More room, less boom in this year's tech contenders

Ironically, the year the Academy opened up its visual effects race to five nominees has been a light one for top-notch visual effects.

For years, the category had been limited to three nominees because vfx-heavy films used to be rare. Now they’re commonplace, and the Acad has caught up with the times, recognizing the achievements of five films — as is common in other categories.

Among the current considerations, dual 2D/3D releases and 3D conversion for major vfx tentpoles raise the question of which version would be submitted for Academy consideration. With “Avatar,” it was a no-brainer; the movie had been entirely conceived for 3D, so the 3D version was submitted for Oscar. Producers for “The Last Airbender” will submit the 2D version, ignoring the much-maligned 3D conversion. Will “Clash of the Titans” do the same? Are 3D conversions themselves to be considered “visual effects”? 3D makes vfx much more difficult — unless the film is post-converted.

On the creative side, the most obviously groundbreaking effects of the year are yet to debut. In “Tron: Legacy,” Jeff Bridges does double duty, reprising his 1980 role of game designer Kevin Flynn, while also playing the villain, Clu, who looks like Bridges did in the original movie (that is, 30 years younger). To accomplish the feat, Digital Domain extended some of the techniques that won the Oscar on “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

Earlier in the year, “Inception” had startling special effects (practical effects done in-camera) and impressive digital work as well. “Alice in Wonderland” was almost all CG except for the actors, and in many cases even the actors were digitally altered.

Still to come besides the new “Tron” are the latest installments in two vfx franchises: “Narnia” and “Harry Potter.” In a relatively shallow field, both could be major contenders.

“Alice in Wonderland”
Disney
Supervisor: Ken Ralston
Vfx Studios: Sony Imageworks, CafeFX, Matte World, In-Three
Highlights: Tight integration of CG and live-action elements, especially the Red Queen’s head (blown up huge) and the faces of the Tweedles; many CG characters and fully digital environments.

 

 

“The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Trader”
Fox
Supervisor: Angus Bickerton
Vfx Studios: Moving Picture Company, Framestore, Senate, Cinesite
Highlights: Character animation, rendering and fur rigging on animals including Aslan and Reepicheep; the Dawn Treader and the attack of the Serpent on it; the fully CG wartime Cambridge, England.

 

 

“Harry Potter and the Deathley Hallows”
Warner Bros.BR>Supervisor: Tim Burke
Vfx Studios: Moving Picture Co., Framestore
Highlights: The seven Harry Potters, the Death­eater chase, the bike crash, the Bathilda Nagini transformation and fight, the Three Brothers/Deathly Hallows animation sequence and house elves Kreacher and Dobby.

 

 

“Inception”
Warner Bros.
Supervisor: Paul Franklin
Vfx Studios: Double Negative
Highlights: Folding Paris; the zero-gravity fight sequence; the Limbo Beach crumbling cityscape in the lowest-level dream; the slow-motion explosions (shot in camera!) on Paris streets.

 

 

“Iron Man 2″
Paramount
Supervisor: Janek Sirrs
Vfx Studios: ILM
Highlights: Recreating real environments like Monaco, where shooting is impossible, and creating digital environments for Stark Expo; digital armor throughout; digital characters in the climactic fight; bringing the actors’ performances to the digital Iron Man and War Machine; and the weighty War Machine himself.

 

 

“The Last Airbender”
Paramount
Supervisor: Pablo Helman
Vfx Studios: ILM
Highlights: Realistic yet controlled fire, water, earth and air effects (long, slow shots show full development of each effect); detailed digital environments, especially the ice city.

 

 

“Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time”
Disney
Supervisor: Tom Wood
Vfx Studios: Cinesite, Moving Picture Co., Double Negative, Framestore
Highlights: The “Sandglass chamber” sequence; “Time Rewind” effect, where time flows backwards; extensive digital environments, set extensions and crowds.

 

 

“Tron: Legacy”
Disney
Supervisor: Eric Barba
Vfx Studios: Digital Domain, Prime Focus, Mr. X, Prana
Highlights: Jeff Bridges as both the 60-ish Flynn and the 30-something Clu; digital cityscapes and architecture — and everything in 3D.

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