10 films face-off at VFX bake-off

On Thursday night in LA, the 10 contenders for the visual effects Oscar were presented at the signature ‘bake-off’ event at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Here, visual effects supervisors representing each film showed 10-minute excerpts of final shots from their work (breakdowns are not allowed).

Michael Scott, who attended the event, has this guest report from the night with notes about what each visual effects supervisor presented.

Richard Edlund introduced the night, the running order was picked in part by drawing lots but also in part by consultation with projectionists. Today the Oscar team need to judge not only providing high quality projection for the bake off but juggle with the normal 2D, 3D or film or digital, and even HFR. All with the aim of having the fairest and smoothest viewing experience for the industry audience.

Life of Pi.

Life of Pi

Visual effects supervisor: Bill Westenhofer
• Bill Westenhofer was talking a mile a minute to beat the red light
• 90 min of VFX, 10 vendors, 690 shots, which doesn’t sound like much until you realize the entire show is only about 930 shots in total
• The ocean was portrayed as a character in itself
• The film was shot stereo, dual Alexa on Cameron Pace rig
• There was no shooting on “location” (ocean), all the water work was done in a tank with set extensions
• Aside from the tiger, other animals early on — zebra, hyena, chimp — also nearly completely digital
• Of the 170 tiger shots, only 14% with a real tiger
• The animals are all keyframe animated from reference
• Flying fish sequence utilized special implementation of Massive to accommodate them moving in and out of water
• See fxguide’s coverage of Life of Pi.

The Avengers.

Marvel’s The Avengers

Visual effects supervisor: Janek Sirrs
• A more lighthearted presentation, suitable to a Whedon film
• 40 second megashot required detailed digital doubles
• No real arrows were fired by Jeremy Renner
• Alien soldiers were based on motion capture with animalistic sweetening (birds, insects)
• The Hulk was the biggest challenge – he had to be believable, detailed, and connected to Banner
• A huge amount of reference was taken of actor Mark Ruffalo, and a full digital double of Ruffalo was made to make sure they’d nailed him before creating the Hulk from that basis
• The production also used a male stripper painted green — “Green Steve” — as on-set reference
• The forest fight between Iron Man and Thor began as a location shoot, but as the fight evolved it eventually became a completely digital environment/sequence
• The climactic battle originally intended to be NYC location, wound up being NYC and Cleveland, with the later standing in for NY
• Interestingly, much of the climactic pyro (people running from exploding cars) was done live
• Read fxguide’s coverage of The Avengers.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Visual effects supervisor: Joe Letteri
• Letteri spoke of being excited to return to Middle Earth, especially to work again with Gollum
• Gollum was rebuilt from the inside out, new tissue and muscle sim, entire performance captured realtime
• Likewise Trolls, Goblin King, Azog (late addition to the story)
• Goblins started as live actors with animatronic heads, then the heads were discarded on set in favor of replacement, then entire actors were digitally replaced, then eventually entire shots became digital.
• There was simultaneous mocap of troll performances on separate mocap stage, dual performances
• Likewise, simultaneous “scaled” filming of Bilbo/dwarves in Bag End and Gandalf on a greenscreen stage elsewhere
• No miniatures were used, instead it was all digital, due to challenges with stereo and schedule (“Peter likes to change his mind a lot.”)
• Everything was physically simulated – in all aspects of production.
• This was presented in HFR 3D.
• Read fxguide’s Hobbit coverage.



Visual effects supervisor: Steve Begg
Special and miniature effects supervisor: Chris Corbould
• This was the first Bond with “CG characters” (the scorpion on Bond’s hand when he’s playing the drinking game and the Komodo dragons)
• By contrast with The Hobbit, a conscious effort made to utilize traditional techniques as much as possible — miniatures, stunts, full scale effects
• Underground train crash was done full scale, not with miniature on a sound stage
• Miniature shooting was aided by 2K Alexa playback — they knew what they had immediately
• Head replacements and rig removal were used in opening sequence
• Bond’s fall from the train at the start if the film involved a seamless transitions to CG double
• Production committed to roto rather than green/bluescreen as much as possible to accommodate Roger Deakins and not screw up the DOP’s lighting with color contamination
• Dir Mendes was very clear about what he wanted
• It was noted that audience  couldn’t help themselves applauding the Aston Martin when it appeared
• 3D printing techniques used to build some of the miniatures (e.g. the villain’s helicopter)
• Read fxguide’s Skyfall coverage.

The Dark Knight Rises.

