Virtual Reality Impacts Visual Effects on Many of This Year’s Oscar Contenders

Effects professionals on the latest crop of top contending films weigh in on the influence of VR on their work

Virtual Reality Impacts Visual Effects on
Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Are the worlds of visual effects and virtual reality converging?

The jury may still be out on that, but as VR continues to grow in impact, it’s inevitable that the new technology will increasing inform the look of VFX in films.

To be sure, VFX and VR artists rely on many of the same skill sets. Most effects pros regularly deal with stereo imagery and asset building, which are crucial for VR as well. Both areas share such tools as real-time rendering (as does gaming), and require similar skillsets.

But tools and techniques aside, do visual effects supervisors look over their shoulders and feel a little nervous about what’s coming down the VR pipeline — or feel pressure to match it?

“I think that’s all coming in the future,” says Rob Legato, VFX supervisor on “The Jungle Book.” “Right now you have filmmakers who grew up composing shots in a way that’s traditional for cinema and we make the visual effects part of the imagery serve the story and show you where to look. With virtual reality the viewer is guiding the experience, and we’ve yet to see how this will influence filmmaking over time.”

Two-time Academy Award-winner Legato and his team worked out a way to “use the computer like a camera” in order to create a more realistic look for the animals in the retelling of the classic children’s story. Legato used a visual style that made it easy for the audience to accept the animals as “real” and then almost forget the visual effects and just follow the story.

“Audiences are used to seeing movies in a certain way today, but that will change as the type of things this next generation watches also change,” says Legato. “If you grow up watching VR, that look will seem more natural to you.”

Academy Award-winner John Knoll also leaned into audience expectations for “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” The “Star Wars” films come with a considerable visual legacy — a distressed, run-down look created in the original film in 1977 — that still lingers in the minds of fans. Knoll used contemporary tools to make the film look like it fits within a series that started decades ago.

“I definitely see films that have camera moves and design that borrows from gaming-type experiences, but I’m personally not a huge fan of that type of stuff and stick with cinematography that’s inspired by real camera moves,” Knoll says. “We did a handful of shots that were rendered in our advanced game engine, which was an experiment to see if we could do it. It turned out really well, and the advantage is that you’re seeing a very close version of what the final shot will be, which is good interactive feedback.”

For Richard Bluff, visual-effects supervisor for “Doctor Strange,” it was about letting his artists run mad with the visuals and pulling in some VR tech elements to help his crew get the perspective they needed to tell the story. “We 3D-scanned various locations in New York in order to rebuild them later and we took along what we called the ‘Strange Cam,’ a camera rig we built and manufactured that housed six GoPro cameras,” Bluff says. “So we were able to have video of 360-degree environments while hanging off the side of a building, and we then brought that material back to ILM in San Francisco and stitched it together and viewed it through VR goggles.”

The artists were then able to experience all the odd and unusual vantage points required for the shots in the film’s more extreme sequences.

Space saga “Passengers” kept to a look inspired by the Stanley Kubrick classic “2001: A Space Odyssey,” with its cold, isolated interiors and steady movement. Visual-effects supervisor Erik Nordby thought that kind of motion would help the story. “We had to work hard to resist doing things like showing the ship moving fast against a point of reference,” says Nordby. “But we wanted that feeling that Kubrick created with the slower-looking movements, even though the ship is moving incredibly fast through space.”

Nordby was more influenced by traditional cinematography, but can also see a future where gaming and VR have a bigger impact on what people want to see at the theater. “We’re reaching for something that Kubrick created, but those influences might not be the same for the generations that come next,” he says.