×

High-Tech Visual Effects Make Imaginary Worlds Feel Real

Visual effects have traveled a long road, from defining the look of a generation of sci-fi genius projects such as “2001: A Space Odyssey,” to their subsequent flagrant overuse, to today’s careful integration and design. Take a step back from some of this year’s visual effects front-runners and you’ll discover a leap toward a more seamless art.

Whether it’s the deeply personal take on the moon landing in “First Man”; such superhero tentpoles as “Black Panther,” “Aquaman,” “Venom,” “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Bumblebee”; or action/fantasy films including “Annihilation,” “Ready Player One” and “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” these vfx leaders found their way to the head of the pack by making their worlds feel real.

First Man” gets a lot of its grit and imagery from NASA reference photos, but also from the way vfx supervisor Paul Lambert, an Oscar winner for “Blade Runner 2049,” staged many of the shots. In the past, actors often had to perform against next to nothing and were told to simply imagine the vfx as someone on set described them.

“Ryan [Gosling, playing Neil Armstrong] is reacting to real things, we didn’t just have him stare at a greenscreen and tell him what he was looking at,” says Lambert, who constructed a 35-foot-tall LED screen that could be used to project the digital footage done by the vfx crew. “You can even see the reflection in his eyes and that would have been something that would have been very problematic to try to do later.”

While Lambert was re-creating imagery based on documented NASA photography, the vfx teams for many other pics in the awards race had to bring their vfx and live-action footage together in a way that made the unreal look unquestionably real.

Black Panther” vfx supervisor Geoffrey Baumann kept the look of the world grounded by heavily incorporating Africa-shot plates, which gave him light and tone information that could be used to pull everything together. Baumann also worked closely with production design and cinematography so the overall appearance of the film fell together.

“I think that’s what we’re all trying to do, make the world look real and so that nothing takes the audience out of the story or away from the characters,” Baumann says. “So you need to be working with all the departments and communicating.”

“Aquaman,” “Venom” and “Bumblebee” also rely on integrating superheroes against photo-real environments and somehow let us come away with the feeling that it all makes sense. But “Ready Player One,” set in 2045 in a deteriorated world in which people escape into a VR landscape to avoid their real lives, straddles two realms, one of which is entirely effects-made but still relies on the characters and the actors’ performances to keep the audience in the story.

Sometimes the character, the actor and the effect become one. “Avengers: Infinity War” also used photo-real plates from Iceland and incorporated a kind of virtual reality/machine learning tech to create Josh Brolin’s character Thanos.

There was a time when merging the performance of an actor and visual effects in such films as “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” brought up questions about whether the performance of Andy Serkis as the ape Caesar could be considered an acting performance. Nonetheless, these type of visual effects remain one of the most dynamic areas of the art.

“Every visual effects house has its own flavor of this type of tool now and you’re able to train it by giving it lots of information,” says vfx supervisor Dan DeLeeuw. “With the character Thanos we gave it lots of footage of Josh Brolin moving and then, based on how his face is moving, it remembers what his face does and then makes guesses at what it should be doing as Thanos. When it gets it wrong, you correct it and then it learns from that.”

Looking over the past two decades of vfx work, Visual Effects Society chair Mike Chambers thinks we’ll see even greater strides made by future nominees, but not necessarily because vfx artists will have access to VR or machine learning.

“It’s not the tools that are the limit,” says Chambers. “It’s the imagination.”

(Pictured above: A bluescreen set during the making of “Black Panther”)

Popular on Variety

More Artisans

  • Queen and Adam Lambert Live

    How the Queen + Adam Lambert Tour Brought the Opera to Arenas

    Just as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the biopic of late Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, wowed moviegoers last year, stage design firm Stufish Entertainment Architects has helped Queen + Adam Lambert’s current U.S. tour deliver a screen spectacular of its own. The tour, which plays New Orleans on Aug. 20 and Atlanta on Aug. 22, touched down at [...]

  • Mark Damon, CEO & Chairman, Foresight

    Mark Damon's DCR Finance Receives $150 Million for Financing Georgia Films (EXCLUSIVE)

    Mark Damon’s DCR Finance Corp., co-headed with financer Adi Cohen, has received a $150 million investment from Go Media Productions for Georgia projects, Variety has learned exclusively. Damon, whose credits include “2 Guns” and “Lone Survivor,” made the announcement Monday with Cohen. The deal calls for Atlanta-based Go Media Productions to join a private placement as [...]

  • The Handmaid's Tale -- "Household" -

    ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Crew on Why the Lincoln Memorial Shoot Was Worth the Effort

    Shooting on location at a national monument may seem glamorous, but it often involves extensive prep to comply with strict regulations, restrictions and crowds — all for a short on-screen moment. For the cast and crew of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the seven months of planning and negotiations required for a one-day shoot at the [...]

  • Producer and crew on set. Twelve

    'Driven' Kept Shoot in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria to Help Locals

    Behind-the-scenes featurettes have long enumerated the many obstacles any movie or TV show has had to overcome to reach the theater or TV screen. But few films faced hardships as severe as those overcome by “Driven,” the real-life hero-to-zero story of automaker John DeLorean (played by Lee Pace) and his misadventures with ex-con pilot-turned-FBI informant [...]

  • The Righteous GemstonesAdam Devine, Danny McBride,

    How Televangelists, Elvis Inspired Costumes for HBO's 'The Righteous Gemstones'

    HBO’s new comedy series “The Righteous Gemstones,” about a famous family of televangelists whose dysfunction runs far deeper than its Christianity, seems to exist in its own time and place. Set in present-day Texas, the inspiration for the Gemstone family — played by John Goodman, series creator Danny McBride, Edi Patterson and Adam Devine — [...]

  • A Wrikle in Time

    New Zealand Offers Breathtaking Locations, Trained Crews, 20% Cash Grant

    With its heart-quickening vistas and magnificent views, New Zealand is a prime location for savvy investors seeking to maximize the incentive on their next project. Consider the production value of filming amid the daunting heights of the Southern Alps, or along the stunning shores of Lake Gunn. There’s also Auckland, with its magnificent Sky Tower [...]

  • DESCENDANTS 3 - DESCENDANTS 3 -

    'Descendants 3' Choreographer Mixed Dancing, Acting and Sword Fighting

    For a generation of dancers, Jamal Sims is one of a handful of choreographers who’ve pushed the boundaries of dance in film, TV and onstage. With a career that’s included stints working alongside Madonna and Miley Cyrus, he brings his edgy pop style to the dance numbers in “Descendants 3,” which premiered Aug. 2 and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content