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January 02
2020

ISSUE

Winter 2020

The Contenders: 20 Films That Could Take VFX Oscar Gold

By IAN FAILES

Ad Astra is the story of an astronaut who travels across outer space in search of his father and a higher intelligence. (Image copyright © 2019 20th Century Fox)

In the visual effects landscape, 2019 has again been a big year for superhero films, sci-fi adventures and fantastical realism. Usually that might mean a few obvious front-runners for the VFX Oscar, but the final contenders for the crown (and the eventual winner) can often be surprising, especially in terms of a film’s perceived use of photorealistic CG effects versus more practical methods.

This makes picking the possible VFX contenders a tough task. While there have been several contending films that evidence incredibly high photorealistic CG work, there have been fewer that tended to rely on models and miniatures, as past winners First Man, Interstellar and, to a lesser extent, Blade Runner 2049, had done. Still, a number of 2019 releases maintained a heavy use of practical creature effects, special effects and stunts.

With those things in mind, VFX Voice looks to 20 films that may be the front-runners for VFX Oscar consideration in 2020. The winner will be announced at the Academy Awards on February 9.

ILM’s CG Genie for Aladdin was based on multiple capture sessions of Will Smith. (Image copyright © 2019 Walt Disney Pictures)

CG HUMAN(ISH), OLD AND YOUNG

Looking back at 2019’s releases, a clear trend is the presence of CG humans or actors that have gone through some degree of augmentation or modification. The results often had the impact of blowing the audience away with the artistry behind the performance itself – both from the actor and VFX teams.

Take Ang Lee’s Gemini Man, in which a younger-looking, cloned version of Will Smith battles against the current-age Will Smith. To make that possible, the actor performed both roles during filming, but went through a body and facial-capture process for his younger self. Weta Digital then took the resulting data and crafted a completely CG version of the actor. All the nuances Weta Digital manages to input into their digital Smith (based, of course, on the real Smith) perhaps represent the pinnacle of their work in this area.

What’s incredible is that Gemini Man is just one of several films from the past year where actors have been replicated as either younger or older versions of themselves. The Irishman, from Martin Scorsese, with visual effects led by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), similarly ‘reduced’ the ages of its main cast, this time to deal with the different time periods of the film. ILM also retains all the well-known nuances of actors such as Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci with their fully CG versions. Having them in the film, along with such a high-profile director, will bring The Irishman a lot of credibility in the VFX Oscar race.

A de-aged Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury was one of the central pieces of VFX work in Captain Marvel. (Image copyright © 2019 Marvel Studios)

Crafting a completely believable performance of a younger-looking Will Smith was critical to the success of Gemini Man. (Image copyright © 2019 Paramount Pictures)

Looking back at 2019’s releases, a clear trend is the presence of CG humans or actors that have gone through some degree of augmentation or modification. The results often had the impact of blowing the audience away with the artistry behind the performance itself – both from the actor and VFX teams.

Live-action actors were transformed into CG felines for Cats, retaining their distinctive facial features. (Image copyright © 2019 Universal Pictures)

Other films that dived heavily into the aging and de-aging realm, and CG human-like performances, are Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame. While both of those Marvel films employ a spectacular level of effects imagery (think: explosions, fight scenes, inter-planetary travel), they may well be most remembered this year for character work.

Captain Marvel, from Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, sees a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) on the screen, crafted principally by Lola VFX, which used 2D techniques to do its aging and de-aging work (other VFX studios also worked on Fury’s transformation). The sheer number of shots of young Fury in the film make this a major achievement.

The Russo Brothers’ Avengers: Endgame has multiple aging and de-aging shots, again led by Lola, which provided for an old-age Captain America (Chris Evans), an emaciated Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), a de-aged Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Howard Stark (John Slattery), and a young Stan Lee (in his last-ever cameo). Although we have seen a lot of this work before in recent Marvel movies, the work here is crucial to the time-travel storytelling in the film.

