Animation Magazine’s Oscar Watch Part 3 of 4: Surveying the VFX Fireworks

Alternate realities, science fiction, action adventure, thrillers, children’s stories, graphic novels, mysteries’this year, visual effects crews peppered films in all these genres with images that could not have been created in any other way, opened directors’ imaginations and gave us unforgettable artistry. As for trends? Destruction. Heavy metal. Blue humanoids. Performance capture. Stereo 3-D. Total Immersion. And mechanical suits of armor. Did Iron Man start the trend? This year, we saw humans climb inside and operate robotic metal suits in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, District 9 and Avatar.

This month, seven films were singled out by the executive committee for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences’ visual effects branch. On January 21, the vfx work of the teams working on these seven titles will be showcased at the annual “bake-off.” The three films with the most votes become Oscar nominees on February 2, then all Academy members can vote for the Oscar winner, announced March 7. Here’s a quick look at the accomplishments and odds of each of these envelope-pushing vfx-laden movies:

2012

Studio: Columbia Pictures

VFX: Alex Lemke FX, Caf’FX, Crazy Horse, Digital Domain, Double Negative, Evil Eye, Factory FX, Gradient FX, Hydraulx, Picture Mill, Pixomondo, The Post Office, Scanline, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Uncharted Territory, UPP.

Fans loved this film’s non-stop action to the tune of $715 million at the box office. Led by Volker Engel, the film is a vfx demo reel of extremely difficult digital simulations. Cities crumble. Yellowstone erupts. Waves smash against the Himalayas. If the job of visual effects is to support the story, then this enormous effort deserves a seat at the bake-off. Director Roland Emmerich simply could not have destroyed the planet like this without visual effects.

Avatar

Studio: Twentieth Century Fox

VFX: BUF, Framestore CFC, Gentle Giant Studios, Giant Studios, Halon Entertainment, Hybride Technologies, Hydraulx, Industrial Light & Magic, Lola Visual Effects, Pixel Liberation Front, Stan Winston Studio, The Third Floor, Weta Digital.

Director James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment set the stage. Led by multiple Oscar winner Joe Letteri, Weta Digital created it with a little help from their friends. Filmmakers have never before immersed audiences so effectively in an entirely alien and totally digital culture and environment. We believe the 10-foot tall Na’vi people with long tails and cat eyes are real. Plus: Beautiful alien dragons fight grungy military airships. What could be better? You can talk about the other vfx candidates until you’re blue in the face, but this one is a shoo-in for the bake-off, an Oscar nomination and as a frontrunner for the Oscar.

District 9

Studio: TriStar Pictures

VFX: The Embassy, Goldtooth Creative, Image Engine Design, MXFX Special Effects, Weta Digital, Weta Workshop, XYZ-RGB (scanning), Zoic Studios.

The aliens look like a cross between an enormous grasshopper and a greenish-yellow lobster. They scrape out a hard life in a South African township, and somehow the visual effects crews made this fantasy seem real, possibly normal. Writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s newsreel documentary style helped send this low-budget sci-fi film to number one at the box office on opening weekend, generated much buzz, and incited rare critical acclaim for a sci-fi film. It could certainly go all the way.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Studio: Warner Bros.

VFX: Cinesite, Cube Effects, Double Negative, Foreign Office, Fugitive Studios, Gentle Giant Studios, Industrial Light & Magic, Kerner Optical, Luma Pictures, Moving Picture Company, Plowman Craven & Associates (Lidar), Rising Sun Pictures, Vee Eye, The Visual Effects Company.

One of the most acclaimed films in the Potter series finds a teen-aged Harry back at Hogwarts despite Death Eater destruction. Harry zooms his broomstick through a Quidditch match, fights off thousands of zombie inferi that drag him underwater, and manages his hormones. Dumbledore steals the vfx show, though, by conjuring an astonishing CG firestorm (thanks to ILM). Tim Burke supervised the magic for the fourth time. Will the fx wizards conjure up a second Oscar nom for the Hogwarts crew? You need a Pensieve to answer that one.

Star Trek

Studio: Paramount

VFX: Digital Domain, Evil Eye Pictures, Industrial Light & Magic, Kerner Optical, Lola Visual Effects, OOOii, Persistence of Vision Entertainment, Quantum Creation FX, Svengali Visual Effects, The Third Floor, Tinsley Transfers, Vital Distraction.

The visual effects led by ILM’s Roger Guyett helped director J. J. Abrams take the 11th film in the franchise to where the last few hadn’t gone before’to rave reviews and nearly $400 million at the box office. State-of-the-art sim systems destroyed a planet, but the CG ships stole the show. Will it make the bake-off? Beam ‘em up, Scotty!

Terminator Salvation

Studio: Warner Bros.

VFX: Industrial Light & Magic, Kerner Optical, Matte World Digital, Pixel Liberation Front, Plowman Craven & Associates (scanning), Proof, Realscan 3D, Rising Sun Pictures, Rodeo FX, Stan Winston Studios.

The technical advances at ILM for this film mostly landed on the surface of metal robots, cars, trucks and airplanes that the studio blended seamlessly into live-action and photoreal digital backgrounds. How ’bout those mototerminators! And, did you catch the young, digital Arnold Schwarzenegger? Talk about alternate reality. Should make the bake-off.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Studio: DreamWorks SKG, Paramount Pictures

VFX: Asylum VFX, Digital Domain, Industrial Light & Magic, Kerner Optical, Proof.

Sixty CG robots, two-thirds created at ILM, the rest at Digital Domain’some brutal and ginormous, others small and funny, one old and cranky, another as agile as a cat’battle each other and some humans onboard an aircraft carrier, in a forest, in the desert, on a college campus, in a chop shop. They dive underwater. They visit another planet. And in one dramatic scene, the biggest baddest ‘bot of them all rips apart a pyramid thanks to ILM’s artists and state-of-the-art technology. Look for Optimus Prime and the Devastator at the bake-off.