By Will Mavity
This past weekend, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hosted its annual Visual Effects “Bake-Off” in order to determine the 5 nominees for Best Visual Effects. As per the Visual Effects Branch’s rules, at a Bake-Off, 10 pre-selected films screen 10-minute reels showcasing the effects work on display in each film, followed by short Q & A’s with the VFX crews discussing some of the most difficult aspects involved in creating the film’s effects work. Following the presentations, the Academy voters present to fill out ballots ranking the VFX work on display, thus choosing the 5 nominees.
Click below to read more about my first-hand experience at the 2018 VFX bake-off
Historically, the way a film performs at the Bake-Off directly impacts its likelihood of a nomination. In 2010, reports that audiences laughed at footage of a de-aged Jeff Bridges (“Tron: Legacy”) were the first signs for the film’s surprise snub in the category. Last year “Deepwater Horizon’s” impressive reel secured it a nomination over more ‘obvious’ contenders like “Arrival” and “Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them.”
A few years ago, Variety’s David S. Cohen provided an illuminating set of guidelines to consider whenever analyzing a bakeoff:
- It helps if the movie is good.
- It helps even more if it’s a “serious” film from a prestigious director. The branch loves that.
- The branch doesn’t necessarily care if it’s a flop. “Evan Almighty” made the bake-off.
- It helps if the film had good practical effects, or “special effects.” Those people vote, and they’re tired of their work being ignored.
- The order of presentation matters. If you go first, the voters may have trouble remembering you at the end, when it’s time to fill out the ballots. The order is determined by lottery, but can be tweaked to help out the projectionists, who have to switch among various aspect ratios, and change from 2D to 3D and back, depending on the film. (This year, “Dunkirk” went first because it required special 70 MM projection)
- Some reels are better than others. The best reels tell enough of the story for a viewer who hasn’t seen the film to get a sense of the story.
- Some presenters are better than others. Good visual effects films have fallen by the wayside because of bad presentations. On the other hand, skilled presenters like Rob Legato give their films a distinct advantage, irrespective of the quality of the film.
- Politics matter. Some companies benefit from great goodwill in the visual effects world (Industrial Light & Magic, for example). Others don’t. (Marvel seems to have a chilly relationship with the VFX rank-and-file.) – Source
This year, the 10 films present were (In the order of presentation)
“The Shape of Water”
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”
“Kong: Skull Island”
“War for the Planet of the Apes”
“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”
“Blade Runner 2049″
“Dunkirk’s” presentation was all about the practical effects. Visual Effects Supervisor Andrew Jackson introduced the film by emphasizing just how little CGI was on display. The cockpit interior scenes were created by mounting cockpit sets on a gimbal on the edge of a cliff and rotating them around, so as to showcase the sky and ocean simultaneously without ever utilizing green screens. Planes were scale models controlled by remote control. The sinking plane was created by mounting a plane on a scissor life and submerging it in a water tank. “Dunkirk’s” underwater scenes reportedly used little to no CGI.
Other relevant factors to consider: Jackson’s delivery was perhaps too understated and a bit dry. He didn’t make much of an effort to play up the difficulty of the film’s achievements. “How much compositing did you guys do?” “Oh not much…we just used two plates.” Unlike the beautifully made film, the reel itself consisted of clips smashed together with no attempt made to create smooth transitions. There were also jarring gaps between music.
That being said, Jackson emphasized that the miniatures were all built by union Los Angeles based SFX guys, which received major applause. If there is a film that all the practical FX folks rally behind, regardless of the quality of the presentation, this will be the film.
THE SHAPE OF WATER
“The Shape Of Water’s” presentation began with a polished introduction that focused on the film’s social relevance (embracing outsiders and minorities.) The narrative then shifted to a theme that says “honoring this film’s effects is honoring Del Toro.” The presenter emphasized Del Toro’s involvement in designing the creature both in pre and post-production: “Del Toro is an animator at heart. He directly oversaw every eye blink, lip curl, and flutter step on site” The team was keen to emphasize that the creature was not the only extensive area of VFX work on display in the film. Most of the Baltimore exteriors were either entirely CGI, or heavily digitally enhanced. Much of the water on display in the film was entirely CGI. The droplets Sally Hawkins traces on a bus window, for example, were entirely CGI as was much of the water in the tanks. It was ultimately one of the film’s practical effects that received the most vocal reaction of the crew, however: the crew literally sunk the entire bathroom set underwater for the film’s iconic underwater love scene.
