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Second chances

For f/x whizzes, a sequel means never having to say you're sorry

There’s no denying film critics often wince at sequel storytelling, but the air of familiarity may have a leg up when Oscar comes calling for visual effects.

This year, three of the seven films up for the effects trophy — “X2,” “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” — are followups.

In fact, in recent years, many of the top contenders have been sequels — a trend that dates back to the late 1970s. Just ask Richard Edlund, a n Academy governor who took home gold statues for visual effects for each of the first three “Star Wars” features.

Edlund, chairman of the Academy’s visual effects branch, says outstanding content always drives the nominations process — and that outstanding work in earlier parts of a film series have no bearing on the installment currently under consideration.

“If it’s a one-trick pony and playing the same note,” he explains, “the branch would notice and vote accordingly.”

Whether operating in the confines of a film series makes it easier or harder to craft effects good enough to win an Academy Award is a matter of opinion.

Jim Rygiel, visual effects supervisor on the two-time-f/x-winning “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, believes it’s harder to do a sequel because there’s a sense of confinement.

“You have the same thing to deal with and have to figure out how to make it better as opposed to doing something completely different and mind-blowing,” he says.

Indeed, within a venerable film series, there’s pressure to innovate f/x from film to film — a fact probably not lost on the producers of “The Matrix Revolutions.” Industry insiders say the film was put out of f/x category contention this year because none of its many effects shots featured anything they hadn’t seen before.

“T3,” which had to follow the clever story and massive success of the previous two “Terminator” features, faced a similar challenge, says Tom Atkin, founding executive director of the Visual Effects Society. On the effects side, the morphing sequences alone in the Oscar-winning “T2” sparked a significant trend. Still, Atkin considers some of the effects shots in “T3” to be extremely complex, hard to produce and wonderfully executed, and the film has made it to the bakeoff’s final seven as a result.

“When a film like ‘T2’ wins best visual effects, it can either help you or hurt you,” notes Jim Morris, president of Lucas Digital, the parent company of ILM, the lead f/x shop on “T3.” “For ‘T3,’ we developed some new, interesting technologies for fluid simulation, especially when the Terminatrix starts to melt.”

Michael L. Fink, visual-effects supervisor for “X-Men” and “X2,” notes that the comfort of working with most of the same department heads on the two or more projects fuels a sense of trust and collaboration between cast and crew, deepening the ensemble camaraderie and resulting in more efficient moviemaking.

Meanwhile, the ability to revisit familiar ground helps reduce what Fink and other effects whizzes call “the cringe factor.” Translation: keeping to a minimum the number of times you cringe at the final product, thinking certain shots could have been done better.

“X2” afforded Fink the luxury of reworking his earlier creations: “In the first one, I wasn’t terribly happy with Cyclops’ beam and really wanted it to have the volume and power that it didn’t seem to contain.”

Building on particle techniques in “X2” gave the beam greater physicality, he says, turning it into a more menacing force. Different lighting techniques also were employed to improve the skin tone and overall look of Rebecca Romijn-Stamos’ perf as Mystique for a more three-dimensional transformation.

Rygiel encountered his share of creative and production challenges while shooting the Tolkien trilogy. His chief concern for the original film was luring top talent to New Zealand for a then largely unknown project.

Once assembled, his crew faced daunting technical work starting with Gollum, an extraordinary CGI creation whose look became more believable with each feature.

In the second release, traditional animators used “rotomation” to match the frame-by-frame movements of actor Andy Serkis with the CGI Gollum upon which his performance was based. Real-time, motion-capture technology ended up saving weeks of work for each shot.

By the third installment, 1,450 required effects shots far exceeded the first and second features combined and meant adding 100 more hired hands to complete the work. Key tasks included replicating thousands of horses around just 20 live-action equines for battle sequences.

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