VES Fetes Potter, Spidey, Aviator

Spell casting, web slinging and plane crashing were the order of the evening as the Visual Effects Society handed out awards Wednesday night at its third annual gala event at the Hollywood Palladium. A who’s who list of industry professionals came out to honor their own and bestow a lifetime achievement award on director/producer Robert Zemeckis (Forest Gump, Castaway, The Polar Express).

The VES Awards, or Vessies, as they’ve come to be known, are represented by a gold statuette depicting the famous moon landing scene in George Melies’ early effects classic, A Trip to the Moon. Warner Bros.’ Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban nabbed a pair of the trophies, including one for the top award of the night, Outstanding Visual Effects in a Visual Effects-Driven Motion Picture. Visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett accepted the award on behalf of fellow team members Tim Burke, Theresa Corrao and Emma Norton.

The latest Potter film also garnered a win for Outstanding Performance by an Animated Character in a Live-Action Motion Picture. While the winning character, the flying Hippogriff creature, was the film’s most obvious achievement, Guyett told Animation Magazine Online that there was much more to be marveled at in the pic. ‘The Hippogriff is an awesome piece of work,’ he says, ‘but on a film of this scale, hopefully you’re being judged for a consistent body of work.’ Guyett points to the floating, skeletal Dementors of Azkaban as another example of technical and artistic mastery, noting that Director Alfonso Cuaron wanted all their personality to come from the movement of their shabby cloth. ‘We did some tests with cloth underwater and liked what we saw. We then had to recreate that with CG and build a system to control it.’

While it lost to Potter on the big award, Sony’s Spider-Man 2 tied with The Aviator for the most awards with three each. First up for Spidey was Outstanding Created Environment in a Live-Action Motion Picture for scenes involving the New York City Streets at night. Dan Abrams, David Emery, Andrew Nawrot and John Hart accepted the award. Next was Outstanding Compositing in a Motion Picture, accepted by Colin Drobnis, Greg Derochie, Blaine Kennison and Kenny Lam.

The Spider-Man 2 compositing team completed more than 800 shots using in-house software called Bonsai as its core tool. They told us one of the most challenging aspects was creating ‘the magic hour’ for director Sam Raimi, since the live-action shots were filmed under varying lighting conditions but needed to have a uniform look. Another challenge, they say, was working with footage captured by the ‘Spidercam,’ which zips through scenes on a cable. Lam is jumping form one superhero to the next, focusing his attention on the upcoming Superman feature. He says that like Doc Ock, Superman will be entirely created in CG for certain sequences, requiring even greater detail and realism.

Speaking of Doc Ock, the man behind the shades and tentacles, actor Alfred Molina, was awarded Outstanding Performance in a Visual Effects Film. He was not present accept the award.

Miramax’s Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator, earned the Outstanding Special Effects in Service to Visual Effects in a Motion Picture award for Robert Spurlock, Richard Stutsman, Matthew Gratzner and R. Bruce Steinheimer. The film also earned Gratzner a trophy for Outstanding Models and Minatures in a Motion Picture. He and teammates Scott Schneider, Adam Gelbart and Leigh-Alexandra Jacob won for the gut-wrenching XF11 Crash sequence. Gratzner was called up a third time when the movie won Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Motion Picture. Rob Legato, Ron Ames and Pete Travers joined him in accepting the award.

Best Single Visual Effect of The Year went to 20th Century Fox’s The Day After Tomorrow for the ‘Tidal Wave’ sequence, Karen Goulekas, Mike Chambers, Chris Horvath Matthew Butler accepting. Meanwhile, on the television side, Outstanding Visual Effects in a Broadcast Series was awarded to Ronald Moore, Daniel Curry and David Takemura for the Star Trek Enterprise episode ‘Storm Front Part 2.’ It was a bittersweet win for the team, as it comes only a week after Paramount announced the show’s cancellation. ‘Some of the best stuff we ever did is coming up in the next few weeks,’ Moore noted, proudly gripping the trophy but obviously sad about the show’s demise. Curry said he will also miss the sci-fi production, but not the hectic schedule that usually called for a three-week turnaround per episode.

