Will the Pirates Team Steal Academy’s VFX Golden Booty?

By Barbara Robertson

Last year, it seemed impossible to imagine how visual effects voters could choose three films from all the amazing visual effects. This year we do have wonderful effects, effects that enhance the story without overwhelming the story. But, amazing effects? Um, not so much. Except, of course, for Davy Jones, Eragon, Angel, Superman, giant waves of water, explosions, digital cities, African animals, and miniature cowboys.

Do you think we’re taking too much for granted? We might be, but the Executive Committee for the Visual Effects Branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Science isn’t. They honored seven films with amazing visual effects by giving the crews a chance to compete for an Oscar nomination at the annual bakeoff in January.

The effects include a return to traditional roots with in-camera work for Casino Royale as well as the most state-of-the-art digital work—in Pirates for characters, and Poseidon for water. Also sparking the list: Digital mutants (X-Men, Pirates), digital animals (Eragon, Night at the Museum) and a digital double (Superman) who proved CG is ready for its bullet-proof close up. Here’s the bakeoff list in alphabetical order:

Casino Royale
Studio: Sony/MGM
Director: Martin Campbell
VFX Supervisor: Steve Begg
VFX Shops: Peerless Camera Company, Moving Picture Company.
Common Wisdom: The usual if somewhat more brutal fare of Bondian explosions and stunts shaken but not stirred helped turn this film in a thriller. The film tracks Bond’s early days and, fittingly, it was created, as were visual effects in the early days, primarily in camera using real explosions, stuntmen on wires, and a touch of greenscreen. Could appeal to the dry martini traditionalists in the bakeoff crowd. (And let’s hear it for that dazzling CG-animated opening credit sequence either!)
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox
Director: Stefan Fangmeier
VFX Supervisor: Samir Hoon (ILM)
VFX Shops: Industrial Light & Magic, Tatopoulos Studios, Weta Digital, Café FX, Cinesite, Digital Dream.
Common Wisdom: ILM raises a dragon from hatchling into a femme fatale warrior as she comes of age side by side with a young boy. Weta transforms the digital reptilian teenager into an adult and sends her into battle against a smoky evil digital creature. The iridescent blue CG dragon couldn’t save the spare, derivative story written by a teenager from the sophisticated adult critics, but she did save an empire in the story and soared into a legendary position in the Oscar race.
Night at the Museum
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox
Director: Shawn Levy
VFX Supervisor: Jim Rygiel
VFX Shops: Rhythm & Hues, Weta Digital, Rainmaker, Maestro FX, New Deal Studios, The Orphanage.
Common Wisdom: Prehistoric animals that come alive, an army of tiny cowboys in miniature realistic environments, and a visual effects supervisor with three Oscars under his belt promised that this film, one of the final treats of the season, would be exhibiting its magic at the bakeoff. Rhythm & Hues (Narnia), Weta (Lord of the Rings) and Rainmaker (The Da Vinci Code, She’s the Man) have done it all before, but this time, they moved the effects with comic timing. Could be enough variation on the theme to extend this crew’s happy holidays into Oscar season?
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Gore Verbinski
VFX Supervisor: John Knoll (ILM), Charles Gibson (additional)
VFX Shops: Industrial Light & Magic; additional vfx: Asylum, The Orphanage, CIS Hollywood, Evil Eye Pictures, Gentle Giant Studios, Pacific Title & Art Studio, Method, Proof, Tippett Studio
Common Wisdom: Even CG mavens were fooled into thinking that Davy Jones was Bill Nighy wearing makeup and rubber tentacles. The fact that he’s 100% digital should send this billion-dollar box office baby all the way to a nomination. Plus, there’s Davy’s crew of digital half-human pirates all motion captured with ILM’s new, director-friendly technology, a giant thrashing sea monster, pirate ships with billowing sails that were sometimes models, sometimes full-scale sets, sometimes digital, and an island largely created by matte painters. Say, “Eye, eye, Cap’n!” for this one. Davy Jones’ all-digital eyes, that is.

Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
VFX Supervisor: Boyd Shermis
VFX Shops: Industrial Light & Magic, The Moving Picture Company, CA Scanline Production GmbH; CIS Hollywood, Hydraulx, Gentle Giant Studios, Lola Visual Effects, Giant Killer Robots, Pixel Playground.
Common Wisdom: Will it matter that the most sophisticated fluid simulation programs on the planet combined to sink this luxury liner and flood the ship’s interior with fire and water? ILM’s software developed with Stanford University, and The Moving Picture Company’s code combined with Scanline’s fluid sims made it possible for Petersen to create his next gen water disaster film. ILM’s digital ship allowed actor Josh Lucas to lap the deck during a long opening shop. Can it swim to the top with effects voters even though audiences didn’t stream into the theaters? The theory may hold water.

Superman Returns
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Bryan Singer
VFX Supervisor: Mark Stetson
VFX Studios: Sony Pictures Imageworks, Framestore CFC, Rhythm & Hues, Rising Sun Pictures, The Orphanage, Photon VFX, Frantic Films, Lola Visual Effects, Pixel Liberation Front, Eden FX, New Deal Studios
Common Wisdom: It seems so long ago that Superman caught a Boeing 777 with a fiery space shuttle on its back and brought it to a gentle stop in a baseball stadium, stopped a bullet with his steely blue eyes, battled Lex Luther, and nearly died from kryptonite poisoning—but it was only seven months ago! Sony Imageworks’ close-up shots of digital Superman flying through downtown Metropolis, Rhythm & Hues water rescue, Rising Sun’s young Clark Kent leap through the fields, The Orphanage’s bank heist, and Frantic Film’s crystals could power this film into a nomination.

X-Men: The Last Stand
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox;
Director: Brett Ratner
VFX Supervisor: John Bruno
VFX Shops: Hydraulx, Weta Digital, The Moving Picture Company, Lola Visual Effects, Framestore CFC, Cinesite, Soho VFX, CIS Hollywood, Kleiser-Walczak, Pacific Title & Art Studio, G Creative Solutions, New Deal Studios
Common Wisdom: The short production schedule caused vfx supe John Bruno to do as many effects in-camera as he could, something he prefers anyway. Even so, it took a dozen visual effects studios to handle a battle on Alcatraz (Weta), Angel’s wings (Framestore CFC), and all the mutations for these better than human characters. Lola Visual Effects stepped out of the shadows and admitted de-aging Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Sir Ian McKellen) in 99 shots. Bruno managed the mix with masterful competence, which might be richly rewarded.

No Love from the Golden Guy?
Charlotte’s Web’s wonderful spider, rat, crows and talking animals. Too much like Babe, perhaps, but they were Some Effects. The almost indie films The Fountain and Pan’s Labyrinth with beautiful but perhaps not-state-of-the-art effects. Mission Impossible III—go figure (is everyone still sick of Tom Cruise?). One always gets away, or maybe two: Flags of our Fathers – perhaps the voters had seen one too many war movies. Other coulda been a contenders: Flyboys, The Da Vinci Code, Invincible, V for Vendetta. Look for shots from many of these films in the Visual Effects Society competition.