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From Groot To Godzilla, Visual Effects Oscar Hopefuls Reveal Their CG Secrets

The annual VFX Bake-Off pulls back the curtain on Oscars visual effects contenders’ “how did they do that?” shots. Even the experts are having trouble discerning reality from CGI.

From Groot To Godzilla, Visual Effects Oscar Hopefuls Reveal Their CG Secrets
[Photo: courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures]

Every year the bar gets higher.

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The annual VFX Bake-Off took place last weekend, showcasing the 10 films and their VFX-supervising teams shortlisted for Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects. Nominees will be announced January 15 and the winner named during the 87th Annual Academy Awards broadcast February 22 on ABC.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Visual Effects Branch puts on the three-hour event at the Academy’s Beverly Hills headquarters for its 340 active members and the public, enabling the VFX innovators to explain the challenges in achieving specific effects, compositing shots, creating whole scenes and creatures from CGI, and infusing emotion into non-human characters.

“Every year exceeds the previous one,” says VFX cinematographer Bill Taylor, a VFX Branch governor who moderated the event. “The complexity of shots, resulting realism, high level of design. It’s getting hard for those in the profession to tell what’s been done in each shot—not just the technology itself, but the combination of the art and science.”

Bill Taylor

That night, the VFX Branch’s 40-member steering committee cast secret ballots for the five Oscar nominees from the 10 presenting finalists. The VFX teams each had five minutes to introduce their 10-minute clips and explain the challenges of their projects, and answer three minutes of questions from the steering committee.

The 10 films were: 20th Century Fox’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, and X-Men: Days of Future Past; Warner Bros.’ Godzilla and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies; Disney’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Maleficent, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier; and Paramount’s Interstellar and Transformers: Age of Extinction.

Autodesk’s offices

“There’s been a rise in interest in visual effects—70% of the box office is visual effects and animation films,” says Don Parker, senior director for Autodesk Media & Entertainment, whose tools have earned eight technical Oscars and been used by every VFX winner in the last 20 years.

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Don Parker

Parker notes three main issues driving VFX in films: The democratization of filmmaking tools and growing maker movement has facilitated more potential storytellers; more VFX tools are available on-set for pre-visualization of action sequences, and real-time use and playback; and the rising technology sophistication is enabling directors to create films and visualize ideas that they could not previously.

“It’s risen to a degree of super-seamlessness,” says Parker. “This year, Guardians of the Galaxy’s two main characters are 3-D creations that interact in a totally believable way with humans. Everyone wants to know how the filmmakers did it.”

Following is an overview of the evening’s comments from the teams’ designated speakers. A collection of the films’ trailers can be found here.

Dawn of the Planet of the ApesPhoto: courtesy of 20th Century Fox Pictures

Weta Digital is in the running for The Hobbit and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, both of which used its new Manuka rendering system.

The Hobbit was one of Weta’s complex films with some battle shots taking up to three days per frame to render, while Apes upped its primates’ human qualities by reworking the eye geometry to better refract light and cast shadows.

Maleficent’s wings were particularly tricky to renderPhoto: courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

Maleficent and Godzilla got props for having directors—Robert Stromberg and Gareth Edwards, respectively—who’d come up through the VFX ranks.

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Maleficent’s big challenge was the protagonist’s wings, which spanned 14 feet, made shot framing tricky when closed, and needed to work with the character’s long hair. “The feathers had to be distinct and work in tandem, while wings had several functions—fly, work as weapons, and express emotion,” said Carey Villegas.

For Godzilla’s aesthetic, “Gareth wanted us to be able to stop on any frame and make it a movie poster,” said Jim Rygiel. “It was more about art than technology.”

Aging Agent Peggy Carter in Captain America: The Winter Soldier required VFX over make-up.Photo: courtesy of Walt Disney Motion Pictures

“We wanted a more grounded feel—more of a ’70s-style thriller than superhero movie,” said Dan DeLeeuw of Captain America, which involved recreating digital versions of location shots.

Turning 32-year-old actress Hayley Atwell into a 92-year-old Agent Peggy Carter proved vexing when make-up didn’t work. The VFX team achieved this by filming a non-made-up Atwell with a multicamera rig, then an older actress at the same angles, and remapping the skin of the older actress onto Hayley’s face.

The animated characters of Groot (shown here) and Rocket in Guardians of the Galaxy had to work seamlessly with live action actors.Photo: courtesy of Walt Disney Motion Pictures

“Rocket and Groot had to be as real as the other characters,” said Stephane Ceretti. “[Director] James Gunn didn’t want them to be like Bugs Bunny dropped into the movie. They were all animation—no motion capture was used. Ninety-five percent of the movie had visual effects. Pretty surprisingly, we finished it.”

Museum’s challenge was the multitude of creatures and sculptures of different materials that needed to come to life. “It’s not often a comedy is invited to the Bake-Off,” said Erik Nash.

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The audience was particularly taken with a chase scene through M.C. Escher’s optical illusion lithograph Relativity. “The line sequences worked best when measured by eye” instead of computer, added Nash. “It was one of the times when we weren’t battling a render farm, but using artistic instinct.”

Transformers: Age of ExtinctionPhoto: courtesy of Paramount

X-Men’s challenge was to surpass other X-Men movies,” said Richard Stammers. The film’s Quicksilver scene—where that character moves at hyperspeed to thwart gunfire—garnered applause. It was shot at 250 frames per sec and used treadmills and remote-controlled cameras to effect a slow motion gravity defying look.

For Transformers, “We wanted the robots to be messy, dirty, squirt things and the CG characters to look photo realistic,” said Scott Farrar. “They were built from photos whenever possible, and then we used every tool in the film business. When people say, ‘It’s all CGI,’ it means I did my job pretty well.”

Interstellar based its black hole rendering on mathematical calculations.Photo: courtesy of Paramount

“[Interstellar director] Chris Nolan wanted an extraordinary story in a grounded way, getting as many shots as possible with the camera,” said Paul Franklin.

Many of the effects were extensions of location shots with minimal post-production. The VFX team opted for digital front projections over green screens (save for a reveal of the space station baseball diamond) for a more immersive environment for the actors. The monolithic robot came courtesy of actor/puppeteer Bill Irwin working a pneumatic rod puppet.

VFX created the black hole’s imagery based on mathematical calculations by astrophysicist Kip Thorne. Added Franklin, “It’s a combination of abstract art and physics.”

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[UPDATE] The nominations for Best Visual Effects, announced Jan. 15, are:
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy, Interstellar, and X-Men: Days of Future Past.

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About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio

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