration of badass Transformers in next week's "Age of Extinction"; the highly anticipated "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" (July 11), featuring Weta's most photo-realistic performance capture yet; Disney/Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy," which could be the hit of the summer (August 1); a new ILM facial system unveiled in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (August 8); more action-packed VFX from ILM in "Lucy" (August 8), a potential sleeper directed by Luc Besson and starring Scarlett Johansson as a time-traveling, telekinetic metahuman warrior; Christopher Nolan's first foray into space with "Interstellar" (November 7), "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1" (November 21), Peter Jackson's final "Hobbit" adventure, "The Battle of the Five Armies," with more Weta wonders (December 17), and the highly-anticipated adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods" (Christmas Day), with the very busy MPC taking the VFX lead.