Two Towers Sweeps First VES Awards

While many awards ceremonies include categories for visual effects in film and television, professionals in the field of movie magic enjoyed a long overdue night of their own as the Visual Effects Society kicked off its first-ever awards presentation last night in Los Angeles.

Following introductions by VES exec. director Tom Atkin and Jim Morris, VES board chair and president of Lucas Digital, the evening began with an unpublicized tribute to the connection between mankind’s dreaming and its accomplishments presented by astronaut Colonel Rick Searfoss, who helped train the Columbia crew. As photos of Earth taken from space were projected on the screen behind him, Searfoss recalled seeing his first sci-fi film, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, at the age of eight. "Until Clarke’s and Kubrick’s 2001 came along, it was the most inspirational movie in my life," he said. He went on to bear witness to the power of imagination and the kinship that exists between those who envision other worlds on film and those who devote their lives to seeking them out.

Georges Melies’ classic 1902 film A Trip to the Moon, one of the first special effects extravaganzas, served as the inspiration for the night, as reflected by the actual award trophy itself, a gold moon with a telescopic eye. Following a highlight reel from the movie, it was time to hand out the awards.

After losing Best Matte Painting to Star Wars — Episode II: Attack of the Clones, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers went on to make a clean sweep of the remaining live-action motion picture categories it was nominated in. Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien work took Best Special Effects in a Motion Picture, Best Effects Art Direction, Best visual Effects Photography, Best Models and Miniatures, Best Character Animation, Best Compositing and Best Visual Effects in an Effects-Driven Motion Picture.

Effects supervisor Dean Wright accepted the award for special effects on behalf of the Two Towers team. He told AMO that Jackson is very hands-on and demanding when it comes to the effects work. "Effects supervisors are often reluctant to show directors early stages of their work because it’s such a mish-mash of elements coming together with crude animation, no matte painting and wires everywhere. But he can see through all that and see what the final effort is supposed to be." He cited one instance where they were reviewing a finished shot and Jackson saw a very minor glitch in a blue-screen effect, something most people wouldn’t have noticed. "Peter wants everything to be perfect," Wright noted.

Keeping the Two Towers winning streak going was Andy Serkis, who bested Nicolas Cage (Adaptation) and Will Smith (Men in Black II) in the Best Performance by an Actor in an Effects Film. Serkis is the voice actor and performance model behind the digital character Gollum.

Stuart little 2 beat out Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron for Best Character Animation in an Animated Motion Picture. We caught up with animators David Schaub and Sean Mullen, two of the four winning team members. "I come from a traditional background where everything is exaggerated," said Mullen. "Coming into computer animation, especially doing the live action with animation, it was a real challenge just to hold back a little bit. If you go too far, it seems like they don’t fit in a live-action world."

Schaub said the most challenging thing for him was working with the feathers on the birds. "It’s like dealing with a character that has 17 fingers on each hand. You’ve got to deal with each one of these feathers. You have inter-penetration issues to deal with and you have to find ways to get the wings from a tucked pose to an open pose and use them as a gesturing device … some of the simplest things were almost impossible to achieve."

Schaub also commented on the presence of the voice actors in the digital characters. "With the case of Stuart, it’s Alex P. Keaton," he said, referring to the character Michael J. Fox portrayed on the ‘80s sitcom Family Ties. "You grew up with him. You see Fox when you hear that voice." Mullen added, "It also depends on the specific voice, too. Take Michael J. Fox next to James Wood’s voice. You have one that is really expressive and one that is more even-keeled where more of the animation takes over. It leaves you a little more room to create the character through the animation."

Best Supporting Visual Effects in a Motion Picture went to The Sum of all Fears, which beat out The Gangs of New York and Frida. Team members Glenn Neufeld, Derek Spears, Dan Malvin and Al Disarro commented on how different it is to imagine a worst-case scenario in a real-world situation than it is to create fantasy escapism.

Firefly won for Best Visual Effects in a Television Series for the pilot episode "Serenity." However, Dinotopia was the big TV winner, stomping off with the awards for character animation, matte painting, compositing, and visual effects in a TV miniseries.

Best Visual Effects in a Commercial went to the Xbox spot Mosquito, while the David Fincher-directed Adidas spot Mechanical Legs walked away with Best Effects Art Direction in a Television Program, Music Video or Commercial. The team on hand revealed how they used two-days worth of motion capture data from seven-foot-tall basketball players and five-foot tall dancers and seamlessly combined them into one digital performance.

Sponsored by Discreet, the VES Awards were held in the Skirball Cultural Center in West L.A.