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January 03
2023

ISSUE

Winter 2023

MEET THE 2023 VFX OSCAR CONTENDERS IN A YEAR OF VARIETY AND VARIABLES

By TREVOR HOGG

Visual Effects Supervisor Ryan Tudhope honored and preserved the messiness of the practical aerial photography for <em>Top Gun: Maverick</em>, which in turn made the 2,400 visual effects shots seamless. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Visual Effects Supervisor Ryan Tudhope honored and preserved the messiness of the practical aerial photography for Top Gun: Maverick, which in turn made the 2,400 visual effects shots seamless. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

There are strange variables in play in the 2023 Oscar race for Best Visual Effects. For one, filmmaker Taika Waititi and actress Tessa Thompson did a scene breakdown video for Vanity Fair and made fun of some visual effects work in Thor: Love and Thunder, without mention of the groundbreaking camera and lighting techniques utilized by Marvel Studios Visual Effects Supervisor Jake Morrison to create six separate lighting passes simultaneously for the Moon of Shame sequence without interrupting principal photography. In an interesting twist, the comments sparked an Internet frenzy about the unreasonable demands and deadlines that digital artists have to contend with on a daily basis, with the backlash possibly having a ripple effect on other MCU contenders Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

Then, there is the matter of Top Gun: Maverick where the filmmakers and studio are marketing how everything was done practically. However, to achieve the desired cinematic scope there are over 2,000 visual effects shots that have been seamlessly integrated into the remarkable aerial plate photography, such as the opening Blackstar scene; that in itself should make the blockbuster, which received critical acclaim and earned $1.37 billion worldwide as of mid-August, a favorite to win. Curiously, though, the visual effects team led by Visual Effects Supervisor Ryan Tudhope has been grounded from promoting the film, and there is unlikely to be any campaign support from the VFX team to add fuel to the nomination fire. Nevertheless, there is a strong possibility that no perceived lack of VFX team publicity can stop Top Gun: Maverick from topping the field, as demonstrated by Dunkirk’s Oscar win in 2018.

The major technical innovations for <em>Avatar: The Way of Water</em> have been facial capture, the ability to do performance capture underwater and the recreation of realistic CG water. (Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

The major technical innovations for Avatar: The Way of Water have been facial capture, the ability to do performance capture underwater and the recreation of realistic CG water. (Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

Avatar: The Way of Water is certainly getting studio support, with the original Avatar (2009) being re-released to theaters to remind audiences of the highest-grossing film of all time. It is never wise to bet against director James Cameron, who knows how to push and invent technology to enhance his storytelling, in this case facial capture. With Cameron out to build on the spectacle of Avatar, the visual effects for The Way of Water are sure to be amazing. Some theatergoers will be stunned by the visuals, but repeat viewings will likely depend on the story development, which Cameron did not rush, as he understands the multi-film endeavor is pointless without a solid narrative foundation.

As for those filmmakers who showed ingenuity and a unique perspective towards how to incorporate visual effects, two in particular stand out. To begin, director Jordan Peele is having a major impact on redefining the horror genre and having it be a mirror that reflects the beauty and ugliness of society. Nope addresses the issue of spectacle and elevates the UFOs of B-movies into an aerial creature wreaking havoc on the world below. Massive wind machines were needed, so a helicopter was brought in to generate practical dust for the shots. Day for night photography consisted of a 3D rig that synced a color film camera with an infrared digital camera under the guidance of innovative Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and Production Visual Effects Supervisor Guillaume Rocheron. And for an added bonus, here is the rampaging monkey brought to life with performance capture legend Terry Notary.

Some might argue that the visual effects are not Oscar caliber, but one has to be impressed by how filmmakers Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert were able to depict a believable multiverse without an MCU budget for Everything Everywhere All at Once. That in itself is award-worthy. The visual effects team consisted of mainly five digital artists producing 80% of the over 500 bespoke shots that include an acrobatic juggling hibachi chef who in reality was an actor pantomiming his actions with the culinary tools and ingredients added later in CG. Also, there was a case where a character had to be removed from an entire scene. Shots like the first “verse-jumping” shot of Michelle Yeoh’s character benefited from the extra time afforded by the pandemic. Michelle Yeoh is an amazing practical effect in herself, as she at one time overshadowed another martial arts icon, Jackie Chan, who actually rejected the lead role of what has become the first A24 move to earn over $100 million worldwide

Every single shot required digital augmentation from rig cleanup to water simulations to digital skies while retaining the stopmotion handcrafted aesthetic for Guillermo del Toro’s <em>Pinocchio</em>. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Every single shot required digital augmentation from rig cleanup to water simulations to digital skies while retaining the stopmotion handcrafted aesthetic for Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. (Image courtesy of Netflix)


Stunning CG environments will be the hallmark of <em>Black Panther: Wakanda Forever</em>, with the futuristic African homeland being the centerpiece. (Image courtesy of Marvel Studios)

