By Will Mavity
Every year, the Academy Visual Effects branch determines the five Best Visual Effects nominees through a 4-hour event known as the “bake-off.” Ten pre-selected films present 10-minute reels of VFX-heavy footage along with a 3-minute introduction and a Q&A afterward. Typically, voters vote in the room, meaning your bake off performance is the end all be all. In 2010, “Tron: Legacy” had an infamously bad presentation, and shockingly missed a nomination, while in 2016, “Deepwater Horizon” defeated more obvious contenders by virtue of an amazing reel.
This year, unlike previous years, the bake-off features 3-minute behind-the scenes-reels prior to the main reels. Each of these behind-the-scenes reels showed before and after footage and ended up being a highlight.
Click below to read about how this year’s presentation went for the Best Visual Effects Oscar hopefuls.
The biggest change this year, however, will come from how votes are accomplished. Instead of voting immediately in the room, voting will occur online with the rest of the Academy members. Branch members were able to view the presentations online instead of in the room. We don’t know how these changes will alter voter reactions when they have a minimum of two days to stew over reels and re-evaluate. Still, it is always worth considering Variety’s David S. Cohen’s guidelines for the bake-off.
- 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, the films went alphabetically, with “Ant-Man And The Wasp” screening first, and “Welcome to Marwen” screening last. This rule may not be as relevant with voters voting two days later.
- 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.
This year, the ten films to screen were…
“Ant-Man And The Wasp“
“Avengers: Infinity War“
“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom“
“Mary Poppins Returns“
“Ready Player One“
“Solo: A Star Wars Story“
“Welcome to Marwen“
Before the presentations began, viewers were greeted by a montage highlighting the year in visual effects, which was set to the music of “Black Panther.”
Ant-Man & The Wasp
Like “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” last year, “Ant-Man And The Wasp” played the humor card in its presentation. The sheer volume of laughs with “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” last year almost certainly helped it snag a nomination. This year, the laughs were still present, but not nearly as frequently or passionately. A gag involving a giant “Hello, Kitty” Pez dispenser had most of the room giggling, as did a bit where Paul Rudd falls dramatically into the ocean, but only generates a tiny ‘plop.’ After the presentation, one voter (the only one to mention the film) singled it as his favorite out over the night’s other two Marvel films because of its humor. The de-aging of Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer elicited some gasps and ended up as the reel’s standout moment. Unlike “Black Panther,” however, the “Ant-Man And The Wasp” reel did not avoid showcasing some of its iffier CGI moments. Some of the night’s rubberiest moments came courtesy of this reel. Afterward, the applause was polite and measured, although, when director Peyton Reed stood up, he received a fair amount of applause (seems like voters appreciated seeing the director in attendance alongside the VFX team.) The film’s VFX supervisor was heavily accented and mumbled when describing the clearly difficult process of creating the film’s VFX, meaning it was sometimes almost impossible to understand what he was saying. He did make it clear that the film’s post process was rushed and complex (they only had 6 months for post-production, some of which occurred while the film was still shooting).
Avengers: Infinity War
Although most of the evening’s presentations would end up emphasizing practical effects, the “Avengers: Infinity War” presentation was all about the CGI. They introduced the film by announcing that of the film’s 2,703 shots, only 80 do not feature CGI. Thanos, of course, was the center of the film behind the scenes reel, emphasizing how difficult it was to translate the emotion from Josh Brolin’s eyes to a CGI character. Some of the behind-the-scenes Brolin footage ended up wisely being played for laughs; seeing the hulking character reduced to a stand-in puppet in behind the scenes shots are hysterical. The behind-the-scenes reel also revealed that Wakanda was actually just an Atlanta horse farm that was completely transformed courtesy of extensive CGI (and a complete river built on set). The final “dust” sequence was apparently difficult, with earlier versions featuring multicolored ash for each infinity stone (apparently it looked horrible). And of course, the animators had to create so many unique CGI environments, only to see them being used for a few minutes in the final film. Almost all of the “sets” were created by the VFX team. The main reel ended up being choppy but also featured some masterful transitions that highlighted the parallel events occurring in the films many storylines. Afterward, one voter told me he felt overwhelmed by all of the CGI, but otherwise, the reception seemed overwhelmingly positive for the VFX work on display.
