Vfx thrive on technical difficulties

Eye on the Oscars: Vfx, Sound & Editing

TV viewers are well familiar with “technical difficulties” as a euphemism for technical problems.

But for visual effects supervisors on an f/x-heavy picture, technical difficulties are a routine part of any tentpole — and for Oscar contenders, a greater degree-of-difficulty can burnish their award credentials.

Several of this year’s vfx contenders faced extra difficulty. “Prometheus” rendered all digital effects in 3D instead of opting for post-conversion and had to match Ridley Scott’s 3D photography. “The Dark Knight Rises” eschewed 3D, but much of it was shot in Imax, so the vfx had to be built with enough detail to stand up in super-high-resolution (5600×4096 lines, to be exact).

And “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” found a new way to add complexity, using both 3D and 48 frames-per-second. That quadrupled the number of frames compared with a standard 2D, 2K, 24 fps picture. (Or, as it used to be called, a “movie.”)

Joe Letteri, vfx supervisor for “The Hobbit,” says the monitors and playback systems at Weta Digital had to be outfitted for 48 fps. Most desktop systems, though, could playback either 3D or 48 fps — but both at once was too much for them.

Higher frame rates can reveal more detail, but that proved no problem for vfx, he says: “We always build our models at very high resolution anyway.” But the artists found the extra frames helped with the animation. “You can really nudge the detail where you need it.”

Richard Stammers of “Prometheus” says, “What I feel most proud of is the fact that we worked out a technique that allowed Ridley to shoot as much practically as possible.” That meant blending digital effects with shots of actors in prosthetic suits as the alien “Engineers” and a silicone “trilobite” alien in the C-section scene.

“Some of the creature designs featured very translucent skin, Ridley really wanted quite anemic looking creatures,” says Stammers, so the software for rendering skin and flesh had to be tweaked.

The vfx team on “The Dark Knight Rises” had to cope not only with Imax, but also with daylight. “Back on ‘Batman Begins’ most of our visual effects were played in the depths of the Gotham night and you could hide a lot of stuff in the shadows,” says vfx supervisor Paul Franklin.

There is no monitor big or sharp enough to show true Imax resolution, so often the first to see the final rendered effects was Nolan, reviewing footage on an Imax film print. “Because the Imax image is just so sharp and clear and pretty much everything was shot out in the open, the quality, particularly of lighting architectural environments, had to be absolutely spot on.”

Eye on the Oscars: VFX, Sound & Editing
Editors take auds into heroes’ minds | Vfx thrive on technical difficulties | CG animals make tasty filling for ‘Pi’ | Sound editors trek in search of authenticity | Sound mixers sell the realism of unreal worlds | Radio mics were secret of ‘Les Mis’ recording | Imax proved big challenge for ‘Dark Knight’ | ‘Les Mis’ editors took cues from music | Helmer wanted woman’s touch for ‘Sessions’ | Research, experience guided ‘Flight’ editor | Creatures shine in vfx bakeoff