Continuing its award season blitz, Disney/Pixar’s The Incredibles picked up Outstanding Performance by an Animated Character in an Animated Motion Picture. Accepting the award were Bill Wise, Bill Sheffler and Bolhem Bouchiba, the team behind the Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible character voiced by Craig T. Nelson. Sheffler, who modeled the character, told us, ‘It’s all about giving the animators what the need to work with,’ gesturing to Bouchiba. He also noted that director Brad Bird wanted Bob Parr to be a cartoon, so they had to pull back when the model got too detailed with things like eyelashes, freckles and five o’clock shadow. On the other hand, Wise said the big challenge with Bob was his detailed muscular system.

Robert Zemeckis’ VES Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to him by Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks, a friend and frequent collaborator. Hanks started out by ribbing the night’s other winners. He pointed to the two leggy models on either side of the stage and quipped, ‘These lovely ladies are overjoyed to be handing out trophies to people who look like you.’ After sharing stories of his working relationship with Zemeckis, he noted how hard the man works and stated, ‘I will follow Bob into any special effects-created hell he can imagine.’

Zemeckis reflected on his effects-laden work and joked, ‘That movie with two people sitting in a room talking is starting to look pretty good right now.’ He then added, ‘But maybe that room could be a glass dome on Mars and there could be a meteor shower going on just to spice it up.’

Hanks and Zemeckis later told us that they would consider doing another all-digital feature together down the road if the right story came along that called for the technique. Zemeckis is producing Sony Pictures’ upcoming Monster House, a CG feature that will employ the same performance capture technology as The Polar Express. He may also use it on his adaptation of Ian Ogilvy’s book, Measle and the Wrathmonk, for Warner Bros., as well as a Beowulf feature he aims to produce for Sony.

During the awards ceremony, VES also remembered late vfx and computer animation pioneer Bob Abel with the George Melies Award for Artistic Excellence. Abel, who passed away in 2001, is best known for his groundbreaking work on the 1982 Disney favorite, TRON. In addition, Cinefex Magazine publisher Don Shay received the VES Board of Director’s Award.

Other 2004 VES Awards winners are:

Outstanding Created Environment in a Live Action Broadcast Program

Spartacus ‘ Opening

Eric Grenaudier

Anthony Ocampo

Cedric Tomacruz

Michael Cook

Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Broadcast Program

Lost ‘Pilot ‘ Part 2′

Kevin Blank

Mitch Suskin

Benoit Girard

Jerome Morin

Outstanding Visuals in a Video Game

Half-Life 2

Viktor Antonov

Randy Lundeen

Gary McTaggart

Bill Fletcher

Outstanding Visual Effects in a Music Video

Britney Spears ‘Toxic’

Bert Yukich

Chris Watts

Outstanding Compositing in a Broadcast Program, Music Video or Commercial

Space Odyssey ‘Voyage To The Planets’

George Roper

Christian Manz

Sirio Quintavalle

Pedro Sabrosa

Outstanding Performance By An Animated Character in a Live-Action Broadcast Program

Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital

William de Bosch Kemper

Brian Harder

Patrick Kalyn

Scott Paquin

Outstanding Visual Effects in a Broadcast Miniseries, Movie or Special

Virtual History: The Secret Plot To Kill Hitler

Jim Radford

Tom Phillips

Simon Thomas

Loraine Cooper

Outstanding Visual Effects in a Commercial

Citroen ‘ ‘Alive With Technology’

Trevor Cawood

Neill Blomkamp

Simon Van de Lagemaat

Winston Helgason

To learn more about the Visual Effects Society, go to www.vesawards.com.

Photo: Pixar’s Bill Wise, Bolhem Bouchiba and Bill Sheffler bask in their Incredibles win.