Before so much as a frame of the film had screened, the mere mention of “Black Panther” elicited cheers. Clearly, the room was a big fan of “Black Panther.” The fact that VFX supervisor Dan Sudick had been present as one of the “nominees” for each of the first three presentations also garnered both applause and laughs, with one member saying “Does he ever sleep?”
Given that the film’s CGI has been received more divisively than other blockbusters on the list, the VFX team wisely avoided showing on some of the more rubbery moments (like the final fight) and instead emphasized the difficulty of creating entire worlds. They reminded us that Wakanda was in reality just Atlanta. The VFX team had to create 50 million digital trees and thousands of digital extras. When designing builds, they had to incorporate vibranium into every design and were not allowed to use concrete in any structure. Given how notoriously difficult water is to animate, the reel emphasized the amount of digital water created for river and waterfall sequences. I didn’t hear a single voter mention the film afterward, but there was clearly a lot of love for the film in the room. It will likely get in by virtue of its impressive background designs and overall love for the film.
”Christopher Robin” was easily the worst-edited reel of the night. Some of the transitions featured jarring pops from sloppy audio transitions, and if the goal was to “tell a story,” then the reel failed to do so. With some of the later presentations, the engaging presenters were able to compensate for choppy reels. That was not the case here, with the presenters ending up as the evening’s most subdued and quiet (one of them didn’t even end up showing up). All of which is a shame, because they clearly had their work cut out for him. Apparently animating the interaction between rain, mud, and of course, honey on animated stuffed animals was incredibly difficult. More importantly, director Marc Forster insisted on a naturalistic, handheld aesthetic which made it extremely difficult to convincingly insert entirely CGI creatures. He also asked that Pooh never blink. Which meant that the animators had to find other ways to make the character convey emotion. They also singled out less obvious animation (the interior of Pooh’s house is entirely CGI. Train stations, rivers, and fog effects were heavily CGI augmented). Only one voter mentioned the film as a favorite afterward, singling out the VFX out for serving the story more than some of the others in contention.
When I talk about presentations with choppy reels but amazing presenters, “First Man” is the first to come to mind. The actual reel leaped out, hopping so quickly from VFX shot to VFX shot that it was difficult to really appreciate much of the work on display. Some of the music cuts like those during the climactic moon landing were especially jarring. But the presenters were fabulous. Because Damien Chazelle insisted on accomplishing almost all of the film’s VFX practically, they made it clear that their work was very, very, very difficult. “My hair was still black when we started on this film” joked grey-haired VFX supervisor Paul Lambert. Instead of using green screens for space sequences, the VFX team built enormous LED screens which would broadcast space or sky backgrounds, allowing the cast to interact with their environments naturally. This process also allowed for more natural lighting. Of course, creating backgrounds to broadcast on these LED screens was “uniquely stressful.” Chazelle wanted to be able to play out entire scenes in a single take. Which meant that the VFX team had to ensure that they had ten minutes of footage ready to play nonstop in any given scene, and had to be meticulously choreographed to prepare for the changing perspectives that would come from the changing directions and angles of the cockpit sets. Sometimes this imagery for the LED screens would have to be produced overnight. The process was described as “doing post while everyone else was still doing pre-production.” Of course, the LED footage was far from the only impressive practical aspect on display. The spinning axis trainer machine was entirely practical (yes, Ryan Gosling is actually getting spun around there). The lunar landing training vehicle that Gosling crashes was built and hovered courtesy of bungee cords. Apparently, it was realistic enough to convince a NASA specialist that they had actually “resurrected one of the originals from the 1960s.” The spaceships were largely miniatures (this revelation got LOTS of applause), and the Apollo 1 launch fire was done entirely in-camera. Even the moon sequence was largely practical. They shot in a quarry in Atlanta at night, using a 200K light as the “sun.” The light ended up being so hot that Lambert got sunburned from its immense heat and it just blew up! Twice!! The team admitted that there was *some* CGI used, especially in some of the space wide shots, and occasionally in removing cameras from reflection shots, or in adding dust and ice falling off from rockets in scenes. This presentation began a trend for the evening of emphasizing the practical. “Dunkirk” did this last year and ended up missing out as a result. There was definitely a lot of appreciation here for the practical’s, so we’ll see. One voter said the practical’s single-handedly secured his support, while another gave me a thumbs down gesture when I asked him about it.
