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War, pirates, flying and fantasy take CG center stage

The race for the visual effects Oscar is still a big guessing game, since some holiday releases remain unseen, including Paramount’s “Charlotte’s Web” and Fox’s “Eragon.” But so far, the race is ecclectic, including a war zone, fantasies and a 13-year-old’s fantasy deathmatch: pirates vs. superheroes.

Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” took motion-capture and digital characters to a new level. Its villains, including Bill Nighy as Davy Jones, were captured on set, in a new process that Industrial Light & Magic considers a trade secret. Allowing thesps to work in a more natural environment, vs. a greenscreen, can improve the quality of mo-cap performances — things Academy voters notice. Nighy’s eyes were digitally replaced while retaining his emotion and expression.

Fox’s “X-Men: The Last Stand,” though, offered perhaps the most talked-about visual effect of the year: the opening flashback sequence in which Patrick Stewart and Ian Mc-Kellen appear some 20 years younger. The rejuvenation was accomplished by Lola Visual Effects without the aid of makeup. It represents a significant breakthrough, and the kind that gets the attention of the Acad’s effects branch.

In the ’70s, Christopher Reeve’s Superman flew with a lot of rigging, and his “Metropolis” was New York. In “Superman Returns,” the city is mostly CGI and the flying Superman is often a digital double, albeit a very lifelike one rendered by Sony Imageworks. Film’s shuttle disaster sequence is a highlight, and the Orphanage’s shot featuring a bullet bouncing off Superman’s eyeball, in closeup, is a contender for effects shot of the year.

On the other end of the spectrum are two films that re-create some of the more violent events in recent history. The digital Iwo Jima invasion in “Flags of Our Fathers” is so faithful that even veterans have mistaken the shots for documentary footage. Digital Domain rendered not just the island but many of the landing boats and digital extras. The extras and boats were given artificial intelligence so they would automatically stay on their assigned paths and avoid bumping into each other. Many explosions, with plumes of water, fire and sand, were digitally enhanced. Also, Par’s “World Trade Center” features an unnervingly accurate re-creation of the 9/11 attacks.

In contention too is Warner’s “Poseidon,” which boasts some intricate CG work. Pic’s opening, with cameras circling and zooming in on the ship, is billed as the most complex digital shot in ILM’s accomplished history.

From an effects standpoint, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is like “The Chronicles of Narnia” crossed with “Flags of Our Fathers.” It’s provocative, but not as effects-dependent as the other contenders, and its violence may be too graphic for some.

With no “Harry Potter” or “Narnia” among this year’s holiday pics, the big wild card here may be “Charlotte’s Web.” The live-action film promises to take the talking-animal picture (a staple on the animation side this year) to a new level.

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