Meanwhile, Endgame is also a showcase of digital human-like characters, with both Josh Brolin’s Thanos and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk. New machine learning techniques used by Weta Digital and Digital Domain for their Thanos scenes, and new capture methods adopted by ILM for Hulk (Framestore also worked on Hulk shots) ensured that the characters look richer than ever. We can, arguably, sense the actor behind the performance even closer than previously.

That goes for the central character played by Rosa Salazar in Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel, too. Realized entirely in CG by Weta Digital, Alita had to interact with live-action actors and perform some incredible stunt movements. Weta Digital adopted a new full-body capture suit and helmet-cam for the job that aided in replicating Salazar’s performance digitally. New skin shaders and approaches to hair simulation helped as well.

Then there’s Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, which features a fully synthetic Genie based on the performance of Will Smith. Here, ILM took both on-set capture of the actor and additional ‘Anyma’ captures to make the character, who retained the charm of Smith but also was made flexible enough to do a myriad of magical things. The studio also had plenty of other work in the film on their plate, from vast landscapes to other CG characters (not to mention a flying magic carpet).

The translation of Will Smith to a Genie kept the essence of the original actor in Aladdin, and it’s something that was done also for the performers in Tom Hooper’s Cats, albeit with a lot of extra fur. This work, led by Mill Film, is noteworthy for its complexity and in being a somewhat ‘off-beat’ use of capture and CG face tech; audiences might at first have found the translation a little uncanny, but the breakdowns are charming and memorable.

The famous baby elephant made its live-action debut in Dumbo. (Image copyright © 2019 Walt Disney Pictures)

With cutting-edge virtual production filmmaking techniques and a supreme level of photorealism on show, The Lion King is likely to be dominant during awards season. (Image copyright © 2019 Walt Disney Pictures)

In Spider-Man: Far From Home, effects simulations for the Elementals and plenty of exotic locations made for a heavy VFX film. (Image copyright © 2019 Sony Pictures)

Deliberately staying within a cartoon realm, the characters of Pokémon Detective Pikachu were still finely integrated into the live-action. (Image copyright © 2019 Warner Bros. Pictures)

Destruction effects, massive lumbering CG monsters and some intense environments made up the VFX for Godzilla: King of the Monsters. (Image copyright © 2019 Warner Bros. Pictures)

VFX studios were a key part of the design of many of the scenes and characters in Men In Black: International. (Image copyright © 2019 Sony Pictures)

Terminator: Dark Fate revives the Terminator franchise, one that is fondly remembered for creature effects and breakthrough digital technologies. (Image copyright © 2019 Paramount Pictures)

STUNNING CHARACTERS AND LOCATIONS

Jon Favreau’s The Lion King easily has the most stunningly realistic characters and landscapes of any film released in 2019, even if some audience members found some of the performances initially startling. While the original 1994 2D animated film featured lions, hyenas and other animals with very emotive expressions, the 2019 3D animated version went with something more realistic (although of course the animals still talk, and sing).

Still, that aspect clearly did not worry too many people given the film’s success, and it’s impossible to go past The Lion King as a major VFX Oscar contender thanks to its advances in virtual production techniques and the CG/animation prowess of MPC. The film ‘feels’ like a live-action one, and that’s because real-world camera rigs and approaches to photography were part of the virtual filmmaking process, which took advantage of real-time tools and VR set scouting, with MPC then delivering the entirely photoreal landscapes and inhabitants of the African plains.

There’s world-building of a different kind in J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, a film in which ILM led the creation of distant galaxies, CG space battles, lightsaber duels and a host of CG characters. At the same time, like the other recent Star Wars outings, creature and special makeup effects, practical special effects and stunts, form a large part of The Rise of Skywalker’s final shots, and that can hold significant sway in the VFX Oscar race.

Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Far From Home has many CG characters – Spider-Man, Mysterio and the ‘Elementals’ of the film – and it goes to many locations. Perhaps the most impressive VFX accomplishment here is the augmentation, expansion or recreation of so many real-world locales such as Venice, Prague and London. That keeps the film grounded, even if it is one of the most intensive VFX projects of the year, to which many effects studios contributed.