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Immediately after the “First Man” presentation, the evening’s MC announced that we were at the halfway point. Some voters apparently took this to mean “Oh…it’s time for a bathroom break.” So about a fifth of the room left just as the presentation for “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” was beginning. I can’t help but imagine that will impact its chances. Which is a shame, because the initial behind-the-scenes reel was a jaw dropper. The VFX team acknowledged that fans had taken umbrage with the emphasis on CGI in the previous “Jurassic World,” and so, they had instead set out to return to the franchise’s emphasis on animatronics (name dropping Stan Winston got big applause). The behind-the-scenes footage revealed that huge numbers of the dinosaurs were almost entirely animatronic. The effect was so seamless that apparently director J.A. Bayona had trouble telling what was CGI and what was animatronic when viewing footage in the editing suites. The dinosaurs were not the only practical effect on display though. The crew built the largest water tank in Europe for an underwater rescue sequence. The highlight of the entire evening was the “gyropshere cliff plunge.” The team revealed that they built an entire roller coaster, mounted a gyrosphere set on it, and sent Bryce Dallas Howard down it. They filmed her face during the first run through on the roller coaster to get an authentic expression of terror. This particular revelation (including a freeze-frame of Howard’s screaming face) earned the biggest audience laugh of the evening. The VFX team here was personable and funny overall. Comments about keeping bottles dinosaur ‘saliva’ earned particular laughs. Of course, there was also plenty of state-of-the-art CGI on display. The CGI artists created entirely new software to recreate flowing lava. The entire presentation was a success. The VFX here will likely suffer from an overall dislike for the film and the fact that a chunk of the audience missed half of the presentation. The only comment I heard afterward from a voter about the film was “It was good, but we’ve seen that stuff before. I’m tired of the dinosaurs.”
Mary Poppins Returns
”Mary Poppins Returns” boasted one of the evening’s best behind-the-scenes reels and one of the worst actual footage reels. Cutting between shots in musical numbers was bound to make for a choppy presentation. Fortunately for the film, like “Black Panther,” there was clearly a lot of love for it overall in the room. One of the VFX branch heads said something along the lines of “I personally want to thank you for making this movie. It meant a lot to me,” when the presentation ended. More importantly, the nostalgia factor clearly hit hard. The discussions revolving around luring 2D animators out of retirement elicited cheers and applause. One of the animators discussed how the film was a love letter to childhood, a sentiment that seemed to hit home with the audience. The VFX team also made it very clear just how difficult it was to reconcile Rob Marshall’s very 3D and dynamic camerawork with 2D environments (small details stood out like adding 3D shadows for 2D characters). The 2D sequence, while the presentation’s standout, was far from the only aspect they focused on. One audience member singled out the film’s impressive wire work. Another focused on the impressive recreation of massive CGI environments like depression-era London for those sweeping wides. One of the VFX crewmembers actually went on top of Big Ben in order to gather enough detail to accurately recreate the clock tower in post-production.
Ready Player One
Like “Avengers: Infinity War,” no one was talking about the practical’s here with Steve Spielberg’s “Ready Player One.” Instead, the narrative here was “holy crap, we have an ungodly amount of CGI.” 90 minutes of the 139-minute film was entirely CGI. Of course, the animators had to design an enormous number of photorealistic or semi-photorealistic environments. The Overlook Hotel for “The Shining” sequence, for example, was entirely CGI. They, of course, emphasized the difficulty of creating so many diverse characters to fill the frame since Spielberg wanted so many wide shots here (there were over 500,000 digital characters storming the castle in the film’s climax). When dealing with so many copyrighted characters, many of the copyright owners only agreed to license the characters out if said characters were allowed to give the character something interesting to do. Which of course made the animators’ work even more difficult as these characters couldn’t just sit in the background. Spielberg also decided sometime after shooting that he wanted the film to be filled with long takes. He would hand the VFX team a sequence with eight to ten cuts, and ask them to stitch it into a single unbroken long take through the magic of CGI.
