A Look At The VFX Nominees

Thomas J. McLean is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of AwardsLine.

This year’s nominees show how visual effects have spread from summer blockbusters to genres as diverse as superheroes, different flavors of fantasy, more traditional sci-fi territory, and even the art-house film. For each nominee, there’s a moment that makes it worthy of an Oscar nomination. Here, the visual-effects supervisors on the nominated films break down the key challenges and talk about the sequence that clinched the nomination.

Andy Serkis' mocap performance is recorded first, then Gollum's features and backgrounds are added later.
Andy Serkis’ mocap performance is recorded first, then his movements are used to inform Gollum’s movements.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The nominees: Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton, R. Christopher White

No. of visual-effects shots: 2,176

Tech breakthrough: The complexity and number of techniques used to create the digital creatures. “It’s a combination of lots of things to get a creature to that point,” says Letteri. “It’s muscles, it’s skin, it’s facial capture, it’s performance capture.” All those things had to come together to bring to convincing life six leading digital characters with dialogue.

Defining the aesthetic: “We were grounded in the Middle Earth we had established for The Lord of the Rings,” says Letteri. “For the landscapes and the environments, we wanted to extend that Tolkien-esque feeling, borrowing from what we had on the previous film, trying to keep the same look for Rivendell, for example, but kind of expanding it. Same thing with Gollum—we were trying to keep his same look, but bring him into a new dimension of what we could do 10 years on.”

Gollum's completed scene.
Gollum’s completed scene.

Biggest challenge: The quantity of digital characters. “You’ve got dialogue, you’ve got personalities, you’ve got unique looks,” says Letteri. “You’ve got to have everything working: You’ve got to have the fur working, the eyes, the skin, the muscles, the performances—not only the capture but the animation side.”

The clincher: The confrontation between Martin Freeman’s Bilbo and Gollum, played via motion capture by Andy Serkis. “We all had a bit of nervousness going into creating (Gollum) because we had done him 10 years ago, and we spent so much time in the last 10 years really trying to delve into what makes a performance resonate with an audience,” says Letteri. “You’ve got here a nine-minute dialogue scene with a real character and a digital character, and it’s watchable in a way that keeps you engaged the whole way through.”

The blue stuffed creature allowed the actor'to appear as though he were actually petting the tiger.
The blue stuffed creature allowed the actor’to appear as though he were actually petting the tiger.

Life of Pi

The nominees: Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer, Donald R. Elliott

No. of visual-effects shots: 690

Tech breakthrough: Two of the major visual elements were done mostly with digital effects: The water and the tiger. “It was just pushing the bar for the realism of the tiger and the other animals involved, trying to blend water from a tank into CG water in stereo was a challenge,” says Westenhofer.

Defining the aesthetic: Westenhofer describes the look of the effects as “hyper-dreamlike reality.” “It’s a story being told by Pi, so there’s an element of his recollection and the human’s ability to exaggerate when they recollect,” he says. “That allows for a bit of stylization in the amount of color and detail.”

The completed sequence, in which the actor's real-life hands pet the digital tiger.
The completed sequence, in which the actor’s real-life hands pet the digital tiger.

Biggest challenge: It’s a toss-up between the water and the animals. “Fourteen percent of the animals were real and the rest were digital, and we often cut back to back between them, so it forced our hand to make the matches as perfect as possible,” says Westenhofer. “Everything from the moment they set sail to when he lands on the beach, it’s a boy on a boat in front of a blue screen.”

The clincher: A shot where Pi pulls the tiger’s head into his lap and pets it. “We shot him on the boat in a gimbal, and he pulls a blue sock into his lap and he pets the blue sock. And we replaced that with our digital tiger, fitting in the animation to what he did. In stereo, it had to be perfectly precise to line up with everything, and then we had to animate the hair to respond to his hand as it moves back and forth.”

Most of this scene was added digitally, after the actors finished their performances.
Most of this scene was added digitally, after the actors finished their performances.

Marvel’s The Avengers

The nominees: Janek Sirrs, Jeff White, Guy Williams, Dan Sudick

No. of visual-effects shots: About 2,200

Tech breakthrough: The Hulk. “We leveraged on previous digital characters we had done, but really had to rebuild and improve the way our characters move, making it incredibly accurate in terms of the way the skeleton under his skin drives his muscles, which then drives his skin,” says White.