Also a ‘winner’ in terms of feeling grounded in reality, despite playing host to a swathe of game-inspired CG characters, is Rob Letterman’s Pokémon Detective Pikachu. The movie was shot on film, made extensive use of stuffies and stand-ins, and relied on scores of artists (predominantly from MPC and Framestore) to rotoscope and integrate the CG characters into scenes – with the result feeling like one of the most accomplished live-action/ hybrids from 2019.

Another live-action/hybrid, Tim Burton’s Dumbo, manages to hit plenty of emotional beats by re-telling the popular Disney story of the titular baby elephant. MPC led the effects effort here, finding a balance between the cartoony nature of the cute Dumbo and mixing it with all the real-world aspects that were necessary.

VFX artists on Godzilla: King of the Monsters, directed by Michael Dougherty, were similarly tasked with integrating CG characters (this time, massive ones) into both live-action and fully synthetic locations. The scale of VFX work in King of the Monsters is huge, and crucial to making audiences believe these creatures had been re-born.

Men In Black: International, a film by F. Gary Gray, would simply not have been possible without visual effects. There are CG characters, CG environments, CG vehicles, and scenes that bring live-action actors into places where they couldn’t have shot.

The work is immense, and done by a multitude of providers. With some killer scenes, and a new take on the liquidlike morphing nature of machines from the future, Tim Miller’s Terminator: Dark Fate might have just enough ‘wow’ moments to move into VFX Oscar contention. It also has, among the slew of CG imagery and digital human work, lots of large-scale practical stunt scenes.

Stunts, practical effects and CG work touch so many of Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw’s action scenes. (Image copyright © 2019 Universal Pictures)

THE NOT-SO-SURPRISING SURPRISES

The ‘big’ films listed above are definitively VFX-driven films. One of the criteria for visual effects Oscar consideration is the contribution the visual effects make to the overall production. But there are sometimes films that make the VFX consideration lists which, at first, do not appear to rely so heavily on VFX. The truth, of course, is that visual effects often form a key part of these kinds of films; they just tend to be more of the ‘invisible’ kind, or used in different ways.

In Chris Butler’s Missing Link, for instance, visual effects are incorporated in extensive ways, from fully CG characters and environments, to the compositing of separately filmed stop-motion elements into final shots. And despite being a stop-motion film, there’s precedent for such a movie to be included in VFX Oscar consideration (The Nightmare Before Christmas and Kubo and the Two Strings).

Invisible effects in Us helped tell this horrifying doppelgänger story. (Image copyright © 2019 Universal Pictures)

Subtle and sometimes invisible effects helped add to John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum’s intense action scenes. (Image copyright © 2019 Lionsgate)

Ad Astra by James Gray has some very obvious visual effects work for scenes set in space, but the film differs in being a somewhat more cerebral experience than typical sci-fi releases. The big accomplishment here is the real feeling of traveling into space with Brad Pitt’s character, as if VFX were not involved at all.

The goal of Us director Jordan Peele must surely also have been to tell his story without the audience noticing there were any visual effects in the film. However, ILM helped create key doppelgänger scenes and introduced a mix of horror and intrigue into several shots. Old-school split screens and a desire to keep everything invisible may well get this over the line.

In that category, too, is John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, from director Chad Stahelski. Audiences would be intimately aware that stunt choreography and special effects were major players in getting Parabellum’s action scenes onto the screen. On top of that, VFX had a role in tying elements together, for example, by enabling bullets to fly underwater or cameras to be erased from reflections in glass walls, or for a major motorcycle chase to be partly filmed on greenscreen.

And rounding out this list of 20 possible contenders is David Leitch’s Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, another film leaning heavily on practical special effects and stunts, where CG and digital visual effects (led by DNEG) were equally important. Any film that tends to show crazy stunts, elevated by just as intensive VFX work, might have a strong chance at awards success.

 

Nominations for the five contenders for the VFX Oscar will be announced on January 13. These are chosen after a list of 20, and then 10, go through the consideration process via the visual effects branch of the Academy.


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