Solo: A Star Wars Story
“Solo: A Star Wars Story” boasted easily the most surprising reel of the night. (A sentiment that was echoed by three or four voters I spoke to afterward). It was as if the VFX team saw the “First Man” reel and said “Eh…we can top that.” The behind-the-scenes reel here revealed just how much of the film was practical. As the team described it, they decided to “go back to the tried and true techniques, the things that made us love “Star Wars.” There were 120 creatures present in this film, more than in any Star Wars film to date, and almost all of them were created through animatronics and prosthetics. Even the droid, L3-37 was an actress in a robot suit with minor CGI augmentations. The speeders during the films opening speeder chase? Souped up cars with the wheels digitally removed in post. The train heist? A 40-ton rig that actually rotated. The giant explosion at the end of the heist? An explosive charge detonated underwater and filmed at 25,000 FPS. The team emphasized that they didn’t recreate this explosion with CGI. They used the real deal on screen in accordance with the script’s description of “an explosion like we’ve never seen before.” Most strikingly, they used the exact same LED screen tech as “First Man” to create the appearance of space outside cockpit windows in lieu of green screen. And in the process of describing all of this, the VFX team established themselves of one of the most likable teams of the night. They singled out Donald Glover’s reaction to seeing the LED screens actually take them into “hyperspace” on set: “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done.” The main footage reel ended up being the best-edited of the night, flying along smoothly, and showcasing the film’s many striking visual elements. The room was full of “Star Wars” fans, and they responded enthusiastically.
Welcome To Marwen
Despite “Welcome to Marwen’s” negative reviews (which the VFX team joked about during the presentation), it popped up more in conversations with voters after the bake-off than any other film. The team focused extensively on just how difficult it was to conquer the “uncanny valley” (aka. the dead-eye effect in films like “The Polar Express” that haunted all of our dreams). Kevin Baillie was articulate and charming and got a genuinely engaging conversation going, and the room clearly connected to that topic. The team wisely showed early test footage of “what could have been” with some of the early screen tests (including a hilariously horrifying one that featured a live action Steve Carell with CGI joints added to his limbs). As Baillie put it “I gave myself nightmares with some of our first tests.” This team also did something no one else did: discuss the difficulty of digital cinematography. They emphasized the importance of matching digital lighting perfectly with on-set and motion captured lighting (even a slight difference in the digital light could become horrifying). They also created new technology to serve as digital lenses that would strategically keep some objects in focus while others were not. Baillie was especially proud of his new digital tilt-shift lens. Despite the critical reception, the reel really stood out. It was something unique among films that mainly focused on destruction and battles. And importantly, it went last. If voters had voted immediately after the presentation as in previous years, I actually think this would have gotten in. Now, it will have to deal with voters reflecting on the film for two days before voting. In fact, two of the voters who singled it out after the presentation said they intended to see the film first to determine how the movie was overall before voting.
It’s going to be fascinating to see how the delay in voting impacts this year’s results. “Avengers: Infinity War” is pretty clearly in because of just how much CGI there was, and Thanos was impressive. “Black Panther” is likely in because of a wisely structured presentation and overall love for the film. “Mary Poppins Returns” stands a good chance based on nostalgia and the 2D animation factor. If it misses, it will be due to that choppy presentation. “Ready Player One” likely gets in because like “Avengers: Infinity War,” it was just so…much. The final slot is up in the air but I think it’s going to be “Solo: A Star Wars Story.” That presentation really surprised people. “First Man,” could easily sneak in still, but the film is underperforming across the board, and like “Dunkirk,” I do wonder if having everything practical will work against it in the end. And finally…there’s “Welcome to Marwen.” It really did seem to stick with people. We’ll see if it still sticks with them when they actually cast their ballots, but it genuinely could be our random “Lone Ranger” or “Real Steel” type, nominee.
So based on my takeaways and your own observations, what do you predict to be the final 5 nominees for Best Visual Effects? Check out our predictions here and let us know in the comments below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Will and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @mavericksmovies