The Contenders 2011: Visual Effects

The surest route to a visual-effects Oscar is to show the Academy something it’s never seen before, whether it’s Brad Pitt transformed into a wizened child in “Benjamin Button” or a completely realized alien world with indigenous inhabitants in “Avatar.”

This year’s slate of vfx contenders is more crowded than ever, as the studios lean ever more heavily on f/x-driven franchises and sequels, and if nothing boasts quite the “wow factor” of “Avatar” there are still pics that can argue they’ve raised the bar for the craft.

Fox’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” took “Avatar’s” performance capture tech and applied it to apes — who turned out to be the pic’s most compelling characters. It’s a landmark film: the first pic where the mo-cap of the digital, non-human characters carries the movie. (“Avatar’s” Na’vi resemble the elongated human figures of fashion drawings.)

“Captain America: The First Avenger” took hunky Chris Evans and convincingly shrank him to a scrawny asthmatic. When the pic’s “super-soldier” serum restores Evans to his bulked-up self, it’s hard to know which was “real” and which was vfx. “Green Lantern” also featured body replacement for lead Ryan Reynolds every time he was in the superhero suit.

For sheer scale nothing beats the massive “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” which was in 3D besides (as were “Captain America” and “Green Lantern”).

This year sees the vfx category come of age, with five nominees, so the vfx branch has expanded its “bakeoff” to 10 pictures. They hope to open the door to more “supporting f/x” pictures like last year’s “Hereafter.” “The Tree of Life” could snare a nom that way, as might “Anonymous,” with its recreation of Elizabethan London.

This might be the year an animated pic at least makes the bakeoff. The vfx in “Tintin” and “Rango” come from influential vfx studios Weta and ILM respectively and rival the effects in the year’s live-action pics.

“Captain America: The First Avenger” (Paramount)
Vfx supervisor:
Christopher Townsend
Highlights: As “Skinny Steve,” muscular Chris Evans becomes 4F Steve Rogers, with Evans’ performance intact; combination of prosthetic and CG for the Red Skull; digital environments (Hydra factory); podfighter aerial fight.

“Green Lantern” (Warner Bros.)
Vfx supervisor:
Jim Berney
Highlights: Body replacement for Ryan Reynolds and Mark Strong when in their superhero suits; digital characters Tomar-Re and Kilowog; the villain Parallax.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2″ (Warner Bros.)
Vfx supervisor:
Tim Burke
Highlights: The Room of Requirement; the escape from the bank via dragon; the Battle for Hogwarts, with CG creatures and CG Hogwarts; the attack on the wooden bridge; the fire creatures.

“Hugo” (Paramount)
Vfx supervisor:
Rob Legato
Highlights: “The art of it,” says Legato: completing the visions of designers and cinematographer with CG; seamless shots that run over multiple sets in ways that would have been physically impossible with 3D camera rigs; dream sequences; train station accident.

“Real Steel” (Disney)
Vfx supervisor:
Erik Nash
Highlights: The combination of practical and CG robots, intercut seamlessly; virtual environments for “metal valley” and the big arenas; thousands of fans in the seats, done as photographic elements, not CG.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (Fox)
Vfx supervisor:
Joe Letteri
Highlights: First, those apes, especially Andy Serkis as rebel leader Caesar; Serkis will get an Oscar push.

“Transformers: Dark of the Moon” (Paramount)
Vfx supervisor:
Scott Farrar
Highlights:The Transformers, but especially Colossus crushing the building; the three-way fight between Optimus Prime, Megatron and Sentinal Prime; Starscream. Farrar notes the robots are more expressive.

“X-Men: First Class” (Fox)
Vfx supervisor:
John Dykstra
Highlights:The third-act battle, with CG beach, fleet and ocean; turning January Jones into crystalline Emma Frost; Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and his energy-absorbing effect.

In the mix

  • “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn” (Paramount)
  • “Anonymous” (Sony)
  • “Immortals” (Relativity)
  • “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” (Paramount)
  • “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” (Disney)
  • “Rango” (Paramount)
  • “Super 8″ (Paramount)
  • “Thor” (Paramount)
  • “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1 (Summit)
  • “War Horse” (Disney)

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more