Visual Effects: All for One, or One for All?

Nominees say it’s best to give all vfx to one company — except when it’s not

star trek into darkness
Courtesy of Paramout

The five Oscar nominees for 2013 display a consistent level of polish that vfx pros could only dream about just a few years ago.

Yet they represent radically different ideas about how to get a big vfx picture done. Some are throwbacks to the era when a single star vfx company would handle the load, while others follow the current trend and are ensemble efforts, combining shots from many companies.

“There’s a tremendous advantage in dealing with the smallest number of companies you can,” says “Star Trek Into Darkness” vfx supervisor Roger Guyett, though he concedes economics also play a part. He says that it’s crucial to communicate a clear vision to the hundreds of artists on a big show to avoid wasted effort, since they’re going to be working away anyway and “eventually you’ll either run out of time or you’ll run out of money.”

Industrial Light & Magic, Pixomondo and Atomic Fiction shared the “Into Darkness” work. ILM had excelled with the starship Enterprise on the previous “Trek,” says Guyett, so it kept that assignment, while Pixomondo did the Klingon and conference room fight sequences.

“It’s really just picking sequences out that have the least amount of crossover,” says Guyett.

Warner Bros. has long preferred a “wide pipeline” for vfx. Yet this year’s two Warner nominees, “Gravity” and “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” went the other direction.

From planning and previsualization through final delivery, “Gravity’s” vfx were done almost entirely by Framestore, says vfx supervisor Tim Webber. He notes that Alfonso Cuaron’s trademark long shots made it difficult to split up the effects work, and consistency was especially important because so many frames were all digital, or nearly so. “Otherwise it would be almost like having different d.p.s for different parts of your film,” he says.

Joe Letteri of Weta Digital, vfx supervisor on the “Hobbit” trilogy, says this series has stayed exclusively at Weta basically because that’s how the pic’s helmer Peter Jackson likes it. “If you have a team that’s together and consistent, by the time you get to the end of the movie, everyone’s got a rhythm and you can make big creative changes quickly.” But he adds that “Hobbit” also features digitally animated characters, which — like Cuaron’s long shots — are difficult to split up.

At the other extreme is “Iron Man 3.” The earlier installments of the franchise were led by ILM, but Digital Domain got the lead position for this installment off its work on “Real Steel.” But then DD got into financial trouble, and some of its work ended up at Weta, which had done Iron Man in “The Avengers.”

The latest “Iron Man” used 17 different companies, in part to meet a short schedule. Vfx supervisor Christopher Townsend embraced the “slightly more organic feel” that might produce.

“There’s something to be said for different sequences looking a little different when they’re shot and composed in a different way,” he says.

Disney wanted “The Lone Ranger” done by multiple vfx studios. ILM took the lead, with Moving Picture. Co and Lola VFX awarded shots or sequences that suited their expertise.

For face replacement, it was Lola VFX, which specializes in cosmetic f/x and did such work on “The Social Network’s” twins and the “Skinny Steve” scenes in “Captain America.” Moving Picture Co. had done herds of horses before, and was tasked with the Comanche attack, shot with an Arri Alexa at night, and scorpions. ILM took the train sequences, shot on film in daylight, and digital doubles.

“I felt like we were pretty cohesive as a group,” says Tim Alexander, vfx supervisor for the “Lone Ranger,” crediting meetings in L.A. where helmer Gore Verbinski would bring the various companies together to review footage.

All of the nominees agree about one thing, though: The viewer shouldn’t be able to tell if the vfx had one source or many, and they shouldn’t have to think about it. “In my perfect world,” says Townsend, “people look at it and think the suits are created by Tony Stark.”