It's a good thing that the Academy is guaranteeing five VFX slots this year, as there's a plethora of candidates vying for them, reports Bill Desowitz in his weekly TOH column covering Hollywood below-the-line crafts, animation, and VFX . In fact, he's already got five frontrunners.
After last week's monkey love for Andy Serkis and Rise of the Planet of the Apes , taking us into the dog days of summer, it's time for a mid-year VFX report card. Obviously 2011 has been dominated by a fatigue-inducing deluge of superhero movies (especially from Marvel, from X-Men: First Class to Thor and Captain America), yielding a wide field of CG performances and pyrotechnics.
Now that the dust has settled, it's clear that Michael Bay admirably redeemed himself with blockbuster robot franchise Transformers: Dark of the Moon. The third time around, Bay not only touted new and improved animation and virtual world building from Industrial Light & Magic, but also offered the best 3-D experience since James Cameron's Avatar. Indeed, the thrilling and exhausting climactic battle of choreographed mayhem and heroics in Chicago demonstrated the visual power of 3-D, and that post conversion is an essential part of the stereoscopic process. Yet the mainstay of any Transformers movie is the robots, and ILM outdid itself with Colossus, the most complex asset that ILM has ever built, with 70,000 interlocking parts, and Sentinel Prime (inspired by Sean Connery even though he's voiced by Leonard Nimoy), offering a more commanding and human-like presence, thanks to better rigging and more detailed controls.
Meanwhile, Captain America: The First Avenger stood above the rest of the pack, both in terms of its fresh storytelling and impressive VFX. The digitally altered Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) was transformed from scrawny punching bag to nearly invincible World War II superhero through a new twist by Lola (the "youthenizing" experts that contributed to Benjamin Button). Dubbed "Poor Man's Process," this straightforward yet very precise 2D manipulation of still images made the character look thinner by mesh-warping the actor with a body double.
Never one to be left behind when it comes to VFX wizardry, Harry Potter went out with a bang in its finale, The Deathly Hallows: Part 2. While the forlorn dragon, fire creatures, and Ray Harryhausen-like stone knights were cool, the star was first-time CG Hogwarts and its surrounding environments, created by both London-based Double Negative and MPC. Providing flexibility for creative design and serpentine virtual camera work along with quick turnaround render time, the virtual battleground also heightened the visceral 3-D experience.
And yet the first-half of 2011 wasn't all fantasy: Terrence Malick's sublime creation of the universe in The Tree of Life served as a stunning reminder that less is more. The metaphysical journey not only recalls Kubrick's trippy 2001: A Space Odyssey (with VFX guru Doug Trumbull serving as a bridge in his capacity as creative consultant), but also helps reinforce the overall theme of nature and grace coming together. Divided into three realms (the Astrophysical, the Microbial, and Natural History), the coup de grace is the exalted moment when the "Drama Queen" dino spares the life of the wounded young Parasaur in a surprising show of mercy.
Which brings us back to Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Serkis's powerful performance-captured Caesar. Thanks to several technical improvements since Avatar (principally a new active LED system of motion tracking, shooting live with the other actors, and a new facial muscle system), Weta Digital and the actor have stripped away any cognitive dissonance between recording and performance. In other words, we're swept up in the excitement and the drama and forget that we're watching photoreal, virtual apes.
Oscar bottom line: These are the five mid-term contenders, as we head into the fall and holiday fray. Stay tuned for further developments.