The VFX Bake-Off: Oscar Shortlisters Talk Herculean Hurdles In CGI

VFX Oscar contenders explain how they pulled off last year’s films’ most spectacular visual effects.


When done well, visual effects should be invisible. When done really well, they get highlighted at the annual VFX Bake-Off.


The four-hour event—thrown by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Visual Effects Branch at the Academy’s Beverly Hills headquarters this past Saturday—featured 10 Oscar semi-finalist visual effects teams explaining to industry members and enthusiasts the engineering challenges of complicated CGI shots, fabricating all-digital scenes and creatures, infusing emotion into them, and integrating them with live action. From there, voting members cast secret ballots for five nominees to be unveiled January 24, with the winner announced February 26 at the 89th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, to air on ABC.

This year’s presentation offered a few format changes. As before, each VFX team had five minutes to introduce their 10-minute clips and explain the challenges of their projects. But this year, each team then joined host Bill Taylor, a member of the VFX Branch Board of Governors, and fellow board member Craig Barron for a three-minute post-clip Q&A. The event also extended its reach—not only boasting the most number of voting members (316) to ever attend but also live-streamed on the site. “We expect to have a very educated voting group,” said Taylor.

“This is the first year that the top 10 grossing films crossed $700 million without raising ticket prizes, and the first time a studio crossed the $7 billion threshold,” said Taylor, stressing the field’s contribution to filling seats alongside stars. “I don’t want to call you digital artists. You are full-fledged artists. Visual effects in a combination of imagination, craft, and artistry.”


The 10 films in contention were: Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book, Captain America: Civil War, Dr. Strange, The BFG, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; Sony’s Passengers; Warner Bros.’ Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; Summit’s Deepwater Horizon, Paramount’s Arrival, Focus’ Kubo and the Two Strings.

“More than ever, visual effects have become integral to storytelling, advancing the characters and plots, creating immersive environments, and bringing what’s on the page to life,” Greg Eden, Autodesk VP of brand and communications, told Co.Create. Autodesk makes Maya, the industry standard program for 3-D animation and VFX.


Following are highlight’s from each team’s presentation:

Arrival’s team was tasked with plausible composites of aerial views, suspended giant spaceships, floating hair, changing gravitational centers, digital military fleets and armies, cloudy wisps of condensation, with live action. The alien language ranked among the trickier aspects. The team experimented with hundreds of round spit-ink shapes before finding ones that felt organic.

“The BFG is about a quiet little girl who becomes friends with a giant, and the film came alive with their scenes together,” said VFX supervisor Joe Letteri. “To give a sense of their realistically interacting, they had actor Mark Rylance performing motion capture to enact a realistic performance on a larger-than-life character.” They used risers and balls on poles to help the actors maintain correct eye lines despite the disparity of scale, and built a set of the giant’s cottage with props, texture, and lighting to enable master shots and work out camera sequences.

Captain America: Civil War’s team attempted as much practical shooting as possible before intercutting these scenes with digital effects, though it resorted to strict CG builds from scratch—such as the Berlin airport and Black Panther’s suit—when real life didn’t deliver as well. They canvassed old Robert Downey, Jr. films to find a reference on which to base his younger CG version, and increased Spider-Man’s emotive ability by using motion capture to enhance facial movements under the mask.

Sustaining a realistic, uncontrolled, and cinematic fire on an off-shore oil rig proved the biggest challenge of the Deepwater Horizon VFX team, which also had to create a CG oil rig along with mud flow and pressure dynamics. “Fire is one of the most difficult things to recreate,” said VFX supervisor Craig Hammack. “You have to get the motion and texture right. I don’t think there’s been another movie to have a fire for so long at this scale. Also, it was based on a real event so we had to make the audience believe it was real.”


Creating the sense of magic, manipulation of space and other dimensions, particularly in a psychedelic tunnel sequence, proved the most difficult in Doctor Strange. The VFX used special camera moves and rigs to hold down or spin actors.

Beyond creating, destroying, and rebuilding 1926 New York, the big challenge with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was creating an array of creatures that were grounded in reality, and then embedding personality, motivation, and desires. They went through hundreds of designs, referencing real world animals, engaging puppeteers versed in animal behaviors, and applying CG and physics effects. “Even if there was an amalgam of different traits, it had to be things people could recognize,” said VFX supervisor Christian Manz. “From there, we could inform the drama.”

The Jungle Book VFX team strove for animated and psychological realism in its animals, with nuanced flourishes like tiny flying bugs at different points in space to add a sense of depth and humidity to the environment. “We used a computer like a camera to give the illusion that what you see is a live-action movie,” said VFX supervisor Robert Legato. “We tried recreating life and behavior to the point where the effects became invisible.”

The team used choreographed puppeteers, large fabrication rigs to give a physical parry for Neel Sethi, who played Mowgli, to act against. To simulate traveling long distances, Sethi and puppeteers walked on a turntable, and the effects crew mathematically calculated the positions of lighting and projected shadows. “We searched 2000 kids for an authentic Mowgli and found him in a penthouse in New York,” joked Legato. “We introduced him to mud, so the look of terror on his face is real.”

Kubo and the Two Strings’ stop-motion animation took eight months of development, 94 shooting weeks, 108 puppeteers, 60 VFX artists, and 37 stop-motion animators to create 1360 shots of intricate miniature sets, and flowing Japanese origami-style characters, robes, hair, water and landscapes. All of which moved at the glacial pace of three seconds of film per week.


Kubo’s creators further pushed the boundaries of their proprietary rapid prototyping system, which earned them a technical Oscar last year, to facilitate 3D printing and coloring of 48 million possible expressions, some differing by the width of a human hair.

Of Passengers’ 1400 VFX shots, a pool of water reconfiguring in zero-gravity proved particularly challenging. VFX artists were tasked with creating a physically plausible, low-motion drowning sequence when Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Aurura, is unable to swim to the edge of the water as it forms a sphere in zero gravity, even toning down the effect’s more spectacular elements so as not to overshadow Lawrence’s performance.

The production designers and VFX departments scoured visual, infrared, and false-color astrophotography, as well as stylized old sci-fi movies before landing its plausibly fantastic long-exposure of the Milky Way Galaxy as its spacescape. They also needed to balance complexity of surface texture with increased light refraction, so as not to lose focus on the actors. “We have a very sophisticated audience today, and we need to pay respect to that with plausible physics,” says VFX supervisor Erik Nordby.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’s1700 visual shots involved 11 VFX vendors, and four Industrial Light and Magic studios. The challenge was matching the memory and legacy of the original films with the expectations of a modern audience. To that end, they obtained many of the original miniature models and scanned them into digital versions. “For the young Carrie Fisher at the end, no matter how accurate you produce a likeness, if it doesn’t move like the character, it comes off looking like someone else,” says VFX supervisor John Knoll.


[UPDATE: The Oscar nominees are: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Deepwater Horizon, Doctor Strange, The Jungle Book, and Kubo and the Two Strings]

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