The Cinefex Quiz 2013

Did you enjoy the visual effects articles in Cinefex this year? Yes? Excellent! But did you really pay attention to what you were reading?

Now’s your chance to prove your worth, by taking part in the Cinefex Quiz 2013. We’ve put together seventeen questions, one for each of the films covered in the magazine this year. Are you ready to go? Then just click the banner below, and you’ll be whisked to our special Polldaddy quiz page. Don’t forget to let us know how you scored!

Good luck … and a Happy New Year from all of us at Cinefex!

The Cinefex Quiz 2013

Let It Snow

Every Christmas, I make a point of watching It’s a Wonderful Life. Talk about heart-warming. I never get tired of seeing George Bailey throw a lasso around the moon and Clarence get his wings. Ah, Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without it.

Plus, I’m a big fan of the special effects.

Yes, I know, Frank Capra’s best-loved film isn’t exactly famed for its camera trickery. Sure, there are a couple of nifty matte paintings, but otherwise it’s just a cosy seasonal tearjerker, right? Well …

James Stewart on the set of "It's a Wonderful Life"

Image copyright © Martha Holmes – Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

In 1948, the RKO special effects department – led by Russell Shearman – was presented with a Technical Achievement Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for inventing a whole new way of making snow for the movies. The film for which the new technique was developed was, you guessed it, It’s a Wonderful Life.

Before Shearman came along, one of the favourite ingredients used for cooking up fake snow was bleached corn flakes. Health issues aside (nobody wants to breathe corn dust all day and, boy, do the rodents love their breakfast cereal), those early efforts generally looked pretty good. However, as soon as the silent era gave way to that of sound, a new problem presented itelf: corn flakes are crunchy. As soon as the actors started walking around, the noise of their footsteps drowned out the dialogue.

Shearman’s innovation was to use Phomaide – the foam material employed in fire extinguishers. Sprayed in front of one of the new low-noise Ritter fans, Phomaide simulated falling snow in a way that was safe, silent and pleasing to the eye. As for the drifts of fallen snow you see in It’s a Wonderful Life, they’re made up variously of burlap-and-plaster banks, piles of gypsum and shaved ice and, yes, heaps and heaps of Phomaide.

In 2011, the Academy’s Science and Technology Council held a special It’s a Wonderful Life event hosted by Craig Barron and Ben Burtt. Here’s a great little video from the event in which special effects supervisor John Frazier demonstrates the Phomaide phenomenon.

Kristoff battles eternal winter with reindeer Sven in Disney's "Frozen"

Image copyright ©2013 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Fast-forward to the present day and what do we find? New ground has been broken yet again in the quest for realistic movie snow. This time the innovators are Walt Disney Animation Studios, the snow is digital, and the film is Frozen.

For Frozen, the Disney team developed an innovative material point simulation called Matterhorn, using a hybrid approach that combines particle/mesh sims with the grid-based approach of fluid sims.

Matterhorn allows for the creation of highly realistic snow that is at the same time both fluid and sticky. By dialling various parameters up and down, the snow can be made more or less powdery, compelled to clump together, and spread so as to present a resistant crust to the downward thrust of a character’s footfalls.

Disney’s material point simulation was presented at Siggraph earlier this year. If you want to read more about it – and watch a stunning video showing a range of applications for the process – check out Ian Failes’s recent article over at FXGuide.

In It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra uses his spanking new Phomaide snow to great dramatic effect. When trainee angel Clarence whisks the disillusioned George Bailey into a world where he was never born, the snow stops falling. When George returns to the here-and-now, the flakes start descending again. Capra’s message is simple: snow is like fairy dust. It’s magic.

Today is Christmas Eve. For me, it’s the one day of the year I always feel that maybe … just maybe … the fairy dust might be real. Whatever festival you may be celebrating this holiday season … whether you’re shovelling snow off your driveway or basking in antipodean heat … I beg you to indulge me, just for a moment.

Tilt back your head and gaze up at the sky. Imagine a host of little white flakes tumbling down towards you. Forget the 70 years separating It’s a Wonderful Life and Frozen. Forget about whether blizzards look better when they’re made of old-school frothing foam or cutting-edge prancing pixels. Remember that all the best movie moments, old and new, are sprinkled with fairy dust. Dusted with magic.

Let it snow.

