VFX Bake-Off: From “Fury Road” To “The Force Awakens,” VFX Oscar Contenders Talk CGI Challenges

The annual pre-Oscar VFX event shows how smaller films can economically compete with blockbusters.

While most people are eagerly anticipating the reveal of which stars will be competing for Oscar gold, competition between that other onscreen darling–visual effects–got underway this past weekend with the annual VFX Bake-Off.


The three-hour event—thrown by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Visual Effects Branch at the Academy’s Beverly Hills headquarters—enables 10 Oscar semi-finalist visual effects teams to explain to industry members and enthusiasts the engineering challenges in achieving complicated CGI shots and integrating them with live action.

“When the famous red light goes on, you’ll need to wrap up,” said VFX Branch founder Richard Edlund, motioning to a large red beacon on a stand. “For those who remember when Jim Cameron walked over and unscrewed it…well, it’s epoxied in place now.”

Each VFX teams had five minutes to introduce their 10-minute clips and explain the challenges of their projects, and answer three minutes of questions from VFX Branch’s 40-member steering committee. That night, they cast secret ballots for the five Oscar nominees, to be announced on Thursday, with the winner named during the 88th Annual Academy Awards broadcast February 28.

The 10 films in contention were: Walt Disney’s Ant-Man, Tomorrowland, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens; 20th Century Fox’s The Martian and The Revenant; Universal’s Jurassic World; Sony’s The Walk; A24’s Ex Machina; and Warner Bros.’ Mad Max: Fury Road.

This year’s VFX trends

“This year, the main thread is the integration and disappearance of visual effects into live action. There are more visual effects than ever, but they are increasingly in the service of the film,” David Morin Autodesk’s director of industry relations and business development for its media and entertainment division, told Fast Company post-event. Autodesk is the maker of Maya, the industry standard program for 3-D animation and VFX, and used by all 10 contenders.

David Morin

Morin noted two other trends. VFX, in the past a purview of post-production, is becoming increasingly integrated into the creative process at earlier points in the filmmaking, beginning with pre-visualization. And using the Cloud in place of expensive rendering farms has brought VFX costs down to the point where small studios can do the effects work once relegated to large ones.


Following are some tidbits about each film from the teams’ designated speakers:

Ant-Man’s shrinkage shots were accomplished by 25-member macro unit team, including an ant wrangler, shooting for 40 days on a to-scale miniature set, and integrating some half million photographs and 1000 frame-per-sec macro special effects.

Tomorrowland, which was shot in 4K, partnered with Dolby Vision’s Extended Dynamic Range to capture the expanded color range and contrast.

Jurassic World assigned motion-capture actors for each raptor, to facilitate improvised and unique signatures of movement. As a nostalgic nod, the Tyrannosaurus Rex contained scars in places where the raptors from the first film would have scratched it. Over 700 of the films 998 shots involved dinosaurs.

The Martian developed a new color algorithm, based on NASA shots of the Martian landscape, to transform the look of Earth to Mars without involving rotoscoping. It took much of the blue out of the sky, but left more in the landscape.

The Walk Eighty-two percent of the movie involved VFX shots used to alter weather, turn Montreal streets in Paris and New York, and extend the World Trade Center tightrope set between them. They were able to achieve this on a $35 million budget using the Cloud instead of a rendering farm, cutting their rendering costs in half.


Avengers: Age of Ultron Industrial Light and Magic redesigned the Hulk’s musculoskeletal structure, skin, and hair to control nuance and infuse more of a soul. ILM was one of 20 VFX companies working on this film.

The Revenant Despite intense location shots, 122 minutes of the film incorporated VFX shots from 12 vendors in four countries, most notably for the bear mauling, but also to effect nuances like wind and lighting. In a nod to director Alejandro Iñárritu’s exacting nature, VFX production supervisor Rich McBride joked, “This presentation is almost as terrifying as showing Alejandro our shots.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens used real locations and sets as much as possible, while integrating 2100 VFX and some half dozen film shots. “We wanted to evoke the feelings of one of the trilogy films, but create a film with its own forward motion,” said ILM VFX supervisor Roger Guyett.

Ex Machina’s VFX team was included early in the design process. “Body tracking was particularly difficult. It’s harder to track someone who’s not moving much,” said VFX supervisor Andrew Whitehurst. “It was really helpful to have a director who could draw—we could sketch a lot of ideas out.”

Mad Max: Fury Road “Almost every shot that felt live action is real,” said VFX supervisor Andrew Jackson, with most of the 2000 VFX shots in the film pertaining to the Citadel, crowd extensions, and landscapes.

[UPDATE: The nominees are: Ex Machina, Mad Max:Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens; Ex Machina took home the gold.]


About the author

Susan Karlin, based in Los Angeles, is a regular contributor to Fast Company, where she covers space science, autonomous vehicles, and the future of transportation. Karlin has reported for The New York Times, NPR, Scientific American, and Wired, among other outlets, from such locations as the Arctic and Antarctica, Israel and the West Bank, and Southeast Asia