Defining the aesthetic: Invisible was

The completed scene.
The completed scene.

the watchword from director Joss Whedon, a point defined by the final
battle in New York City that was shot almost entirely elsewhere. “Even though very little of the movie is shot
in New York City—some is Cleveland, where we did simpler set extensions, and then a significant portion was shot on a green-screen stage in New Mexico—those are things where we didn’t want the audience to even know there are visual effects,” says White.

Biggest challenge: The Hulk. “There’s a deep ravine to cross there, where it doesn’t look good for quite a long time, and it takes an incredible amount of artistry by the artists working on the shots to make it what it ultimately became,” says White.

The clincher: The climactic battle in New York. White says ILM spent about eight weeks shooting some 2,000 virtual background spheres—extremely high-resolution photographs—from streets and rooftops that were projected onto geography of the city as the basis for the digital city. To this was added the digital aliens and plates of the actors shot, as well as the details required to sell the scene as a full-on battle. “As we put our shots together of, say, Captain America talking to Black Widow, we really wanted to push it toward this feeling of being in the center of a battle. So in every shot we added additional smoke and dust and little embers going through the scene, just trying to really capture that feel of being in the middle of a disaster.”

The VFX artists on Prometheus had to work on techniques to match the translucency of the alien prosthetics in the film.

The nominees: Richard Stammers, Trevor Wood, Charley Henley, Martin Hill

No. of visual-effects shots: 1,284

Tech breakthrough: The specific look director Ridley Scott wanted for the alien creatures required redeveloping some commonly used tools. “We had to do a lot of work to really develop our subsurface scatter lighting technique to get that deep translucency that matched the prosthetics we were using live on set,” says Stammers.

Defining the aesthetic: The look of the alien landscape of LV-223 defined the look of the whole film and was something Scott was quite passionate about. “What we ended up with is this montage of two landscapes that he really liked. And then beyond that, we added additional mountains and sky that was very full of fast-moving clouds, and so you get a sense of constantly fast-moving layers of clouds and bad weather, (then) we could paint the landscape with fast-moving patches of sunlight.”

Biggest challenge: Stammers says the production only had three days to shoot all the references needed at Wadi Rum, Jordan, requiring an incredibly detailed plan. “We planned it out based on our Google Earth map of the location to the point where, for every take that we needed to shoot, we had a helicopter plan of altitude and GPS start and end point, so that we could go to each of the specific points and film the elements we needed in order to map out the terrain and texture it.”

The clincher: Everything came together in the shot of the Prometheus landing on LV-223. “We spent somewhere in the region of 300 or 400 days just on the texture work alone, just to get the level of detail we needed to sell the scale of it,” says Stammers. “All the elements come together in that one shot that we see throughout the rest of the film as well.”

snow white and the huntsman
Macrophotography played a key role in Snow White and the Huntsman.

The nominees: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, Philip Brennan, Neil Corbould, Michael Dawson

No. of visual-effects shots: About 1,400

Tech breakthrough: The extensive use of macrophotography in CG visual effects. “It’s very tricky to do macrophotography in a full CG shot, especially when you look at an animal or something close up like that, close up on the eye,” says Nicolas-Troyan. “That’s something that people don’t really realize when they see the movie, but if you pay attention you see there’s a lot of macro shots.”

Defining the aesthetic: Director Rupert Sanders set a distinct tone that required all the visual effects to be based in reality but juxtaposed with unusual situations or actions. “Everything is based on things that exist in the world,” says Nicolas-Troyan. “They might not be in the same place in the world, so we put them all together in this one spot, but they all do exist.”

Biggest challenge: Finding a way to make eight actors appear as dwarves on schedule and on budget. “We were always going to pick the right technique and the most efficient technique for the shot,” says Brennan. “That goes all the way from old-school in-camera tricks to using risers to vary the heights of people, working with prosthetics and costumes to make people appear a little bit different, all the way up to very complex effects like head and face replacements.”

The clincher: The pursuit through the Enchanted Forest, which encompassed all the techniques used in the movie. “Something like 70 percent or 80 percent of the animals that we created for the movie are in that scene, and they are everywhere,” says Nicolas-Troyan. “There’s birds, plants, and then within those scenes you have the dwarves, so we had to use pretty much all our techniques for the dwarves.”