The Cinefex Awards 2013

The Cinefex Awards 2013

Here at Cinefex we’ve just finished voting for our favourite visual effects of 2013. The result is the very first Cinefex Awards – our own personal thoughts about the movies we’ve featured in the magazine this year.

“What’s that?” you say. “When you guys report on a film’s visual effects, you set aside all emotion and just give us the facts. In the world of Cinefex, opinion is not an option.”

Damn right. That’s the ethos on which Cinefex was built. When it comes to the Cinefex Awards, however, we like to set aside our Vulcan qualities and bring out the human side. Forget objectivity – you want to know what we really think. Right?

Our awards shortlist comprises all the films featured in Cinefex issues 133-136. You’ll find the full list of nominees at the foot of this article.

The Cinefex "Jaw On The Floor" Award

The “Jaw On The Floor” Award … goes to the VFX that left us totally amazed

Don Shay – “Is there a soul on Earth (or above it) who wasn’t blown away by the very first shot in Gravity, a virtuoso 13-minute blend of artistry and technology, boldly conceived and exquisitely executed? Or by any of the other extended-take shots in this gripping tale of survival at its most extreme and terrifying? Alfonso Cuarón took us all into space, and without a rocket booster. James Cameron declared Gravity the best space film ever made. Well … yeah.”

Jody Duncan – “My winner is the ’embryo’ shot in Gravity. My amazement at the shot wasn’t for its dynamism or technical fireworks, but rather for its lyrical, graceful beauty.”

Joe Fordham – “The award goes to the opening shot of Gravity. I think I held my breath for 13 minutes.”

Gregg Shay – “Gravity was a truly amazing 3D IMAX experience.”

Janine Pourroy – “I’ve grown accustomed to being terrified or thrilled by VFX movies, and sometimes touched or even dazzled. But Gravity shifted my perspective like nothing else has, while also being thrilling and moving and dazzling … and also wonderfully, exquisitely quiet. It made me feel in my bones a notion too big for me to grasp in my head: my place in the vastness and loneliness of the cosmos.”

Graham Edwards – “Hard to articulate this, as my jaw is still on the floor after seeing Gravity. Actually, I reckon the Framestore-led VFX team has bagged this award under false pretences. I didn’t see any visual effects in Gravity at all. Alfonso Cuarón shot it all in space, right?”

The Cinefex "What Did I Just See" Award

The “What Did I Just See?” Award … goes to the invisible VFX we didn’t even spot

This one divided the team, with Ron Howard’s Formula 1 movie just managing to steal the chequered flag.

Don Shay – “Rush gets my vote for invisible effects. Sure, some of the racing shots are less than perfect – what do you expect when you’re doing such ballsy tricks as cloning real race cars from 30-year-old stock footage and dropping in digital replacements? But I’m willing to bet that I, and probably you, failed to notice most of the film’s effects shots, so beautifully integrated were they into the live-action racing footage.”

Graham Edwards – “The thrill of writing my first article for Cinefex  – on Rush – was matched only by my astonishment when I finally got to see the movie. Having spoken at length with the guys at Double Negative, I thought I knew what I was looking for. Yet, throughout the film, my VFX radar obstinately refused to blip. On leaving the cinema, I immediately served myself a large slice of humble pie.”

In this category, Jody cast her second vote for the Gravity embryo shot, commenting, “I only realized later, after reading Joe Fordham’s article, how much work went into it – the replacing of Sandra Bullock’s leg and so on.” Joe picked World War Z. “With the zombie doubles,” he said, “some of those closeup critters completely fooled me.” And Gregg opted for Skyfall, confessing, “I thought the scorpion was real.”

Janine was particularly impressed by Captain Phillips. “This one is really an award for ‘the invisible VFX I didn’t even think about until many days later’. When I wrote about Waterworld in the mid-90s, I had the nerve-rattling privilege of visiting the location shoot in Hawaii. They had to film water for real in those days, or just about, and the tension on the set was palpable. A long, expensive set-up could be ruined by an unexpected freighter chugging slowly through the background – and Mother Nature made the vast Pacific more foe than friend to the production every single minute … of every single day. To give the water not a THOUGHT during Captain Phillips is only a footnote to my appreciation for the film. I was with Tom Hanks and the rest of ‘em in real time – and taken in by the story so completely I forgot I was watching a movie. And isn’t that just the best?”

