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Live-Action and Animated Films Vie for Glory at Visual Effects Society Awards

Today's technology lets artists create spectacular visuals for any kind of story they want to tell

Visual effects may sometimes seem like a “dark art” to moviegoers, but if they could attend the Visual Effects Society’s annual awards show their minds would be enlightened — and blown.

Honoring advances in character creation, model making, simulations of nature, and virtual camerawork, the VES nominations reflect today’s trends in both live action and animation — and as usual, several noms went to visual effects blockbusters, including “Rogue One” (seven), “Doctor Strange” and “The Jungle Book” (six apiece).

This trio is competing directly for their cinematography techniques and photo-real simulations. The invented forests of “Jungle Book” were front-and-center, while “Doctor Strange” was singled out for its surreal cityscapes. Especially notable was Hong Kong’s “reverse destruction,” which Marvel vfx supervisor Stephane Ceretti admits doesn’t usually happen in superhero movies.

“We know we can do destruction; we wanted to be original and go the other way,” he says. Created on ILM’s London stage, the Hong Kong sequence alone took 23 nights to shoot.

Among the nominations for “Rogue One,” a standout is a face-replacement for the classic “Star Wars” character Grand Moff Tarkin. The late Peter Cushing performed the role originally, and ILM developed a way to resurrect his character for scenes in “Rogue One.”

“We cast an actor to play the role on set,” says vfx supervisor John Knoll. Then animators replaced the face of the new actor with a digital version of Cushing — careful to track the character’s eyes and avoid the dreaded pitfall of the so-called uncanny valley. As Knoll puts it, “Rather than using makeup to transform the actor’s appearance, we did it with computer graphics.”

When it came to character performances, two nominations for “The Jungle Book” mean the film is competing against itself. The ape King Louie, voiced by Christopher Walken, with motion-capture input from actor-director Jon Favreau, is up against Shere Khan, the terrifying tiger voiced by Idris Elba.

Legato’s teams at effects houses MPC and Weta Digital followed the dictum that these animals (even though they delivered dialogue) shouldn’t run or leap differently than real animals. “Just because you can do something,” stresses Legato, “doesn’t mean you should.”

A similar dilemma faces “Kubo and the Two Strings,” whose six VES noms include performance nods for two characters. That the hair of Kubo and the fur of Monkey were animated frame-by-frame impressed all the experts.

The crew at “Kubo” creator Laika Studios is also competing against itself in the category of created environments, notably for the moving water effects they developed by manipulating — among other things — plastic trash bags. “We had one of the best water guys in the business,” says vfx supervisor Steve Emerson. That would be David Horsley, who previously contributed to the Oscar-winning vfx in “Life of Pi” and is nominated for two VES awards this year.

Crossover talent like that illustrates why VES honors the imagery of both live action and animated films. Disney Animation’s “Moana” and Pixar’s “Finding Dory”: were nommed for their expressive CG characters as well as their digitally animated water, key to the storylines in both movies.

The Visual Effects Society also singled out creative efforts in several other franchise blockbusters from throughout the year, including “Deadpool,” “Zootopia,” “Star Trek Beyond,” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”

Viewed broadly, the scope of this year’s VES nominees reveal that the animation and visual effects businesses are fostering an international talent base, enabled by increasingly powerful software and the ability to collaborate via high-speed, secure networks. Improving technology, as VES nominee Legato concludes, “provides the ultimate backlot. You can now make any story you want.”

(Shown above: “Doctor Strange”)

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