VFX Bakeoff 2013: The Last Stand

Thursday night at the Academy we were treated to a VFX snapshot of 2012 during the annual Oscar bakeoff. Ten semi-finalists competed before the committee, five of which were nominated and will be announced next Thursday. From Richard Parker to Gollum 2.0 to the Hulk to the last of Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight to the emotional destruction of the Aston Martin DB5, it was about grounding the fantastical in its own reality.

My hunch is still that Life of Pi, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Avengers, and The Dark Knight Rises will be in the running, with Prometheus, The Amazing Spider-Man, or even Skyfall grabbing the final spot.

The five-minute presentations were informative and often humorous while the 10-minute reels effectively showed off the eye candy even if they didn’t always flow well. But the work was technically good throughout, mixing old and new techniques in a naturalistic way. Everything was screened digitally except for The Dark Knight Rises (the lone film holdout); and there was also the first-time bakeoff demo of higher frame rate, which went smoothly.

Among the highlights:

Rhythm & Hues’ Bill Westenhofer suggesting that it wasn’t bad enough having animals, water, and children on the beautiful Life of Pi– Ang Lee also had to have stereo in the mix. “I guess he’s a glutton for punishment.” Even so, Richard Parker, the CG Bengal tiger, is a marvel to behold: the digital model features 10 million hairs and the number of controls in the paws out shined some of their facial rigs. “It had a dual path skin system because tigers are really a mass of muscle with a lose draper of skin. Dealing with wet fur was hard as well.”

Weta’s Joe Letteri delivering the most in-depth and polished presentation about redoing Gollum from the inside out, dynamically dealing with forced perspective for 3-D on multiple stages, and handling the controversial 48 fps with aplomb. “We were able to capture Andy’s entire performance real time on set this time, so it was the first set-up we did and drove a lot of nice character moments. In fact, probably our biggest contribution to the film was our characters that we were able to bring to the world. “

The Dark Knight Rises Paul Franklin proclaiming that if digital doesn’t work out, Nolan and his collaborators will be primed to take over the film market. “The key to the success of this approach was to bring VFX closer to the production. It was important that [Nolan] should be speaking directly to the people who are actually working on the shots and that VFX development should start as soon as possible.”

Skyfall’s Chris Corbould proudly explaining how they built a full-scale model train (two 60-foot carriages) instead of a miniature for the Tube crash because that wouldn’t have been good enough for Bond. Still, they embraced CG characters for the first time with a scorpion and two Komodo Dragons.

Janek Sirrs on The Avengers: “Not only did director Joss Whedon insist on having the superheroes fight one another, but they also had to appear together in a 40-second digital long shot, just to make it difficult. Performance wise, Joss worked closely with the animators to make sure that the Hulk always conveyed the proper level of rage.”

Dan Glass got one of the best laughs with this opener about the complexity of Cloud Atlas:  “If you didn’t see the movie or trailer, watching this reel certainly won’t help you get a sense of this movie…

“The main thing is the overall variety: everything from environments to effects from invisible comp work to character augmentation from hard surface vehicles and cities to digital actors. The work was always trying to play service to the story but naturally the science fiction material takes more center stage.”

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Clips, Oscar, performance capture, previs, Tech, VFX, Virtual Production

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