Who ever thought you'd have to make the case for "Star Wars" winning the VFX Oscar? But with all the buzz surrounding "Mad Max: Fury Road" and "The Revenant" bear, which earned three additional VES awards for ILM, there are no guarantees. And that's the point: ILM has done such outstanding photo-real work on the J.J. Abrams' record-breaking "Star Wars" reboot — zeroing in on $2 billion worldwide at the box office — that there might be a tendency to take the work for granted.
But, as ILM has pointed out, "Star Wars" is part of its DNA and it changed the VFX industry. Besides, there's so much to admire about ILM's accomplishment with "The Force Awakens": You’ve got realistic simulations and artistic-looking explosions for two great action sequences (the Millennium Falcon chase on Jakku and the attack on Maz's castle on Takodana), a cool-looking lightsaber that’s as unstable as Kylo Ren, the adorable BB-8 droid inspired by Marilyn Monroe, and the brilliantly mo-capped Maz and Snoke.
In other words, "The Force Awakens" represents the entire photo-real package from ILM on its 40th anniversary — old school, new school, the best that practical and digital has to offer. The fact that it also seamlessly fits together and ties in wonderfully with the first trilogy is part of its great strength.
However, there were many noteworthy advancements as well, including ILM's new simulation pipeline for water, fire, and smoke, its refined facial capture and animation tech for the creation of the bug-eyed and philosophical Maz (performed by Lupita Nyong'o), a new methodology for the digital modeling of the Falcon with more defined curves, and the creation of Unified Assets, which pulls together modeling, texturing, and shading practices for sharing with other studios.
Yet if you ask ILM VFX supervisors Roger Guyett and Patrick Tubach what their favorite moments are, it's all about the action and aesthetics. "There is something so interesting about the desert moments to me," recalled Guyett. "One of my favorite shots is at the beginning of the movie where you find Rey inside the Star Destroyer. She comes out and slides down the sand. It's a fantastic shot — you just tilt down as she comes down. It's very quiet but we're back at the Star Destroyer with the engines and everything.
"Or exploring the idea of Tie Fighters against the sun. J.J. has so many great ideas but he cherry picks other people's ideas too. I love the mash-up that we did of this charming, kind of simplistic approach to filmmaking... and this ridiculously complicated technology. And taking that line of reality and sending it out."
For Tubach, a frequent Abrams collaborator, his favorite moment is the attack on Maz's castle — an aerial battle and dogfight that recalls "The Battle of Britain" where you're fighting over the lake. "The key in making it come together is the fact that it's such a gorgeous shot," he explained. "It draws in so many elements: the lake district feels very different to see the X-wings in that environment. It feels very familiar because you're very fond of those ships and there's a feeling of hope because these are not dark, depressing movies, and they're fun."
Above all, Guyett emphasized the great VFX restraint and applying the basic filmmaking lessons of the first trilogy. "It's very specific about what the shot was about. And making it feel like you were photographing something that was happening. And, of course, we have some scale and spectacle in the movie. But, ironically, our work plays better when it's in a movie with more believable characters."
That's the best case for "The Force Awakens" winning the VFX Oscar in honor of ILM's 40th anniversary.