S ome inside the Acad’s vfx branch once worried that if there were five visual effects nominees, the general membership would vote the Oscar to “the wrong movie.”
That argument will be tested this year, as there are five vfx nominees for the first time. So for those who are a lot more comfortable sizing up a star turn or a screenplay, Variety asked supervisors from each of the five nominated pics how they judge the quality of vfx.
Paradoxically, the less real an object is, the easier it is to make it “realistic.” No one’s ever seen a flying dragon; but everyone’s seen trees and hills and buildings, and can tell when they look wrong. Yet when they look right, it’s hard to tell they’re vfx at all.
“It’s almost the curse of good visual effects,” says Tim Burke, vfx supervisor on “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.” “If we’ve done our job very, very well, the audience won’t be able to appreciate what we’ve done. That makes it difficult to judge.”
In the climactic battle of “Deathly Hallows,” for example, it’s tempting to focus on the magic elements and miss the fact the sets and locations are mostly virtual.
“It’s so photographically real, people are just going to think we just went to a location and there was a real castle,” Burke says. “Of course none of those things existed. The whole thing was shot on the backlot of Leavesden studios.”
“Real Steel” vfx supervisor Erik Nash says: “One thing I look for when I watch a big visual-effects movie is how consistent is the work from beginning to end. You can build up a lot of great work, scene after scene, shot after shot, but when a visual effect falls flat, or doesn’t ring true to the tone and the overall look, it takes me out of the movie.” A vfx picture, then, is arguably only as good as its weakest shot.
In “Real Steel,” for example, Nash’s team worked hard to blend shots with animatronic and CG robots. “We should shoot reference and then render and composite our CG version right next to it, in all different environments,” Nash says. “Until we couldn’t tell the difference, we knew our job wasn’t done.”
Most voters would probably agree great work on a hard task ought to count for more than equally great work on an easier task. But how to judge difficulty?
“Transformers: Dark of the Moon” animation supervisor Scott Benza observes one thing to look for is destruction. “Although Michael (Bay) was given unprecedented access in Chicago,” says Benza, “he didn’t have permission to do any physical damage to the city. And the quantity of the damage being done is directly related to how hard that is to achieve.” So the wreckage is f/x, be they practical or digital.
In the sequence where a glass skyscraper is broken in half, note that the glass is all reflective, so all those reflections have to be rendered too. That makes the job very, very difficult.
“Transformers” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” both rely on CG-animated characters as major actors that must carry entire scenes. “The goal as with any actor is to have them be something the audience wants to engage with and wants to watch,” says “Apes” vfx supervisor Joe Letteri.
Letteri and Benza both tend to point to quiet, subtle moments that deliver a lot of emotional impact through performance.
Caesar, the CG simian played by Andy Serkis with the help of performance-capture technology, goes through a “growing-up story,” notes Letteri. “He’s forced to be away from his family and find his own path. Everyone in the audience can relate to some aspect of that.”
Non-pros think of vfx as a technical craft, but nowadays it’s rare for one company or another to have much of a technical edge. “If you can make water or fire, that’s no longer the achievement,” says “Hugo’s” vfx supervisor Rob Legato. “It’s how well does it work, how does it help you advance the story.”
He adds, “You’re judging the artistic merits of the films in every other category. And now I would love for people to judge visual effects the same way.”
He is proud of the fact that the compositions and shot designs in “Hugo” aren’t compromised for visual effects. “If we had all the money and the world and we were David Lean, we would probably shoot it the same way.”
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