'Pacific Rim'
'Pacific Rim'

The Academy's VFX branch voted for the five nominees Thursday night, and while frontrunners "Gravity," "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," and "Pacific Rim" wowed the packed Samuel Goldwyn Theater, "World War Z," "The Lone Ranger," and "Oblivion" put on impressive presentations, too. For that matter, the remaining contenders acquitted themselves nicely: "Iron Man 3," "Elysium," "Star Trek Into Darkness," and "Thor: The Dark World." So who knows? There might be a surprise or two come next Thursday, upending my original predictions of "Gravity," "Smaug," "Pacific Rim," "World War Z," and "Elysium."

Strategically, though, the supervisors stressed the mixing of practical and CG effects whenever possible, most likely appealing to old school VFX vets as much as high-tech practitioners. 

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Weta Digital's Joe Letteri explained that "Smaug" upped its digital character count to 60 (including every Orc) and that director Peter Jackson wanted to shoot the spider fight dimensionally to take advantage of stereo. The barrel flume chase set piece was both live-action and CG, containing real rapids, a circular track, and 20 tons of digital water. But naturally the CG Smaug was the centerpiece (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), totally keyframed and requiring complexity in facial animation, focusing on tongue, eyes, and lips. However, the addition of two forefingers and thumb on his wings effectively gave him hands to gesture with.

ILM's Roger Guyett touted matching real with virtual in keeping with J.J. Abrams' highly choreographed shot design for "Into Darkness." Challenges included creating a red volcanic planet, toxic Klingon cities, and futuristic San Francisco and London. But they shot space action with IMAX large-format film cameras, which enhanced the impact.

For the heavy favorite, "Gravity," Framestore's Tim Webber emphasized the uniqueness and poetry of Alfonso Cuaron's vision and the studio's workflow, prevising and animating all of the CG space and weightlessness in advance and then later adding the faces of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. They also had to join interior shots of the International Space Station and capsules, which were a combination of sets and CG extension. The 12-wire puppet rig, robotic-controlled cameras, and Light Box added to the combination of new and old techniques in creating a special situation that nonetheless points to the future of virtual production.