Stunning CG environments will be the hallmark of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, with the futuristic African homeland being the centerpiece. (Image courtesy of Marvel Studios)

<em>Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness</em> features artistic visual effects such as a twisted orchard ravaged by magic rather than fire. (Image courtesy of Marvel Studios)

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness features artistic visual effects such as a twisted orchard ravaged by magic rather than fire. (Image courtesy of Marvel Studios)

Feathered dinosaurs like the Pyroraptor make a debut in <em>Jurassic World Dominion</em>, with ILM having to develop a new feather system to make it possible. (Image courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Feathered dinosaurs like the Pyroraptor make a debut in Jurassic World Dominion, with ILM having to develop a new feather system to make it possible. (Image courtesy of Universal Pictures)


By combining practical ingenuity and virtual production methodology, <em>Bullet Train</em> was able to create the impression of high-speed travel through Japan when, in fact, the principal photography took place on a soundstage in Los Angeles. (Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

By combining practical ingenuity and virtual production methodology, Bullet Train was able to create the impression of high-speed travel through Japan when, in fact, the principal photography took place on a soundstage in Los Angeles. (Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

Speaking of multiverses, director Sam Raimi brings his own sense of dimensional mayhem with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which stands to be the top contender for the MCU. Raimi has a distinct blend of horror and comedy, which is appropriate for a story that centers around the egotistical and sardonic Master of the Mystic Arts portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch. An incursion occurs that sees two dimensions disintegrate, a mirror trap is sprung with shards of glass, and a magical, pristine orchard is revealed to be a twisted forest conjured out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Found in the heart of darkness is an evil doppelganger, run-amok scarlet witchery and a beloved 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever looks as impressive as the original film and has the legacy of Chadwick Boseman. If anyone can pay his late colleague a worthy send-off, it will be filmmaker Ryan Coogler, who returned to direct the sequel. The world-building has made the futuristic African land of Wakanda a wonder to behold. And let us not forget all of the amazing technological toys that can be created using Vibranium, which rivals anything Q has produced for English compatriot James Bond.

If visual mayhem is what you seek, there is Moonfall, which sees gravity go sideways as the lunar neighbor is revealed to house a dwarf star and becomes the target of a nanobot AI determined to get its vengeance against humanity. When it comes to destroying Earth, no one can do it better creatively and consistently than director Roland Emmerich. Very few sets were built physically, but a shuttle cockpit was brought in from a museum to assist with the flying scenes. Inflicting massive damage caused by an arsenal of weaponry rather than a cosmic event are the Russo siblings, Anthony and Joe, with The Gray Man, which ups the ante for assassins with no sense of covert activities, as their missions become news headlines as entire city blocks get decimated in the effort to kill one person!

Ryan Reynolds enters into fray with The Adam Project, where he gets to encounter his younger sarcastic self and attempts to destroy the invention of time travel much to the chagrin of author H.G. Wells. There is cool tech involved for some blockbuster flying and badass hand-to-hand combat sequences, but the visual effects do not capture the innovation of the zanier Free Guy, which is also the product of Reynolds partnering with fellow Canadian director Shawn Levy. As for award-worthy video game adaptations, Uncharted emerges from development hell with Ruben Fleischer shepherding the big-screen adaptation. Tom Holland’s acrobatic antics as Nathan Drake would even impress his most famous character, Spider-Man, especially the aerial daisy-chain sequence, and there is a different spin on a naval battle. While two long-lost 16th century ships are being transported in the air by heavy-duty cargo helicopters, the opposing forces swing on ropes going from one seafaring vessel to another.

Battling for supremacy in the DC Universe will be The Batman and Black Adam. Black Adam hopes to dodge the critical and visual effects backlash of The Scorpion King, which also starred Dwayne Johnson getting involved with Egyptian god shenanigans. No doubt the technology has greatly improved since then, but the rush to finish the visual effects on time hopefully won’t undermine quality. Johnson is such a likable person that it will be interesting to see him portray an antihero. In The Batman, the car chase through the rain by Wētā FX and Scanline VFX, flooding the streets of Gotham, are standout environmental moments when it comes to visual effects. Watch out for The Batman punching and grappling his way to a nomination.

Sony continues to spotlight comic book villains with the doctor turned bloodsucking creature of the night. Morbius reveals that the cure is worse than the disease. The vampire faces are the most impressive digital work, but the toughest was honoring physical dynamics. The entire third act was rewritten and had to be reconstructed with bluescreen. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was nearly derailed with the restart after the pandemic lockdown led to a digital artist talent shortage and capacity issues with different vendors around the world. Fortunately, there was no character designs required this time around, so the focus could be on introducing new characters and environments. Jim Carrey is let loose once more as the evil Dr. Robotnik, with the twirlable mustache added by a gigantic mech robot and Idris Elba channeling the adversarial Knuckles.

