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Artisty trumps tech in vfx Oscar race

Beauty, not breakthroughs, likely to lure kudos

No awards category resonates as closely with box office returns as visual effects. The digital revolution has redefined “spectacle” in Hollywood films, and along the way vfx honorees have reflected the latest you’ve-never-seen-this-before tech advancement.

Now, though, tech breakthroughs are rarer, so artistic and creative contributions are gaining importance. This year, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” promises to combine tech innovation — altering the age of a major movie star, Brad Pitt, for long stretches of the movie — with a central creative premise of a man who ages in reverse. If it lives up to the hype, it will be a strong awards contender.

Other pics also boast vfx that could be called artful, even beautiful. “Hellboy II” boasts imaginative creature designs on a par with last year’s “Pan’s Labyrinth.” “Iron Man” blended animatronics, practical effects and digital work, delivering breezy comic moments and not just action. “The Dark Knight” and “Hancock” added visual edge to the superhero genre. And Lionsgate’s “The Spirit” aims to bring Frank Miller’s visual flair into its digital backgrounds and virtual sets.

And don’t rule out Disney’s “Prince Caspian,” which offered up far more ambitious, consistent effects than those in the first Narnia pic, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN
Distrib: Disney
Shops: Framestore, the Moving Picture Co., Weta Digital, Scanline
Vfx supervisors: Dean Wright, Wendy Rogers
Highlights: Numerous creature shots with multiple creatures in each shot, and lots of variation of each kind of creature; created environments, both digital and miniatures; tight integration of actors with CG characters; and that Rivergod sequence.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Distrib: Paramount
Shops: Digital Domain, Lola, Asylum, Matteworld
Team: Eric Barba
Highlights: Par is still keeping most details under wraps, but Lola will clearly bring its “digital cosmetic enahancement” skills to bear on both aging and youthening the stars; look for war scenes and plenty of period backgrounds, too.

THE DARK KNIGHT
Distrib: Warner Bros.
Shops: Double Negative, Framestore CFC, Buf, New Deal Studios (practical effects)
Team: Nick Davis, Chris Corbould, Tim Webber, Paul Franklin
Highlights: Effects created for the super-high-res Imax format; the half-live, half-CG Harvey Two-Face; many shots of the Batpod that are digital; digital ferries; Gotham City and the Hong Kong sequences.

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL
Distrib: Fox
Shop: Weta Digital
Vfx supervisor: Jeff Okun
Highlights: A completely digital character, animated with a combination of motion capture and keyframe animation; the drone attack sequence; the aphid swarms, their destruction of Giants Stadium and their battle with the Army; plus those big spheres.

HANCOCK
Distrib: Sony
Shop: Sony Pictures Imageworks
Team: John Dykstra, John Frazier, Ken Hahn, Carey Villegas
Highlights: Extensive use of digital doubles for Will Smith and Charlize Theron; tornadoes, lightning and clouds in the Hollywood Blvd. scene; and the train-crash sequence.

HELLBOY II
Distrib: Universal
Shop: Double Negative
Team: Michael J. Wassel, Adrian De Wet, Andrew Chapman, Eamonn Butler
Highlights: Numerous creature shots; multiple characters and swarms of characters per shot; digital doubles; integration of creatures and actors; synthetic fire integrated on actors; digital environments; and the Puppet Theater sequence.

IRON MAN
Distrib: Paramount/Marvel
Shops: ILM, the Orphanage, the Embassy, Stan Winston Studio.
Team: John Nelson, Shane Mahan, Dan Sudek, Ben Snow
Highlights: Fine detail work on the suit, seen in closeups in full daylight; the flying sequence and the suit-ups; and the overall realism of the effects.

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL
Distrib: Paramount
Shop: Industrial Light & Magic
Team: Pablo Helman, Steve Rawlins, Dan Sudek, Gary Powell
Highlights: Vast range of vfx, from temples to floods to UFOs; and matching the look and feel of the prior “Indy” films.

THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR
Distrib: Universal
Shops: Rhythm & Hues; Digital Domain; Illusion Arts Digital — Syd Dutton and Bill Taylor, ASC; CIS Visual Effects Group
Team: Joel Hynek, Matthew Butler, Derek Spears, Bruce Steinheimer
Highlights: The creation of the mummy emperor; digital bronze horses coming to life; the yeti; the dragon; and the digital Himalayas.

QUANTUM OF SOLACE
Distrib: Columbia
Shops: Double Negative, the Moving Picture Co., Framestore, MK 12
Team: Chris Corbould, Kevin Tod Haug
Highlights: Major in-camera special effects supplemented with CGI, including the skydiving sequence — a live-action/CG hybrid using “event capture”; the opening car chase; and the climactic hotel fire.

THE SPIRIT
Distrib: Lionsgate
Shops: The Orphanage, Digital Dimension, Fuel, Riot
Team: Stu Maschwitz, Aaron Rhodes, Dave Morely, David Jones
Highlights: More art than science, the all “greenscreen” show — which also used blue, gray and black screens — stressed digital cinematography and visual minimalism, showing only a few details so the viewer is drawn in.

WANTED
Distrib: Universal
Shops: Hammerhead Prods., Framestore CFC, Bazelevs
Team: Pavel Perepelkin, Dominic Tuohy, Stefen Fangmeier, Jon Farhat
Highlights: The train derailment sequence — train and gorge are digital; digital cars in action sequences as well as digital guns, blood, dust, smoke and hundreds of CG rats; digital stunt doubles; extreme-closeup high-speed photography of bullet trajectories; collisions; impacts of human heads.

IN THE MIX
“Speed Racer,” “Eagle Eye,” “Wall-E,” “The Incredible Hulk”

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