| ||Each year, seven films compete for an Oscar nomination at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences’ visual effects branch annual show and tell, the visual effects “bakeoff.” Once the accountants tally the votes, 12 people, four representing each of the three winning films, become Oscar nominees.|
This year’s bakeoff mix included 'Casino Royale', 'Eragon', 'Night at the Museum', 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest', 'Poseidon', 'Superman Returns', and 'X-Men: The Last Stand'. During the bakeoff, representatives for each film showed a 15 minute reel with shots from the final film; no making-of’s, no breakdowns, no “how to’s” – the rules are very strict.
On January 23, the Academy announced the three winning films and the Oscar nominees
| ||chosen for their work on these films: |
'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest' (Buena Vista): John Knoll, Hal Hickel, Charles Gibson and Allen Hall;
'Poseidon' (Warner Bros.): Boyd Shermis, Kim Libreri, Chaz Jarrett and John Frazier;
and 'Superman Returns' (Warner Bros.): Mark Stetson, Neil Corbould, Richard R. Hoover and Jon Thum.
These three films arguably showcase the most ambitious and technically innovative visual effects work this year. For ‘Pirates,’ Industrial Light & Magic invented iMoCap, which helped the crew create the remarkable, all-digital Davy Jones and his crew. For ‘Poseidon,’ ILM developed state of the art systems for simulating enormous volumes of water that sank the ship, and the Moving Picture Company and Scanline raised the bar by
| ||mixing fire, dust, water and other elements within one simulation. For ‘Superman Returns,’ Sony Pictures Imageworks turned to technology from Paul Debevec to push the state of digital doubles even closer to the camera. But those innovations are only part of each film’s visual effects story. We talked with Oscar nominees from each film about the bakeoff and about this year’s batch of visual effects films. For ‘Superman Returns,’ VFX Supervisor Mark Stetson. For ‘Poseidon,’ VFX Supervisor Boyd Shermis. And for ‘Pirates,’ VFX Supervisor John Knoll and animation director Hal Hickel, both of whom generously gave their time to answer questions in the Davy Jones Appreciation forum last summer.|| |
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Mark Stetson’s first international recognition was in 1982 for his miniature effects work on Ridley Scott's ‘Blade Runner,’ for which he was the chief model maker. Since then, he has received three visual effects nominations (‘2010,’ ‘Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings,’ and ‘Superman Returns’) and won an Oscar for ‘Fellowship.’ In addition, he’s won two BAFTA awards (‘Fellowship’ and ‘The Fifth Element’).
For ‘Superman Returns,’ he supervised the work of 11 studios: Sony Pictures Imageworks, Framestore CFC, Rhythm & Hues, Rising Sun Pictures, The Orphanage, Photon VFX, Frantic Films, Lola Visual Effects, Pixel Liberation Front, Eden FX, and New Deal Studios, all of which had a hand in bringing home the nomination.
“In my introductory comments at the bakeoff,” Stetson says, “I talked about all the scenes I had to cut from the demo reel to end up with 15 minutes. On the first cut, I chopped off all the fat and left only the meaty visual effects shots and I still had a half-hour reel. I had to cut a lot of great stuff.”
Even so, he believes the bakeoff voters recognized the scope of the work, the integration of the effects into the story, and the quality of the work.
“We had a bunch of environments,” he says, “from a Kansas cornfield to the crystal environments. We had the sky over the eastern seaboard of Manhattan. We had ocean work for a sea rescue that Rhythm & Hues did. Ocean work and crystal island that Framestore CFC’s did. It was a huge body of work. Every place the movie took you was another visual effects environment.” The crew called the environments without visual effects “safe zones.” And even one of those few environments, the interior of the Daily Planet, became a visual effects shot when a shockwave hit Metropolis and the crew had to composite a damaged city outside the Perry’s office window.
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The shots left on the Stetson’s reel still showed a wide range of work in ‘Superman Returns.’ The reel begins with a visit to the “fortress of solitude.” Stetson cut from there to young Superman running through the cornfields, and then showed the shuttle disaster sequence created at Imageworks. “I carried it from the main engines firing on the shuttle until Superman guides the Boeing 777 to a touchdown in the ball field,” he says, describing the sequence created at Imageworks. “Then we had a few shots from the ‘listening post’ sequence.” That’s when Superman hovers in the air outside Lois Lane’s house.
From there, he cut to the bank job, the sea rescue, and Superman hoisting Lex’s island out of the ocean. “We had to show the bullet in Superman’s eye,” he says, referring to a shot created at The Orphanage during the bank heist. He skipped Superman’s return to the fortress of solitude, though, as well as the entire Metropolis ‘disaster’ sequence.
“I cut Superman’s fight with Lex Luther,” he says, “and instead went from Lex stepping out onto the ledge all the way to the cliff side where Superman falls off. We have a close-up of his face when he starts to fall. I’m sure no one knows that’s a digital shot.”
The plan had been to use a greenscreen shot of Brandon Routh (Superman) falling into a bag, but the in-camera stunt didn’t work. Instead, Imageworks created a digital Superman. “Because Imageworks did a terrific job with digital Superman, we were able to make the best choices for the film,” Stetson says. “We always tried to use Brandon, but when we couldn’t, we could use CG to improve the shot.”
To create Routh’s face for digital double close-ups, Imageworks used the Light Stage 2 system that Paul Debevec and his team at the Institute for Creative Technology developed. For facial expressions, the studio used motion capture data based on the FACS (Facial Action Coding System). Motion capture data also helped animators create his physical performance.
One such performance takes place during one of Shermis’s favorite shots. Even though it was a difficult shot, he didn’t include it in the bakeoff reel, which suggests the depth of the effects in this film. “At the end of the movie, Superman flies past the camera over the entire city of Metropolis,” he says. “It was the hardest shot and one of the prettiest. We shot [the city beneath] backwards. Imageworks had to paint out all the traffic in the island of Manhattan.”
As for his competitors in the race for the Oscar? Stetson singles out ‘Charlotte’s Web’ as a film that deserved to be in the bakeoff, but didn’t make it. “The effects in ‘Charlotte’s Web’ looked really good, but I don’t know which film I’d take off the list to make room for it,” he says. “We’re all getting so good at integrating the work into the film and pushing these barriers all the time, creating characters, duplicating humans, creating environments. As long as we can keep our exploration going and keep creating these different looks the audience will stay interested and perhaps enthralled.”
“Davy Jones was really well rendered and animated and it was cool. It really helped tell the story,” he says. “And the crews did a great job on ‘Poseidon’ – the water effects were really different. But, actually, I didn’t see any clinker shots in any of the seven films in the bakeoff. All those films deserved to be there and probably others.”
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