A crowning accomplishment for<em> Thor: Love and Thunder</em> was the ability to capture six different lighting passes simultaneously and not interrupt principal photography during the Moon of Shame sequence. (Image courtesy of Marvel Studios)

A crowning accomplishment for Thor: Love and Thunder was the ability to capture six different lighting passes simultaneously and not interrupt principal photography during the Moon of Shame sequence. (Image courtesy of Marvel Studios)


<em>Sonic the Hedgehog 2</em> embraces its video game and cartoon heritage, demonstrating that not everything has to be photorealistic. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Sega of America)

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 embraces its video game and cartoon heritage, demonstrating that not everything has to be photorealistic. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Sega of America)


Among the environmental work in <em>Elvis</em> is visiting the Graceland estate over three decades during three different seasons. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Among the environmental work in Elvis is visiting the Graceland estate over three decades during three different seasons. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)


<em>Nope</em> features a creature of the sky, major dust simulations, day-for-night photography and a raging monkey, all done in a photorealistic manner. (Image courtesy of Universal Pictures and Monkeypaw Productions)

Nope features a creature of the sky, major dust simulations, day-for-night photography and a raging monkey, all done in a photorealistic manner. (Image courtesy of Universal Pictures and Monkeypaw Productions)

A signature action scene for <em>Uncharted</em> made use of gimbals, wirework and CG to produce an aerial daisy chain of cargo crates. (Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

A signature action scene for Uncharted made use of gimbals, wirework and CG to produce an aerial daisy chain of cargo crates. (Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures)


Unreal Engine and virtual production were indispensable tools for the art department, cinematography, stunts, special effects and visual effects for <em>The Batman</em>. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Unreal Engine and virtual production were indispensable tools for the art department, cinematography, stunts, special effects and visual effects for The Batman. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)


The recreation of ancient Egypt mixed with superpowers lead to stunning visuals in <em>Black Adam</em> that could only be accomplished with the support of CG. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

The recreation of ancient Egypt mixed with superpowers lead to stunning visuals in Black Adam that could only be accomplished with the support of CG. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)


The high tech that goes along with time travel gets an imaginative spin in <em>The Adam Project</em>. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

The high tech that goes along with time travel gets an imaginative spin in The Adam Project. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Elba gets to literally punch a malevolent lion in Beast, which features a CG antagonist in the vein of the infamous grizzly bear attack in The Revenant. Think Jaws on safari. Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur has gained a reputation for being able to shift between blockbusters like Everest and indie films such as The Oath; he is aware of the importance of visual effects and using them wisely as reflected by his ownership of RVX, the effects arms of RVX Studios, and ongoing collaboration with Framestore. Other creatures unleashing havoc on the human population are the prehistoric ones brought back to life in Jurassic World Dominion, which ties together with the seminal Jurassic Park that achieved groundbreaking photorealistic digital effects. Production Designer Kevin Jenkins, Visual Effects Supervisor David Vickery and Creature Effects Supervisor John Nolan worked closely together to ensure that dinosaurs were anatomically correct and that as much of the animatronics could be maintained as possible. The major innovation was finally introducing dinosaurs with feathers, like the Pyroraptor, to the franchise, which required ILM to build a new feather system.

Curiously, the live-action version of Pinocchio by director Robert Zemeckis and starring Tom Hanks is going directly to Disney+, so it will not qualify for the Oscars. However, there will be a brief theatrical run before Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio takes up permanent residence on Netflix. It might seem as a stretch to include a stop-motion animation feature as part of the contender list, but the feat was actually achieved by Kubo and the Two Strings. The realm of Limbo and the interior of the dogfish are two major CG environments, and there is also a minor fully-CG character, while atmospherics range from being realistic mist to snow that is given a paper-like quality, as well as surrealistic skies, set extensions, and plenty of clean-up resulting from set shifts, light flickers, dust and hair. All of this is done while maintaining a live-action approach to both the camerawork and animation of the puppets.

Other award-worthy possibilities are the prequel Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, which casts spells of good and evil and features various magical creatures from the imagination of J.K. Rowling. Bullet Train recreated Japan and a speeding locomotive with LED screens and a soundstage in Los Angeles. Idris Elba appears as a wish-fulfilling genie in Three Thousand Years of Longing, directed George Miller. Three decades of the life of Elvis Presley gets the Baz Luhrmann treatment in Elvis, which is basically a film about a showman by a showman. The visual effects are faithful to the period while also having an element of hyper-realism to them when depicting Graceland in the various stages and seasons in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The winner for Best Visual Effects at the 95th Academy Awards, being held on March 12, 2023 at Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, is not a foregone conclusion, and that will make an interesting change from last year where Dune was the runaway favorite, with the only question being which runner-up films would get nominated.


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