Making Magic: Behind The Scenes Of This Year's Oscar-Nominated Visual Effects

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The Academy Award for Best Visual Effects kicked off with a Lucas-versus-Spielberg battle of the buddies in 1977, Star Wars pipping Close Encounters to the inaugural gong. Since then, it’s recognised barrier-busting movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park and The Matrix. This year is no exception in the innovation stakes, especially if you’re a fan of jungle-real tigers, extra-terrestrial nastiness, Hulk smashing and trolls, lots of trolls.

Nominees: Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton and R. Christopher White

Modest and unshowy, Weta Digital supremo Joe Letteri has in recent years pioneered a revolution in effects work from the company’s Wellington HQ. Weta gave us the performance-capture of Gollum and King Kong, the digital detail of Pandora in Avatar and now the dwarves’ encounter with Tom, Bert and William in Trollshaws and Goblin-Town in The Hobbit. Weta Digital has picked up five Oscars since it was set up by Peter Jackson, Richard Taylor and Jamie Selkirk back in 1993, and a sixth looks like a strong possibility.

Nominees: Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan de Boer and Donald R. Elliott

Red-hot favourite to walk away with the Oscar, Life Of Pi features 700 effects shots, almost 80 minutes of screentime. It benefits from Ang Lee’s collaborative approach to VFX and graceful editing that showed his confidence in its capacity for wonder. “Ang made visual effects part of his daily routine,” MPC’s Guillaume Rocheron told Empire. “Bill (Westenhofer) would present the work to him and we’d be there too, and we’d get feedback from Ang straightaway. Filmmaker, editorial and visual effects [were] all in one room trying to get the movie made.” If you’ve gasped at the film’s two cyclone sequences or its menagerie of beasties, led by the awesome Richard Parker, you’ll know just why this is so hotly tipped.

Nominees: Janek Sirrs, Jeff White, Guy Williams and Dan Sudick

Headed up by Janek Sirrs, an Oscar winner for The Matrix, the Avengers’ VFX team worked on an eye-watering 2200 effects shots. Disney assembled a veritable Avengers of effects houses, including ILM, Weta Digital, Digital Domain, Hydraulx and Scanline VFX to pre-viz, design and create them, with this showreel flaunting the ILM sequences led by Jeff White. The biggest challenges were marrying Hulk’s physicality and Mark Ruffalo’s likeability, while getting the look right – “We had a slogan on the whiteboard behind us, ‘Green is hard’,” White tells FX Guide, – and painstakingly recreating New York in digital, so that the real Manhattan could remain cosily Chitauri-free. Forty square blocks of Manhattan was recreated from eight weeks’ worth of photo-references, taken by four snappers. Nothing puny about this.

Nominees: Richard Stammers, Trevor Wood, Charley Henley and Martin Hill

Hammerpedes don’t grow on trees – although they’re probably figuring how to accomplish that right now – and those intergalactic nasties required the best of MPC’s effects wizardry to make it from Ridley Scott’s notepad to Rafe Spall’s gob. “Ridley would sketch a shot on paper and we would then go and animate it into 3D”, VFX supervisor Charley Henley told The Art Of VFX,” and then review that in Maya and tweak the layout and animation. During production there was also a great deal of on-set collaboration in Jordan and Iceland, and during post-production Ridley would regularly come to MPC’s offices in London to review work.”

Nominees: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, Philip Brennan, Neil Corbould and Michael Dawson

Rhythm And Hues and The Mill’s VFX wizzes talk The Daily through Snow White’s two grandstand visual sequences in this clip, the bridge troll and magic mirror. Other effects houses were brought on by Rupert Saunders to design further sequences, including Double Negative who, as VFX supervisor John Moffat tells The Art Of VFX, were charged with bringing the movie’s flying goth, the Bat Fairy, to life. “It was originally designed and built for a trailer shot, [but] Rupert liked the creature and asked if we could use it in a few shots on the actual film. It was essentially a fully CG animated creature that was taken from concept to final shot for the trailer in three weeks.”