The Cinefex "Hmm, That's New" Award

The “Hmm, That’s New” Award … goes to the most innovative VFX

Joe Fordham – “I vote for Gravity – specifically the ‘baby’ shot. My mind slowly exploded as the filmmakers explained to me how this was put together.”

Janine Pourroy – “Gravity. Make that “WHOA! … That’s New!”

Graham Edwards – “Gravity wins hands-down. On the rare occasions I was able to detach my mind from the film’s compelling narrative drive, the thought that kept recurring to me was, ‘How the hell are they doing that?’ Now I’ve learned some of the behind-the-scenes secrets, my respect for the filmmakers has only increased.”

Gregg Shay chose Gravity too, heaping particular praise on Bot and Dolly, the innovative motion-control IRIS cameras used in the production.

Don resisted the temptation to vote for Gravity. “Since I’ve already given that one my ‘Jaw on the Floor’ award,” he conceded, “I’m going to spread the wealth a bit and go with World War Z and its startling and audacious assault on Jerusalem by hordes of zombies. Maybe that scene doesn’t represent true innovation in visual effects, but it sure passed my test for ‘Wow, that’s something I’ve never seen before.’ World War Z also gets my secondary award for ending with a taut, suspenseful, cat-and-mouse sequence, rather than a big visual effects battle. Am I the only one out there feeling battle fatigue these days?”

The Cinefex "Oldie But Goodie" Award

The “Oldie But Goodie” Award … goes to the best use of old-school visual effects

A split decision, with Eli Sasich’s science fiction short measuring up well against a host of big features.

Jody Duncan – “HENRi gets my vote, for the filmmaker’s attempts to use old-style rod puppetry – even though most of it was ultimately replaced with a CG character. I loved the photos in the magazine of the miniature sets with big ol’ heads peeking in to line up a rod-puppet shot.”

Janine Pourroy – “Sometimes new technology is the right tool to fuel the magic, but sometimes ‘oldie but goodie’ is the way to go, and we can see that pretty clearly with indie films like HENRi — or last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild – both of which have earned my admiration. Even so, old-style approaches continue to find their way into big-budget blockbusters. They’re just not always obvious. And there’s a respect for these old traditions among new generations of artists that delights the heck out of me.”

Don Shay – “Every year or so, if we’re lucky, we get to cover a film whose director favors old-school techniques over workstation alchemy. Christopher Nolan took a break this year, after wrapping his Dark Knight trilogy, but, happily, Sam Mendes stepped in to exercise that aesthetic on Skyfall, using large-scale practical effects and miniatures seasoned with just enough digital artistry to get the job done. How about a round of applause for stunts and gags that obey the laws of physics?”

Gregg Shay – “Skyfall featured lots of great practical stuff.”

Joe opted for Oblivion, specifically the Skytower front projection scenes: “The shots putting clouds around Tom Cruise’s apartment in the clouds get my vote. It was pretty thrilling to see this in-camera technique used so effectively again, and to such beautiful effect.”

The Cinefex "Eye Candy" Award

The “Eye Candy” Award … goes to the VFX that looked plain gorgeous

Graham Edwards – “Pacific Rim has divided audiences, but I enjoyed it immensely, and I loved how it looked. Giant robots staggering out of the mist, sparkling in the neon lights of Hong Kong or wading thigh-deep through frothing ocean waters … just fabulously beautiful. Oblivion came a close second. I loved the clean, crisp look of the Skytower scenes.”

Don Shay – “Personally, I prefer brain candy or heart candy to eye candy, but I guess I’ll have to go with Pacific Rim – somewhat begrudgingly, because I thought the film was a failure by almost any standard I care to apply – 131 minutes in fruitless search of a story or character I could care about. But the effects were spectacular and the film looked great.”

Joe Fordham and Gregg Shay also chose Pacific Rim. “Hong Kong fight,” said Joe. “So pretty.”

The Cinefex "Wake Me When It's Over" Award

The “Wake Me When It’s Over” Award … goes to the VFX that left us cold

Don Shay – “The big question was not whether you’d believe a man could fly (no sweat, these days), but whether Superman could be resurrected as a viable franchise. For the first hour and a half, I was fully onboard with Man of Steel. Then came the battle of Smallville, followed in an eyeblink by the battle of Metropolis, and I was lost in the overlong orgy of digital destruction as Superman and General Zod slugged it out for … well, I didn’t really care at that point. Man of Steel was the year’s most flagrant example of ‘more is better’ effects-think.”

