Effects films compete in crowded field

Contenders take different approaches to craft

Once a category that might struggle to field three solid competitors, the visual effects battle has turned into a mass brawl.

So many films now boast a major vfx component that the Academy’s visual effects branch will tap 15 contenders in December before naming the seven films for the January visual effects “bake-off.” That way its members will know which films they need to see.

Around 20 films can make a case that they should be included, but the top of the field is taking shape. “Transformers,” from DreamWorks/Paramount and ILM, boasts a new take on giant robots (lithe, not lumbering) and innovative digital lighting. Still to come is fantasy epic “The Golden Compass,” with its slew of all-digital animals from Rhythm & Hues and its alternate-universe Victorian England, complete with warrior polar bears and sultry flying witches.

Returning heavyweights include the “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Spider-Man” and “Harry Potter” franchises. All boast impressive new work, especially Spidey’s Sandman sequences and “Pirates'” edge-of-the-world water simulation. The second “Spider-Man” and “Pirates” pics won the Oscar for ILM and Sony Imageworks; it would be a coup for either to repeat.

Also returning is the “Die Hard” franchise, with its old-school look: explosions and lots of ’em. The practical effects on the film will appeal to the special effects contingent.

At the other end of the spectrum is “300,” which re-creates the look of Frank Miller’s graphic novel by putting live actors in stylized digital sets, landscapes and battles. The Academy previously ignored another digital Miller-based pic, “Sin City,” but Warner’s boffo hit could command more attention.

“Evan Almighty” boasts state-of-the-art water work from ILM and animals from R&H, but it is a lonely orphan this season after its poor box office.

Powerhouse Weta Digital is putting its energy behind upcoming Sony release “The Water Horse,” with its friendly Loch Ness-type creature.

Sleepers here may be Disney’s “Enchanted,” with digital critters from Tippett Studios, and Universal’s summer hit “The Bourne Ultimatum” with its ample helpings of both digital and practical effects.


Studio: Warner Bros.
Shops: Animal Logic, Hydraulx
Vfx supervisors: Chris Watts, Grant Freckelton, Derek Wentworth, Daniel Leduc
Buzz shots: The battles, the storm at sea and resulting Persian shipwrecks, the Persians falling off a cliff, and the overall look of this all-bluescreen production.

Studio: Paramount
Shop: Sony Pictures Imageworks
Vfx supervisors: Jerome Chen, Sean Phillips, Kenn McDonald, Michael Lantieri
Buzz shots: The Grendel fight, the dragon chase, and Beowulf’s meeting with “Mother,” who resembles Angelina Jolie.

The Bourne Ultimatum
Studio: Universal
Shop: Double Negative
Vfx supervisors: Peter Chiang, Charlie Noble, David Vickery, Mattias Lindahl
Buzz shots: Digital set extensions, CG cars for car chases, CG glass and shutters, CG tripanel sequence, composites and removal of rigs for all lead artists.

Studio: Disney
Shop: Tippett Studios
Vfx supervisor: Thomas Schelesny, Matt Jacobs, Tom Gibbons
Buzz shots: Pip the chipmunk; Giselle’s vermin helpers, and the dragon version of Queen Narissa.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
Studio: Fox
Shops: Weta Digital, Hydraulx
Vfx supervisors: Scott Squires, Eric Saindon
Buzz shots: Creation of Silver Surfer, the Fantasticar, the Surfer/Torch chase, the Johnny/Doom battle, and the Surfer/Galactus battle.

Ghost Rider
Studio: Sony
Shops: Sony Pictures Imageworks, CafeFX, Digital Dream, Gray Matter FX
Vfx supervisors: Kevin Mack, Ken Hahn, Patrick Witting, Peter Stubbs
Buzz shots: Nicolas Cage’s transformation to the skull-headed Rider, the Rider’s fiery halo, the demons, and the desert ride sequence.

The Golden Compass
Studio: New Line
Shops: Rhythm & Hues, Framestore CFC, Cinesite, Digital Domain
Vfx supervisor: Michael Fink
Buzz shots: Interactions of people and their animal “daemons,” Iorek the ice bear, and the Bolvanger battle.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Studio: Warner Bros.
Shops: The Moving Picture Co., Double Negative, Industrial Light & Magic, Framestore CFC
Vfx supervisors: Tim Burke, John Richardson, Paul Franklin, Greg Butler
Buzz shots: More and improved Dementors, the Ministry of Magic, and Harry’s battle with Voldemort.

I Am Legend
Studio: Warner Bros.
Shop: Sony Pictures Imageworks
Vfx supervisors: Janek Sirrs, James P. Berney, David Schaub, David A. Smith
Buzz shots: Abandoned Manhattan slowly going back to nature, the partly mo-cap/mostly animated ravenous nocturnal “infected.”

Live Free or Die Hard
Studio: Fox
Shops: Orphanage, Digital Dimension
Vfx supervisor: Pat McClung
Buzz shots: Tunnel sequence, elevator shaft fight, and F-35 sequence.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
Studio: Disney
Shops: ILM, Digital Domain, Asylum
Vfx supervisors: John Knoll, Charlie Gibson, Hal Hickel, John Frazier
Buzz shots: Davy Jones and his digital crew, the climactic maelstrom sequence, oceans of digital water and the edge of the world where it all spills.

Spider-Man 3
Studio: Sony
Shops: Sony Pictures Imageworks, CafeFX, Giant Killer Robots, Evil Eye Pictures
Vfx supervisors: Scott Stokdyk, Peter Nofz, Spencer Cook, John R. Frazier
Buzz shots: Birth of Sandman sequence, Venom, the three villains’ final battle, Spider-Man and the new Green Goblin, and extensive digital doubles.

Studio: Fox Searchlight
Shop: Moving Picture Co.
Vfx supervisors: Tom Wood, Richard Conway
Buzz shots: Interiors and exteriors of spaceships Icarus 1 & 2, and the sun in all its searing glory

Studio: Paramount
Shops: ILM
Vfx supervisors: Scott Farrar
Buzz shots: The city fight between the Autobots and the Decepticons, the Autobots at the Witwicky house, and “Bonecrusher” going through the bus.

The Water Horse
Studio: Sony
Shop: Weta Digital
Vfx supervisors: Joe Letteri, Stephen Rosenbaum, R. Christopher White, Erik Winquist
Buzz shots: Crusoe, the Water Horse creature at each stage of his growth, and his interaction with digital water.