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Production Design

Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of AwardsLine.

Production designer Dan Hennah—nominated for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with set decorators Ra Vincent and Simon Bright—says that this set for hobbit Bilbo Baggins’ comfy parlor is one of few that did not require a CGI extension to accommodate both fantasy elements and the movie’s large band of characters, who tend to appear together in many scenes. And even the simplest of sets required finetuning to meet the demands of 3D. By phone from New Zealand, Hennah talked about this scene in which Bilbo (Martin Freeman) talks with Dwalin (Graham McTavish) as the dwarf slurps his way through Bilbo’s carefully hoarded food supply.

1) Bilbo’s parlor had to be built twice: Once in “hobbit scale” and once in a .76 “wizard scale” for Gandalf (Ian McKellen), so Gandalf would appear to be too tall for his surroundings, whereas for the hobbits it would be, as Goldilocks might have observed, “just right.” Hennah says the less dramatic difference in size between hobbits and dwarves was taken care of by casting: Most actors portraying dwarves are taller than Freeman.

2) Hobbits hate adventure, so Bilbo’s home is full of things that make him feel safe: A warm teapot, a full larder, his favorite books. “This is 60 years before The Lord of the Rings, when he was sort of an old guy who had accumulated a lot of stuff and was sort of untidy; this was more (for) a casual, homely bachelor,” Hennah says. For The Hobbit, Hennah’s team took advantage of the fact that New Zealand can boast more traditional craftspeople than a Renaissance Fair. “We had potters and glass blowers and pipe makers and book binders. New Zealand is a great place for alternative lifestyles, and that often translates into making something that you can sell,” he explains. The designers created their own fantasy era rooted in 17th-century England, but “once you make up the rules, you have to stick with them or you break the spell,” Hennah says.

3) That’s no rubber fish that Dwalin is noshing on: It’s the real deal, caught by one of the prop dressers who’d been out just that morning trying his luck in the local bay. “There were probably quite a few real fish, we were cooking them up” to use on set, Hennah says. Since dead fish are like houseguests (best if they don’t stay around too long), the crew kept plenty of ice on hand to keep them fresh.

4) Often books on sets have authentic bindings but blank pages. But Bilbo, Hennah says, “is sort of a learned chap” who loves to read, so his books can’t hide on the shelf. Plus he’s writing his own book, There and Back Again, using a quill pen. A calligrapher with quill expertise was called in to create the book pages. And the calligrapher worked overtime on a document used in another scene at Bilbo’s home, when he reads over the alarming contract he must sign before accompanying the dwarves on their dangerous quest to reclaim Lonely Mountain from the dragon.

5) The Hobbit was shot in 3D using a high-speed 48 frames per second (normal 2D speed is 24 fps). Some film critics thought the images created by the high-speed process were too sharp, making The Hobbit look more like a videogame than a feature film. Critical taste aside, Hennah says that extra clarity required more careful attention to items in the background or middle ground that would have appeared out of focus in regular 2D. Plus, 3D tends to desaturate colors, so everything had to be made in brighter colors than it appears.

Behind The Scenes On The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Thomas J. McLean is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of AwardsLine.

Nearly 10 years after The Lord of the Rings trilogy wrapped its record-breaking run with a best picture Oscar and more than $3 billion in worldwide ticket sales, director Peter Jackson has done the last thing he expected: He got the band back together for
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

“I came away from Lord of the Rings with 266 days of shooting three movies and thought I’d never do that again in my life,” says Jackson. “Then we sat down at the first production meeting on The Hobbit, and I flipped to the last page of the schedule, and it was 266 days! It was exactly the same length of time! And I just said, ‘I cannot believe I find myself back at this place again.’ ”

From left: Hugo Weaving, Peter Jackson, and Ian McKellen on the set of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
From left: Hugo Weaving, Peter Jackson, and Ian McKellen on the set of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

The first in a new trilogy adapting the first book in J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic Middle Earth mythology, Jackson and his crew’s steady hand on The Hobbit offers reassuring creative continuity while pushing the technical envelope by adding stereoscopic 3D and, most controversially, shooting at 48 frames per second.

But much like Bilbo Baggins’ own journey, the 10-year road to making The Hobbit followed—a wandering path on its way to the screen. Originally pitched to Miramax in 1995 as a standalone film that could lead into The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit rights were split between the Saul Zaentz Company and MGM, and a fix was not possible at the time, Jackson says.

