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Oscars: VFX Contenders Put on a Show at Academy’s Annual Bake-Off

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ annual visual effects bake-off sees each of the 10 final contenders for the Oscar present a five-minute introduction and a 10-minute reel. For the first time ever this year, the artists behind each entry answered questions in a panel-style Q&A.

At the close of the evening, though, visual effects legend Bill Taylor closed things out with a speech urging fellow members to vote for the “best visual effects in a movie, not the best movie with visual effects.” With internal criticism of last year’s “Ex-Machina” victory still on many members’ minds, his comments struck some as a “warning,” and others as unnecessary and inaccurate.

A24’s surprise winner took down four big studio and major effects house contenders at the 88th annual Oscars: “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Martian,” “The Revenant” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” This year, the 10 bake-off contenders represent another vibrant cross-section of work, from budget-heavy, boundary-pushing effects to impressive maneuvering within considerable limitations.

With only one “real” character (Mowgli), Disney’s “Jungle Book” team created a lush jungle and digital composite animals to round out the film, the only one presented in 3D. Visual effects supervisor Robert Legato highlighted the need for total verisimilitude and joked that render times took ages, with the number of hours so large “they don’t even mean anything anymore. An example might be, um, I don’t know, the popular vote and the Electoral College?” He asked the audience to notice the nuance and detail of the water sims and fur, and the Q&A session doubled-down on the “authenticity” message.

“Captain America: Civil War” supervisor Dan DeLeeuw admitted that his team had fun “bashing our actors together like action figures.” He gave an incredibly detailed rundown of how the main features of the reel came to be, like a plate team in Lagos stand-in Puerto Rico, drones hovering over the German parliament (“There’s an inquest somehow on how we were actually able to do that”), and casting a young Robert Downey Jr. lookalike to supplement digital de-aging. The response was average, though the previous film in the franchise, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” was previously nominated by the branch.

“This wasn’t a VFX movie despite the epic scale of the visuals,” said “Passengers” presenter Erik Nordby. Presented with images from “every large-scale space movie ever made and a whole range of astrophotography,” he said his team locked onto director Morten Tyldum’s “comfort level between the realistic and the fantastic.” With scientifically-accurate scenes featuring Jennifer Lawrence suspended in a pool in zero-gravity, or Chris Pratt using the momentum of a thrown object to push him away from an engine flame, the “Passengers” reel was a refreshing example of artistic VFX supplementing drama.

For “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” charmingly nervous presenter Christian Manz described the process of creating a rich world of magical creatures. Like “The Jungle Book,” Manz emphasized the need for the animals to be grounded in reality, necessary for the audience to believe they could exist in our world. These animals’ forms and personalities, created in the very early stages of production, informed plot details and action. Yet audience members didn’t seem overly impressed as they often are with Harry Potter films, and the goblin featured in the reel looked even less convincingly real than the prosthetic-heavy Gringotts workers from “A Sorcerer’s Stone.”

Playing in another dimension (actually, several other dimensions) was “Doctor Strange,” the psychedelic and hypnotic Marvel project. It exists in a place so far from Marvel’s other films, the reel only reminded the audience it was a superhero film during the final fight sequences. The film’s two-minute “magical mystery tour” of the universe showcases the dozens of ideas Stephane Ceretti and others used in the making of this cinematic experiment. Branch members seemed to enjoy the reel, though certain sequences remain very reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.”

Presenter Louis Morin explained that “Arrival’s” aliens are a mixture of an octopus, a giraffe, and a whale living in 1,500-foot meteorite ships. But from the start, the team seemed eager to highlight the non-alien effects, taking the form of hundreds of digital characters, cars, and environments. While the restraint works for the film, it made the reel less exciting and invigorating than its peers. One audience member asked how certain clouds were created. The answer? Fortunate weather.

Though supervised by industry legend Joe Letteri, “The BFG’s” reel was largely ignored in post-ceremony discussion. “It really did feel like we were shooting this as a live-action film,” Letteri said. The environments in Giantland contributed to that realness, as did actor Mark Rylance’s motion capture. It’s unclear whether or not Letteri gave a great presentation or the reel just didn’t inspire curiosity, as there were no audience questions during the Q&A.

“It was far more important to match the memory of how something was than the reality of how it actually was,” said “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” presenter John Knoll when it was his turn. His team had the unique challenge of recreating a fantasy world that was already fully fleshed out in the three original films, plus two of those films’ beloved characters. They bought several of the old toy model kits used to create the original miniatures and scanned them so model-makers could pull from the original details. They also used facial motion capture on Tarkin and Leia’s physical performance actors in replicating their original appearances. Knoll’s presentation was dynamic and easy to follow, but there didn’t seem to be much surprise throughout the audience. Is it old hat or are they beginning to take Industrial Light & Magic’s work for granted?

The most surprising reel of the night? “Deepwater Horizon,” which left jaws on the floor. Half the reel was completely CG. Industrial Light & Magic’s $20 million budget and five-month timeline only furthered the audible shock in the room. The convincing fire effects do an amazing job putting the viewer right there, observing the greatest oil spill in U.S. waters as it unfolds. Following the ceremony, “Deepwater Horizon” dominated every conversation. As presenter Craig Hammack said, “The story takes place in the ocean and it was shot in a parking lot.”

But the most passionate presentation of the night came from Steve Emerson for “Kubo and the Two Strings.” The first animated film to receive consideration for a visual effects Oscar since “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Kubo” was automatically at a disadvantage. Yet Emerson’s speech, which included an invocation of director Ray Harryhausen, was so moving and so urging of the audience to consider the work, detail, and time needed to create the final film, it really seemed to give everyone pause about their expectations. Audience members were shocked to learn one character’s flowing hair was completely stop-motion animated. The Kubo and Monkey puppets making the rounds afterwards were just as impressive as the sped-up creation of the 16-foot tall skeleton-monster featured in the reel.

How will the category shake out? Nominations will be revealed alongside all other Oscar nominations on Jan. 24.

Kristopher Tapley also contributed to this report.

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