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Visual Effects Oscar Nominees on Their Top Digital Secrets

This year’s visual-effects category displays so much expertise that each nominated film had at least one Oscar winner or nominee on its team.

John Nelson, who won for “Gladiator” and led the group behind “Blade Runner 2049,” says, “I was lucky that everybody wanted to work on this movie.”

Nelson adds, “It’s hard to live up to a classic, and in science fiction, visual effects rules are important because they define jeopardy. Jeopardy needs to be real or audiences won’t care.”

The movie depicts one possible future, Nelson notes, adding: “There were no traffic jams in the sky.”

There were, however, 17 distinctive environments that extended Roger Deakins’ cinematography by mixing models, miniatures and CG extensions. Nelson even used Google Earth to initially “fly through” locales that were later photographed.

His team also delivered tour-de-force compositing, merging two different actors to create an eerie third person — including creating a CG doppleganger of one of the original film’s actresses, Sean Young.

A virtually enhanced human also appeared in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” supervised by Christopher Townsend (an Oscar nominee for “Iron Man 3”).

Townsend worked with Lola Visual Effects to erase 30 years from the face of actor Kurt Russell.

“They used a ‘youth-ening’ approach,” Townsend says. “They’re effectively just like digital plastic surgeons. [We wanted to] keep the nuances of Kurt’s performance. In creating digital humans, the biggest challenge is to get single authorship of a character.”

That goal has driven the motion capture technology advances that enabled the remarkable performances of Andy Serkis as the chimpanzee leader Caesar in “War for the Planet of the Apes,” and the evil Snoke in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
“Andy’s having an amazing year,” says supervisor Ben Morris. “He’s died TWICE!!”

This year’s nominated films illustrate both the successes and the limitations of MoCap, observes Townsend, who couldn’t use it for the wisecracking raccoon Rocket in “Guardians.” “How do you sell the voice of 6’3” Bradley Cooper coming out of a 2’9” raccoon? It will become more usable when we’re better able to map actors’ performances onto VERY different characters.”

That was certainly what ILM Supervisor Jeff White encountered with the gigantic gorilla of “Kong: Skull Island.” While some motion capture was done, it served mainly as reference for the key frame animators and the muscle simulation team that made Kong move believably.

White, an Oscar nominee for “The Avengers,” recalls how one facial capture performer helped ILM visualize the scene where Kong gnaws on the tentacles of a giant ‘Octo-Squid.’ “He chewed a huge pack of Twizzlers to show us the jaw motion!”
Key frame animation was still required for most of the remarkable creature work in this year’s nominees, and ILM supervisor Morris also relied on old-fashioned puppetry for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Morris, who won an Oscar for “The Golden Compass” and once wrangled Harry Potter’s Hippogriff, is proud that CG and practical work existed seamlessly side by side in “Jedi.”

All these filmmakers grappled with the enduring challenge of mixing and matching techniques on a scene-by-scene basis, or even on a shot-by-shot basis.

Sometimes there was no substitute for photographing something real: whether the 70,000 sq.-ft. prison in “Apes,” or a “Jedi” hut hanging from a 450-foot cliff.

It’s why Weta Digital supervisor Dan Lemmon used real horses for the digital “Apes” to ride, as well as all the practical explosions that added realism to the peril of his digital animals.

Lemmon, who won an Oscar for the apes in “The Jungle Book,” admits to “a state of wonder that so much great work is being done in so many places. The great thing about visual effects is that you’re never done learning.”

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