Those issues remained even after the Rings trilogy was completed in 2003, though Warner Bros. tapped Jackson and cowriters and producers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens a few years later to develop the film anyway in the hopes that a deal would be reached.

Martin Freeman plays the young Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Martin Freeman plays the young Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

“We would have worked on it for probably two years without a green light, which was a bit soul-destroying really because if you’re committing to something you want to know it’s happening,” says Jackson.

On the creative end, adapting The Hobbit proved a very different animal, says Boyens. Often thought of as a children’s book, The Hobbit also is very episodic, features a lot of characters, and has a tone that darkens considerably as it progresses.

Thinking a different sensibility would freshen up things, Jackson ceded the director’s chair to Guillermo del Toro. “We thought it would be interesting to have another director come onboard with a different sensibility, for the same reasons as they use different directors on Bond movies,” he says.

But with MGM in bankruptcy and no rights deal in sight, del Toro exited in 2010, prompting Jackson to take back the reins. “We felt a responsibility as producers and also, having developed the project with Guillermo, we had come to realize that his could be a really cool movie,” Jackson says.

Trolls enjoying a campfire in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Trolls enjoying a campfire in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Boyens says they started over on the script to tailor it both for Jackson and the cast, which includes returning members Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, Cate Blanchett, and Hugo Weaving alongside newcomers like Martin Freeman as Bilbo. Of del Toro’s version, Boyens says the biggest change is the portrayal of Bilbo.

“It shifted and changed into someone who, rather than being slightly younger and more innocent in the world, once had a sense of longing for adventure and has lost it and become fussy and fusty,” she says.

That led Jackson to Freeman. “We needed a dramatic actor because it is ultimately a dramatic role, but Bilbo Baggins is a much funnier character than Frodo was,” says Jackson. “There’s very few dramatic actors who can do comedy very well, but Martin seemed to possess the perfect qualities.”

Reuniting almost all of the crew from Rings gave Jackson, Boyens, and Walsh freedom to focus on the creative side, with first assistant director Carolynne Cunningham and unit production manager Zane Weiner stepping up to add producer duties and handle logistics.

“Peter’s got so much to worry about with directing that he relies on other people to sort out some of the other problems for him,” says Cunningham.

Drawing on material published in the appendix of The Return of the King, in addition to the dense text of The Hobbit itself, the project expanded from the original two-film adaptation to a trilogy. Boyens says this was entirely a creative decision and came from structuring the story to work onscreen. “It was really about what we would not be able to tell, what we’d have to leave out of the story,” she says.

Shooting at a high frame rate is something Jackson says has intrigued him for a long time, and he liked the look of the footage he made at 60 frames per second for Universal Studios’ King Kong theme-park ride. Early reaction has been split, however, earning accolades for its remarkable clarity and criticisms for the video-like quality of motion.

“It’s certainly different, and people are accustomed, obviously, to 24 frames being the look of film,” says Jackson. “But at the same time, do you also say that we achieved technical perfection in 1927? I mean, with all the technology that exists today, with all the ability we have to shoot 4K images and to project at high frame rates with these huge screens, the sound systems, do we settle for the 1927 standards, or do we say, ‘How can we use this technology to enhance the cinemagoing experience?’ ”

The frame rate had little effect on the 2,176 visual effects shots, says visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri. “There’s more work to be done, but a lot of what we do is independent of the frame rate,” he says.

The switch to 3D meant effects previously done with miniatures had to be done digitally, and advancements in technology meant nothing could be reused from earlier films. The main beneficiary was Gollum, who was completely rebuilt using new techniques to create anatomically correct musculature and more detail without changing the character’s look.

“The amount of detail in Gollum’s eye is more than what we had in his entire body on the first film,” says Letteri.

Technology also made it easier for Andy Serkis to reprise the role. Where he had to perform scenes multiple times for the original both on set and in controlled motion-capture environments, new motion-capture techniques allowed him just to play the character on set with Freeman.

“We played that scene out in its entirety every time we shot it, and it’s a 13-minute scene,” says Serkis. “It’s like a theater piece really, and we just explored it and mined it for everything that it was worth, and Peter shot it from lots of different angles.”

