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Acad’s alien smackdown

Varied visions highlight nominated pics

This year’s Oscar visual effects race is like something out of Mad magazine: if not “Spy vs. Spy,” certainly Aliens vs. Aliens vs. Aliens.

In the competish among “Avatar’s” Na’vi, “District 9’s” slum-dwelling “prawns” and “Star Trek’s” ravenous predators, the looks and environments could not be more varied. Pandora is gorgeous and dreamy; the shantytown is filthy; and Star Trek’s Delta Vega is fun and fantastical.

So the vfx teams took different approaches.

“The Na’vi is a very feline design based on a lion’s nose and eyes, and catlike ears and tail,” explains vfx supervisor Joe Letteri of Weta. “We used (animal) cues — with a lion you can see a lot of anticipation with their tail’s movement — to enhance the characters,” he says, adding that eyes were made oversized and expressive on the performance-capture-based Na’vi.

“The look was still very human, other than the blue skin,” he adds. “That comes from Jim Cameron’s diving experiences. You see those kinds of colors underwater. The idea was to take those vivid palettes. That worked especially in night scenes because we could bring in the bioluminescence.”

The environment actually looks different according to the attitude of the pic’s hero, Jake Sully. “When viewers first visit Pandora, everything about the environment is hostile and dangerous,” Letteri says. “When Jake goes into the jungle, he brings that fear with him. When Neytiri puts his torch out, you see the bioluminescence, which has been there, giving a magical look at the world. That is the first clue that this planet isn’t what it seems.”

In contrast, the “District 9” aliens “are covered with dirt” after years of living in a Johannesburg slum, notes vfx supervisor Dan Kaufman. “We used things from the environment to decorate their bodies, like stickers, decals, dust.”

The “prawns” are far less human than the Na’vi, but the pic needed an emotional connection between them and audiences nonetheless. “They were covered with tentacles and had giant gaping mouths,” Kaufman says. “The only area we could use to get the emotional connection was around the eyes and forehead. We spend a lot of time working on that, so that you could recognize their expressions.”

The “prawns” were hand-animated, but based on an actor’s performance. Kaufman explains: “Because of the style of the photography — the camera was always moving — it is almost impossible to get the right coverage (for motion capture). So we had the actor, Jason Cope, act, wearing stilts so that it would be the right eyeline for the other actors,”

In post-production, the actor was removed from the shots and replaced with the CG character.

For “Star Trek,” Industrial Light & Magic created varied worlds, including the desolate and harsh ice planet Delta Vega. Here, audiences met fanciful, yet somewhat familiar, CG predators, who pose a gantlet of menaces for the young James T. Kirk.

The first, Polarilla, was designed as a cross between a polar bear and gorilla. To bring it to life, nominee and animation supervisor Paul Kavanagh did motion studies to understand how it would move as it searched for food. “You want to understand the physiology and anatomy,” vfx supervisor Roger Guyett says.

Just before it can devour Kirk, Polarilla is attacked by something even scarier: Big Red, a sort of giant squid with a crab’s legs and the most horrifying orifice the ILM team could imagine for its mouth.

Big Red has a translucent outer layer and could be brightly colored, Guyett says, because “he doesn’t have to camouflage himself — there is no one higher in the food chain.”

Guyett adds that the key to creating a rich, memorable character was adding detail: “Polarilla had snow and ice matted into its layers. When you look inside the mouth of Big Red, there are tattered remains of creatures that he would have eaten.”

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