Visual Effects Awards: Tech Advances Allow for De-Aging and Photorealism

The Mandalorian Special Effects
Courtesy of Disney

The VES Awards has firmly established itself as a respected mainstream institution, as indicated by a record number of submissions this year, expansion of categories in both number and breadth, and high demand for tickets.

“We sold out in about 20 minutes,” says Mike Chambers, a veteran of the org who was recently reelected as its board chairman. “It’s a mixed blessing. We’re of course ecstatic so many people want to participate but it’s also hard to not be able to seat all the people who’d like to be there.”

With more than 500 submissions in 25 categories — plus special honorees Martin Scorsese, Roland Emmerich and Sheena Duggal — the VES nominees represent the most nuanced and complete recognition of the wide range of disciplines involved in creating visual effects for movies, television, live events, special projects and virtual reality.

Leading nominees this year among features are Disney’s “The Lion King” and Fox’s “Alita: Battle Angel” in photorealistic categories, and Pixar’s “Toy Story 4” in animated contests with five noms each. On the TV side, the final season of “Game of Thrones” and Disney Plus’ acclaimed “Star Wars” spinoff “The Mandalorian” each earned a leading six nominations.
Changes to this year’s event included the reinstatement of the special (practical) effects in a photoreal or animated project category.
“We have a larger contingent of special- effects practitioners and they wanted an outlet to showcase their work as well, so after a lot of looking at it we added that back in,” Chambers says.
The event returns to the Beverly Hilton Hotel, with Patton Oswalt returning as host.

“He just seems a good fit for our organization and he’s a passionate fan of our work,” Chambers says. The ceremony will be recorded and aired a week after the awards on Spectrum News 1, a local news channel available to Spectrum subscribers across Southern California.

The org also opened up its virtual cinematography and compositing categories to include fully animated projects alongside photoreal ones.
“The request was made by some members of the animation community,” says Chambers. “[We] did quite a lot of vetting on the idea of whether that was appropriate and brought people in to … make their case for why it was appropriate and we agreed.”

One of “Toy Story 4’s” nominations is for virtual cinematography in a CG project, alongside “Alita: Battle Angel,“ “The Lion King” and “The Mandalorian.” Chambers notes this year brought de-aging and fully animated photoreal characters to the fore, while companies are making plans to resurrect dead stars for projects using technology. “Animation is a big part of that and I think we’re going to see more and it’s going to be interesting to see how that develops over time and in what directions filmmakers and others choose to [go].”

Nominees agree that while many problems have been solved, there remains plenty of innovations in the field worthy of recognition, with fully animated digital characters in starring roles among the most relevant.

Dan Deleeuw, VFX supervisor on triple nominee “Avengers: Endgame,” says multiple technological advances made a character like the nominated work on Smart Hulk (played by Mark Ruffalo) possible. “What was nice about Smart Hulk is it was kind of the confluence of a lot of different technology and a lot of different artistry that we were finally able to do it.”

The Medusa system developed by Disney and employed on the film used multiple cameras and mo-cap techniques to create a very high-resolution digital version of Ruffalo’s facial performance. Adding that to new technology that more accurately simulates the way skin moves and reacts to light helped Smart Hulk emerge from the uncanny valley with a more convincing look.

“The trick is it’s not just capturing how the muscles move and getting the performance, but it’s all that really subtle skin movement and scrunching around the eyes that really brings the character to life,” says Deleeuw. “And then you’re able to take that performance and retarget it onto the larger shape of Smart Hulk and still retain all the quality of Mark’s crooked smile and how his cheeks move as he speaks.”

Similar challenges were faced on ”Gemini Man,” says Weta Digital’s Guy Williams, a VFX supervisor on the Ang Lee-directed film that featured a digital version of young Will Smith fighting his older, current-day self.

“At the beginning of the project two years ago, when asked if we could do it, we knew right then and there we couldn’t do it on that day,” says Williams. “But we felt that within the time we had on the project that we could reach that last little bit and fill in the gaps.”

The real challenge was creating a digital character for a 120-frame-per-second film that played a key dramatic role. “We can’t hide behind any kind of smoke and mirrors,” says Williams. “There’s nowhere for us to retreat to. We had to carry this thing convincingly for the entirety of the movie.”

More accurate skin pigments and a new pore creation system helped, as did a greater focus on fine facial movements. One of the biggest challenges was retaining the likeness of Smith, which goes far beyond the physical appearance of the character to fine movements that people’s brains recognize as being consistent with a particular person.

For the lead character in “Alita: Battle Angel,” actress Rosa Salazar’s live-action performance was enhanced in more than 1,800 shots by visual effects, says animation supervisor Mike Cozens, and were essential to convey the character’s arc from innocent to warrior.

“It’s Rosa’s performance and she’s like the anchor in driving the character arc forward and all the detail in the performance, but there are dozens of artists in and around that space that are creating that character and telling that story,” says Cozens.

The complexity and number of shots required by features and series have helped grow the visual effects industry and raised the bar for quality, says Williams. The VES’ standing as an org that recognizes the breadth and depth of VFX work out there is unique, says Deleeuw. “You’re in a situation where your work is being recognized by your peers and they have an in-depth understanding of what is involved in making the shots,” says Deleeuw.

Darren Christie, compositing supervisor on the final season of “Game of Thrones,” says the nominated work his crew at WETA Digital did on the series was on par with features in both areas. The nominated episode featured 400 visual effects shots, involving every discipline required of the studio for a tentpole feature, just on a shorter schedule and smaller budget. “There’s so many shows out there these days that do fantastic visual effects work and comp work that it’s actually sort of hard to see one that really stands out because the bar has been lifted so high,” says Christie, who adds that the number of people working on a nominated effect has grown and warrants expanding the number of people who can be nominated, which is no more than five in this year’s crop.

Chambers says the VES is constantly looking at its rules and revising them, so such a change could be in its future. “We always want to keep it fresh, but the primary goal and mission of our society and the awards is just to make sure that the unsung heroes in our part of the industry get the recognition that this work deserves because visual effects are really a major part of most filmed entertainment now.”