The Dark Knight Rises

Visual effects supervisor: Paul Franklin
• There was a great reliance on large scale practical effects
• Early release of prologue sequence meant having to hit the ground running
• The Bat shot in L.A. — was described as “the most un-aerodynamic vehicle in cinema history.”
• The audience “had to believe a brick could fly,” so the Bat was built full scale and rigged to move through shot, often tailed by a “platemobile” shooting IMAX cameras to get plates of the streets.
• 11,000 extras and live pyro were used in the football stadium
• Lots of daylight action utilizing new HDRI ray tracer at DNeg
• As before, no DI was used, the film was finished with a chemical process/color timing
• See fxguide’s Dark Knight Rises coverage.

Snow White and the Huntsman.

Snow White and the Huntsman

Visual effects supervisor: Cedric Nicholas-Troyan
• The images had to be “beautiful, poetic, dark, kickass, modern, grounded, but a fairy tale,” the task was to make 8 famous actors into dwarfs, and only four months to do it in.
• They went for a modern aesthetic on a classical look — in particular, the use of macro photography
• The dwarf actors could not just use scale tricks but had to work with a movement coach and be digitally re-proportioned, as their limb ratios are not just a direct scale
• All animals shown in the  “Sanctuary” sequence were digital, and keyframe animated
• The Elk spirit created from whole cloth, no on-set macquette or anything was used… “Kristen Stewart was stroking a tennis ball.”
• Read our Snow White and the Huntsman coverage.

The Amazing Spider-Man.

The Amazing Spider-Man

Visual effects supervisor: Jerome Chen
• Filmed native 3D on Red EPICs
• The film was shot parallel, convergence adjusted in post
• It was a challenge to bring stylized, romanticized Spider-Man into the real world
• No motion capture was used for Spider-Man — it was all keyframe animation
• Digi double so detailed it was often used in post to create new reaction shots
• Massive digital environments were used — 6th St, high school corridor, Oscorp rooftop etc
• See our Amazing Spider-Man coverage.

Cloud Atlas.

Cloud Atlas

Visual effects supervisor: Dan Glass
• Glass used very dry humor in the presentation
• This was a passion project, independently financed
• David Mitchell declared his book unfilmable on publication, which the Wachowskis took as a personal challenge
• A lot of location shooting
• Glasgow standing in for San Francisco
• It was shot on film to help the significant volume of prosthetic work
• The prosthetics augmented with digital work (Jim Sturgess in Neo Seoul had brows, eyelids, even sometimes had his eyes replaced)
• Dan Glass promoted the overall variety of the work
• Read fxguide’s Cloud Atlas coverage.

John Carter.

John Carter

Visual effects supervisor: Peter Chiang
• The film involved a lot of creature work via DNeg, Warhoon sequence from MPC and environments from Cinesite
• Extensive digital environments were needed, drawing from the natural geology to guide the extensions
• The Thark characters designed at Legacy
• The main area of focus for Tharks was their eyes
• The presentation reel focusing primarily on “photoreal digital characters” (i.e. Tharks, some Woola)
• See fxguide’s John Carter coverage.



Visual effects supervisor: Richard Stammers
• The team sought to bring realism, beauty and scale to the project
• It was shot native stereo, also Red EPICs (as with some other films)
• The Prometheus and Juggernaut ships were the most detailed assets — 450 days spent on texturing alone
• The digital extension of location shooting involved extensive roto, no greenscreen
• The characters and creatures with deep translucent skin utilized new subsurface scattering
• This film used a full ‘Deep Image’ rendering pipeline
• “We knew we’d got it right when Ridley said he was going to try to sell it to NASA.”
• See our Prometheus coverage.

Visual effects branch members will now vote on the final five films to be given Oscar consideration, to be announced on January 10th, with the main Academy Awards ceremony on February 24th.

3 thoughts on “10 films face-off at VFX bake-off”

  1. While votiing on a movie gives credit to the outstanding vfx teams, I think it misses the chance to point out that most exceptional work occurs within a single character, effect or shot within a film, e.g., Gollem in the Hobbit just stands out as amazing work. My vote would be for an fxguide “Best of the Best, the VFX Shot Awards,” as voted on by the fxguide community. For example, my votes this year would be:
    Best of the Beasts (CGI Character): The troll from Snow White (though I haven’t seen LIfe of Pi)
    Best MoCap: Hulk/Gollum tie
    Best Particles: Starmap from Prometheus
    Best Plates: Avenger’s NYC
    etc etc.
    though I realize creating the categories might be tough…

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