The reel itself was arguably the best-constructed of the night. Of the 10, it was the only to put care into audio transitions, overlaying music between sequences. Despite this, the crowd was oddly muted afterward. The film’s presentation was the only to have time left over for questions where the audience simply had no questions left to ask. Now that may be due to the efficiency with which the initial presenter described the VFX team’s work, but it also indicates a lack of audience passion.
Every team had a narrative to spin. The “Alien: Covenant’s” team’s bold narrative was just “look how disgusting our film is.” In the introduction, they emphasized, “If Ridley said ‘Oh that is disgusting, I knew we had done our job.” And so began the most viscerally received reel of the night. The Alien reel took a gamble, which is to say, they went as R-rated as humanly possible. The reel showcased creatures violently ripping their way from spines, throats, and chests, along with gory decapitations mutilations. The audience squealed, and there was plenty of nervous laughter afterward, but also a sense of disgust in the aftermath. Applause was tame at best.
The team pointed out that Ridley consistently created new creatures for the set, insisting on redesigns well into shooting and even into post. While 95% of the creatures on display were CGI, the practical team also created stand-in aliens for on-set interactions and lighting purposes.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2
The primary narrative for the “Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2” presentation was ‘good God, we used so much CGI.” 98% of the shots in the film utilized VFX. The introduction for “Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2” was smooth and eloquent, and managed plenty of laughs. Like “The Shape Of Water’s” presentation, the VFX team repeatedly mentioned Gunn’s involvement. Gunn would arrive on-set with bizarre new ideas he had dreamed up the night before and wanted to incorporate into the film. Whenever Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel were not available on set to act as reference, James Gunn would suit up and act out the parts himself.) The presentation focused heavily on de-aging Kurt Russell (“No it was not all makeup”), Baby Groot and the creation of an entire ‘living planet.’ The room reacted well to the reel itself, which showcased Baby Groot and a slew of action sequences, including many of the film’s funniest moments. Audience questions revolved around the film’s 360 degree CGI camera moves and the difficulties of working around very specific requests from Gunn I.E. “No purple anywhere in the film.”
Overall, the Audience seemed to have the most fun with the Guardians reel. There was hearty applause afterward, but more than one voter stated in the lobby afterward that they felt the reel brought nothing new to the table. Meanwhile, some practical FX voters will likely not be amused by the Practical FX Supervisor’s answer to the question “What was the hardest part about working on the film?” “Finding something to do.”
KONG: SKULL ISLAND
The “Kong: Skull Island” Team, like the “Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2” team went hard for comedy, recalling moments where they forced Toby Kebbel to repeatedly stuff his mouth full of twizzlers in order to create the illusion of an ape eating, while also mentioning how Jordan Vogt Roberts would use Super Mario Bros. graphics as references for the animation team. They also focused on hair (There were more hairs on Kong’s face than on the entire bear in “The Revenant”), and on nostalgia – the ‘Skull Crawlers’ were a direct reference to the Iguana creatures in the 1933 original film.
The reel itself particularly focused on Kong’s sea monster chewing scene and the final creature smackdown. The audience felt engaged, but only one person I spoke to afterward singled the film’s work out. Generally, people were far more focused on the *other* ape movie…
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
Unsurprisingly, “War For The Planet Of The Apes” drew some of the most passionate responses during the event. The animators, of course, focused on their lifelike apes (According to the introduction, 95% of the ape animation was completely key-framed and only used motion capture performances as reference). Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape particularly received cheers and laughter whenever he appeared on screen. More notably, however, the presenters focused on the film’s more subtle achievements. For starters, the prison compound set was reportedly light on trees. As a result, the VFX team coded a software that would grow thousands of digital trees, giving each tree its own distinctive characteristics, and recreating years of aging and damage. The waterfalls clearly featured in the film were entirely CGI, while the ‘hidden fortress’ that hides behind the waterfalls were primarily CGI as well. The team designed new software that would mimic onscreen imperfections, such as missed focus pulls, and would also take into account the play of on-set light on the skin, so as to recreate the light in animated form. The presentation also focused on some of WETA’s practical creations. For example, the horse stirrups had been subtly designed to look as though they would only fit ape feet.
VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS
“Valerian’s” presentation benefitted from a charming and self-deprecating approach to their presentation. The spokesperson introduced the reel by announcing, “We always thought there was no way anyone could ever love Valerian as much as we do. Turns out…we were right.” Repeated jokes about the film’s financial failure drew positive responses, and the sheer quantity of CGI was impressive (As was the revelation that the team had spent two years on their work.) The fact that the majority of the film’s motion capture actors were female turned heads as well. The film arguably had the choppiest of the presentations, portraying a story that was nearly incomprehensible to those who had not seen the film.
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” was next and the VFX work from the franchise is nearly always a show-stopper. This time around, after the presentation was over, there was something of an air of “we’ve seen this before” in the audience’s responses. At least one voter lamented, “It didn’t even have something like Peter Cushing last year.” The Jedi team emphasized Rian Johnson’s preference for practical effects and animatronic creatures over CGI. As such, the sea cows and fully animatronic Yoda were centerpieces. One of the speakers recounted a touching anecdote involving the entire crew assembling in the piercing cold to watch Frank Oz puppeteer Yoda for hours. On the CGI end, the redesigned Emperor Snoke was the primary focus of the presentation. The team entirely redesigned Snoke, ‘beefing’ him up and making him feel more human, consulting images of human deformities. The Rey mirror scene also was a topic of conversation, with the VFX team revealing that Rian Johnson is a massive “Under the Skin” fan, and hired the same company who created “Under the Skin’s” ‘Void’ sequences to create the mirror sequence. The reel itself was one of the more choppily edited. If there is a perceived lock that misses, this feels like the one.
“Okja’s” team played to the film’s strengths. They avoided some of the more rubbery CGI moments in the reel and played to the audience’s emotions. There were at least a few audible ‘awww’s’ in the room, particularly when one of the animators mentioned that he consulted “a Beagle in my life” for Okja’s movement and eyes. The team also highlighted the unique nature of collaborating with Korean and American VFX teams. As it turned out, the Americans primarily were responsible for the creature animation itself, while the Koreans focused on background destruction, etc. The team emphasized the difficulty of creating a creature that looked as though it was designed to be food, but simultaneously making the creature appear endearing and non-disgusting. The audience was fascinated by the various methods the team used to provide physical props for the actors to interact with in lieu of an actual super pig on set. Among the props were ‘giant rubber butts’ and a pogo stick for scenes in which characters were riding Okja. The tunnel chase scene was a center of focus, with the crew revealing that they only had 7 minutes to complete each take. In conversations afterward, several voters singled out “Okja.” One even stated “I think it could win the whole thing…because it has heart.” One veteran voter did mention, “I thought that one was…kind of weird, but I did like the one with the fish.”
BLADE RUNNER 2049
Most of the film’s presentation fell firmly into the “We used a ton of CGI” or “We used a ton of practicals.” “Blade Runner 2049” was arguably the only film to fall firmly in the middle. The reel showcased the film’s awe-inspiring dystopian landscapes, which the crew was keen to mention, were largely achieved without the help of green screens. Meanwhile, the team also flaunted their digital prowess, with the impressive recreation of Sean Young proving a standout. At least one audience member stated that they deemed this creation to be the first CGI human to fully overcome “the uncanny valley.” The film’s AI menage a trois also was the subject of much discussion. The team explained the difficulty of working with the script supervisor to reshoot the scene with a second actress moving her hands at just the precise time, while also accounting for the nature of shadows. Notably, the film almost entirely avoided showcasing the film’s climax. There was almost no footage of Las Vegas, nor of the final Ocean battle.
The presentation clearly benefitted from going last. It was the most common name I heard pop up as voters shuffled out of the theater.
“War For The Planet Of The Apes” and “Blade Runner 2049” are pretty clearly in. An iffy presentation aside, I’m inclined to include “Dunkirk” simply because of the support it will engender from the practical voters (And it fits the whole ‘it helps if the film is good’ factor.) For the time being, I’ll include “Star Wars: The Last Jedi“…because well…it’s “Star Wars.” And then for the final slot, it felt like it was between “The Shape Of Water” and “Okja.” They’re both a low-budget “Ex-Machina” style contender. “The Shape Of Water” didn’t seem to quite stick the landing with its presentation in the way it needed to do so. Which leads me to the think the heartstring-tugging, late-screening “Okja” is potentially our fifth nominee.
So based on my takeaways and your own observations, what do you predict to be the final 5 nominees? Check out our predictions here and let us know in the comments below.
You can follow Will and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @mavericksmovies