VFX Bakeoff Delivers Sweet Eye Candy

Last night the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented the Visual Effects Bakeoff, an annual event that decides the year’s Oscar nominees in the category. Held at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills, the event also serves as an opportunity for the visual effects community to get together and catch up after toiling away for months on their individual projects.

Seven feature films have been short-listed for the 76th Annual Academy Awards. The effects-laden flicks presented to Academy voters last night were Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Twentieth Century Fox’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, New Line Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Universal and Columbia Pictures’ Peter Pan, Warner Bros.’ Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Twentieth Century Fox’s X2: X-Men United and Universal’s The Hulk.

While there was no mention made of the exclusion of the Matrix sequels, the inclusion of Master and Commander raises an interesting question: Will voters go for "wow"-inducing eye candy or an impressive use of "invisible" effects?

Return of the King is largely favored to pull off the trifecta and take home the Oscar again this year. However, the digitally enhanced juggernaut may just be broadsided by an unlikely contender. Master and Commander features stunningly realistic sequences involving battles and storms at sea, a major feat of digital trickery considering nearly 90% of the film was shot in the Titanic tank in Baja, Calif. Miniatures, digital mattes and CG water and atmospherics are seamlessly blended to the point where the audience isn’t even aware that it is seeing effects work.

"We had to try to make the movie not look like a visual effects film," commented Master and Commander visual effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier. "If the audience notices, we haven’t done our job."

Meanwhile, the second and third Lord of the Rings films will forever be associated with the first major achievement in integrating a fully digital, photo-realistic character with live-action. The film’s visual effects supervisor, Jim Rygiel, noted, "Gollum had sort of a facelift from film two to film three. One of the things we worked on heavily, since we knew we would have a lot of close-ups of Gollum, was the elasticity of his skin and things such as wrinkles. You’ll see little crows’ feet pop up and as he furrows his brow the lines all form correctly. Gollum also went through a number of changes … he obviously got caked with mud and got beaten up by Sam a lot. So we had to keep physically re-modifying [him] for almost every sequence."

Another fantasy film that required digital flights of fancy, Peter Pan eschews realism to bring a storybook to vivid life. Effects supervisor Scott Farrar said, "We all have tremendous technical problems in our work, but on this particular picture, I fund that I spent more time on the art of digital effects than anything else. I’ve never given so much attention to color saturation or contrast as I have with this film. Matter of fact, that speaks for all of our teams." Ferrar also gave props to the paint and rotoscope team, who had the formidable task of removing all the wires used to fly the characters around the sets, among other things.

Removing flesh and blood was the order for some of the most impressive shots on Pirates of the Caribbean. Animation director Hal Hickel quipped, "Replacing actors with scary skeletons is really great fun for animators and I think we’re sort of genetically endowed with the desire to make terrifying skeletons." He says the main challenge was removing the actors without removing the performances. Further complicating matters were the transformations that occurred when the characters stepped into the moonlight and turned skeletal. "There’s no flashy effect covering up the transition form living to dead. The benefit that gave us was an uninterrupted performance from live actor straight through to CG skeleton and whoever was animating had to convince the audience that they were still looking at that actor and not and animated effect."

"So here we are, 12 years later, and how do you follow Terminator 2? That’s the question that stayed with me through the duration of the project," said Pablo Helman of his work as effects supervisor on Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. "I knew that it wasn’t a matter of how big, shiny or new to make it. It was more a question of finding he natural path. If you parted with a good friend 12 years ago and were to run into him now, what would he be like?" Helman has just begun work on Star Wars: Episode III, which is slated for release in 2005.

X2 effects supervisor Michael Fink noted that director Brian Singer insisted on using effects sparingly "so the characters didn’t get lost in the fireworks." That said, the film includes nearly 1,000 effects shots and making the release date was nearly an impossibility. "Just to give you an idea of where we were in the schedule, the last plates for the film were shot two and half weeks before we were supposed to finish the movie and we were doing 150 shots a week."

Dennis Muren addressed the challenges of bringing director Ang Lee’s unique vision of The Hulk to the screen, saying, "If you look at Hulk’s skin, you might recognize it as looking like an aerial view down on a valley, which also looks something like a Hubble telescope image. There are similarities in the universe, which I think comes through a theme of the film, which is reconstruction and deconstruction."

Academy members have cast their votes and the Best Visual Effects nominees will be announced with the 23 other categories on Tuesday, Jan. 27.