Subtle Visual Effects Push Films to Awards Contention

Artists use understatement to transport audiences to worlds of the past, present and future

Ex Machina Movie
Courtesy of A24

Great visual effects have always been more about the thoughtful technique than the big bang. They are specific details that convince the eye and suspend disbelief. And this year’s Oscar-nominated visual effects teams placed their most convincing elements deep under the skin of their creations or far out in the space around their characters.

The Revenant” was immediately on the vfx radar after audiences saw the scene in which Leonardo DiCaprio is mauled for an extended period of time, at close range, by a CG bear that returns multiple times to continue the carnage.

Other CG animals in the film include wolves and bison. These creatures all had to come across as the real deal and fit into the naturalistic plates shot for the film in natural light, under notoriously harsh conditions.

“The thing that sells it is the hair, the muscles underneath the skin, the weight of how they move,” says Rich McBride, vfx supervisor nommed for “The Revenant.” “(Director) Alejandro (Iñárritu) was adamant that they be imperfect and believable so we had to have them move randomly and realistically, like real animals would.”

Ex Machina” also made its case by focusing on what was underneath the seemingly hard shell of the beautiful android Ava, played by Alicia Vikander. Though she appears to be finely and delicately constructed on the surface, there are also cables and wires underneath that shift and sway depending on how she chooses to move — and the visual effects team must show that Ava’s entire body moves accordingly. These tiny visual cues – often not consciously noticed by an audience – sustain the idea that she’s actually an android.

“It’s very easy to focus on the big things in visual effects — explosions and things like that — but if you want an audience to really believe what you’re doing, then you have to focus on the psychological — what people need to see to be convinced,” says Andrew Whitehurst, vfx supervisor nommed for his work on “Ex Machina.”

“Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “The Martian” all convinced their audiences with detailed exteriors designed to transport viewers to far-off worlds or a degenerated future.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” vfx supervisor Andrew Jackson — nommed for his work on the film — and his team crafted multiple backdrops for the live action of helmer George Miller’s characters. They ranged from violent electrical storms that were used by Furiosa (Charlize Theron) as an escape route during a chase sequence to the cliff caves where Immortan Joe lords over his war boys.

“Many of the chase sequences took place just in front of greenscreens while the actors and the cars weren’t even moving,” says Jackson. “It’s something we worked very hard to pull off.”

Richard Stammers, vfx supervisor nommed for “The Martian,” also developed storms and a set of reddish tones and filters to give the audience a sense being on the surface of Mars. Ridley Scott stressed restraint in creating the Red Planet and used NASA research to ground his vision in reality, according to Stammers.

He and his team built digital Martian landscapes based on location scouting that was done in places like Jordan and designed them to complement the footage of Matt Damon done with greenscreens in Budapest.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” went deep into created environments as the audience meets Rey. Vfx supervisor Roger Guyett – nommed for his work on the film – recalls the moments when the new heroine of the “Star Wars” franchise scavenges for parts and slides down a sand hill as one of his favorites.

“You get the sense that she’s on this foreign planet and that we at least shot on location somewhere, but so much of that background is something we constructed from this script,” says Guyett. “And it was never really there at all.”