Visual effects have long been used for spectacle: spaceships, disasters, superheroes — the kind of things that inspire the term “movie magic.”
In truth, though, that sometimes leaves vfx pros feeling like carneys outside an opera house, good for some casual amusement but not to be taken as seriously as the real artists inside.
Vfx artists love it when their talents are used for more ambitious pictures, or at least to lend some real emotional punch to tentpole spectacles. Pros’ desire to do serious work that’s taken seriously helped shape this year’s Academy vfx bakeoff, and it’s likely to shape the results as well.
Emotion, not technology, fuels the buzz this year. Even “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” vfx supervisor Scott Farrar, talks first about emotion when asked what he means to highlight in his bakeoff reel.
“Of course everybody thinks it’s explosions and things and that’s certainly part of it,” Farrar says. “But we have important exposition and acting moments, especially from Bumblebee, who can’t talk. He’s my favorite character. He tells a lot with his eyes and nuances of facial expression.”
In the bakeoff is Terrence Malick’s elegiac “The Tree of Life,” an art film mostly about Malick’s Texas upbringing. John Knoll, who was vfx supervisor on “Mission: Impossible 4,” observes “Tree of Life’s” 18-minute “origin of life” sequence is “beautifully executed (shots) that represent a lot of unconventional thinking about how these things are made.” And it doesn’t hurt that “Tree of Life” is an ambitious work from an established auteur.
Another auteurist pic in the competish, “Hugo,” is also a bittersweet exercise in nostalgia, and uses its vfx elements, including vistas of Paris and its vanished 19th century train station, to create a stylized feel reminiscent of magic realism. Its vistas of Paris and the other digital environments are the more obvious vfx, but Farrar (who is a d.p. by training) hails its “elegant” shot design.
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” fits the more traditional mold of vfx pics, and the performance-capture tech behind it is only a modest advance from previous winners. But it’s Andy Serkis’ performance as genetically altered ape Caesar that has vfx pros buzzing. The tech behind Lola Visual Effects’ “Skinny Steve” shots in “Captain America: The First Avenger” is no major breakthrough, either, but the impact of seeing star Chris Evans go from scrawny to brawny is new.
Sometimes the vfx contribute to emotion by being believable enough not to take the aud out of the movie. That’s arguably true on “X-Men: First Class,” “Real Steel” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.” “Potter” vfx supervisor Tim Burke, says, “Our goal from day 1 was to make (sets and vfx) so integrated that the audience would never know it was a heavy CG film.”
On “Mission: Impossible 4,” there some obvious vfx, such as the blowing up of the Kremlin, and while Tom Cruise really did cling to the outside of the towering Burj Khalifa in Dubai, he did it with the aid of safety rigs the vfx team had to painstakingly remove.
But Knoll is especially proud of a simpler scene: The hallway sequence with a projector that fools a guard. “I love that gag,” he says. “Even though it was not super complicated work, we helped tell an amusing story. It’s one of my favorite parts of the film.”
So this year, as the vfx race heats up, look for more talk about art and less about new technologies. As “Hugo” vfx supervisor Rob Legato puts it: “My stress is about how beautiful it looks and how beautifully it represents the artistic point of view of the movie. Does the picture inspire you in some way? If so, it transcends the artifice of how it was done.”