While Gollum has only one scene in the trilogy, Serkis took on additional responsibility as second-unit director. “Pete wanted me to be there because I’ve been through the experience of working on The Lord of the Rings trilogy and understand the rhythm and pace and stamina involved in keeping performance up during those films,” he says.

With all three films shot back to back, Jackson and crew are finishing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug for next December, and the concluding The Hobbit: There and Back Again for July 2014.

Jackson says he thinks making the trilogies in reverse order will make for a better, more cohesive six-film series in the end. “I think we got a much better unity shooting The Hobbit after The Lord of the Rings, ironically.”

Q&A: VFX Supervisor Eric Saindon On The Hobbit

When the Academy’s visual-effects peer group meets today to vote on this year’s short list, among the films they’ll be examining is Warner Bros. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Industry audiences and ardent fans will be pleased to see the familiar goblins and orcs, but visual-effects supervisor Eric Saindon says much of the technology underneath the characters is virtually unrecognizable from the first Lord of the Rings trilogy. Saindon recently spoke with AwardsLine about how much things have changed.

AWARDSLINE: What’s the biggest difference between the technology used on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey?

ERIC SAINDON: Back on Rings, we motion-captured Andy (Serkis), but on the first two Rings we motion-captured him on a stage. We got very rough motion—it was not bad, and it gave us his general performance. Then we always had lots of video cameras on him so that the animators could go in and then hand key-frame all of his facial poses. On this film, we actually capture all of Andy’s performance when he’s acting with Martin (Freeman), and we capture all his facial performance. We have a small camera attached in front of his face that actually captures his exact facial performance. Instead of an animator going in and putting that animation—or Andy’s performance—back onto the puppet, we sit with Andy and we go through his (performance) as a separate thing: “OK, this is your happy face,” “This is your sad face.” Our computer analyzes what pose he’s in when he’s on set making all these faces and puts it back into the pose Gollum would be in if he was making the same pose. Rather than an animator going in and doing it frame-by-frame, the computer analyzes Andy’s performance and then fires Gollum’s muscles to do the exact same thing. Really, the big difference is on Rings, everything was captured post. Frodo (Elijah Wood) did his thing on set—Andy was there most of the time acting also—but then Andy would have to do it again. Three weeks later, Andy would have to do the same performance, and Elijah’s performance couldn’t change. (This time) Martin and Andy actually just acted together, they acted off one another, and that performance—that exact performance—went back onto Gollum.

AWARDSLINE: It’s amazing that Andy was able to achieve the performance that he did in those first films.

SAINDON: Well, he’s not afraid of the technology. A lot of people get the suit on, and then they freeze up. Outside of the suits they did great, but then you get them in the suit and it takes them two days to get used to (it). It’s definitely an art that not everyone can do.

AWARDSLINE: What kind of challenges did the 3D aspect of the film pose for you?

SAINDON: One thing we did a lot of on this movie is 3D scans of every single set, and with this 3D scan we could bring it to the computer and have a 3D representation of the entire set with textures, model detail—everything that was actually shot. Because everything was in 3D in this movie, we needed a proper depth. On Rings, we could easily just cheat something. A foot contact that didn’t work or something that didn’t look like it was the right depth or space, we could just scale it down a little bit. With this movie, because everything was 3D, we had to do it at the proper scale and the proper depth, so when you’re watching it, it doesn’t hurt your head, and it doesn’t pop out as (not looking) quite right.

AWARDSLINE: As the technology constantly changes and improves, does it ever get easier or faster to put together a movie like this? It seems like the answer is probably no.

SAINDON: I would love to say that it’s easier, but it’s never easier. Our computers are 50 times faster than they were on Rings, and it still takes all night to render a shot properly. (Plus), the audience is expecting more. The general viewer going to see the film can spot a digital double, where back in the day, they really didn’t think about it as much. So you could get away with a little more. But nowadays the digital doubles have to look just like the actors. On Rings, we did very simple digital doubles (with) little bit of cloth and a few strands of hair. On this movie, we’ve done full-cloth simulations, skin dynamics, fat dynamics. It’s taken to a much more extreme level. Obviously, you can do things with a digital double that you never could do before, but it also requires a lot more computer power—a lot more time—to get it right. On Rings, we had about five terabytes of disk space for the whole movie. Then on this one, we’re in multiple petabytes of information, which is insane.