Jody Duncan – “The standout is the entire final battle sequence in Man of Steel. As always, for me, it’s not the VFX shots themselves – which were state-of-the-art and, in many cases, spectacular – but rather the context in which we see them. Whatever psychological or physiological element it is that’s required to make such a sequence elevate one’s adrenaline levels – a ‘Y’ chromosome, maybe, or a lifespan that measures fewer than 19 years – I ain’t got it.”

Joe Fordham – “Man of Steel – the visual effects were well done, but horrifyingly violent.”

Graham Edwards – “Man of Steel. I loved the Krypton sequence, and the early Clark stuff. Playing up the ‘alien on Earth’ angle worked well. But once the fighting started, and went on … and on … I’m afraid I came close to dozing off.”

The Cinefex "Big Cheesy Grin" Award

The “Big Cheesy Grin” Award … goes to the VFX moment that made us feel like kids again

Janine Pourroy – “This one goes to Skyfall, for sure. I loved the perfect timing of Daniel Craig’s cuff-straightening after he lands in the train carriage during the chase sequence in Istanbul, and I really, really loved the opening credits montage (weren’t they just great?). But, truly, every time the famous James Bond music swelled to punctuate a quintessentially ‘Bond’ moment, I believe a ‘big cheesy grin’ is exactly what I had.”

Joe Fordham – “The moment in Skyfall when, after chasing a criminal through the streets of Istanbul and driving a multi-ton digger up across the back of a speeding train, James Bond hops down into the back of a passenger carriage and adjusts his cufflinks.”

Graham picked Star Trek Into Darkness. “I’m voting for the sequence near the beginning where the Enterprise rises out of the Nibiru ocean. It seems like everyone’s doing big water sims these days, but the sight of that iconic starship shedding approximately sixty gazillion cubic feet of water while powering its way up into the stratosphere was without doubt my air-punch moment of the year.”

Iron Man III was the movie that put a big smile on Gregg’s face: “I loved the big battle with all of the suits at the end.”

The Cinefex "One That Got Away" Award

The “One That Got Away” Award … goes to the best VFX in a film we didn’t cover

There was no clear winner in this category … but there was still plenty of opinion.

Don Shay – “There are always worthy films that don’t get covered in Cinefex. An abundance of competing projects is most often the reason, followed closely by bad timing and/or the inability to get interviews and images when we need them. Sometimes, to be honest, no one on the writing staff wants to see certain films, let alone write about them. I’ll let you guess which category this one falls into, but the film I most regret not covering this year was The Great Gatsby, an over-the-top Baz Luhrmann extravaganza that was breathtaking in its ultra-stylized evocation of the Jazz Age. Talk about eye candy.”

Joe Fordham (who’s decided to make this the “Two That Got Away” award) – “I had lots of fun with Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead remake, much more than I expected, as it’s also probably the bloodiest film of the year. To tell the truth, I didn’t even want to see it, as I was a fan of Sam Raimi’s nutty, grubby original. But they put a clever spin on the plot, turning the familiar cabin in the woods scenario into a drug intervention, and Jane Levy was spectacular as the possessed junkie hero. Inventive and ferocious, but most definitely not for the squeamish.

“Far less gory, and overlooked, I also greatly admired All is Lost, the Robert Redford ocean survival story directed by J.C. Chandor. Some people called it the ‘anti-Gravity’ because it’s a similarly single-minded story about a lone survivor struggling against all odds, yet it was done on a comparative shoestring. I admired it for its invention and its ability to create empathy and tension in an almost-wordless story. Amazing sound design, too, by two of Skywalker Sound’s top guys, Richard Hymns and Steve Boeddeker, who signed on for the heck of it.”

The Cinefex "Never Mind The VFX" Award

And finally … The “Never Mind The VFX” Award … goes to simply the best movie of the year

Jody Duncan – “Gravity. It was innovative, moving, suspenseful, and the effects served the story, instead of the other way around.”

Graham Edwards – “I went into Gravity expecting to be wowed by the visuals. But I hadn’t expected to be so transported by the story, and by its telling. Story is everything, right? It gripped me, exhilarated me, and moved me, more than any film I’ve seen for quite a while. Oh, and even though this is the ‘Never Mind the VFX’ award, I have to add that the visual effects are possibly the best I’ve ever seen. Period.”

Joe cast a provisional vote for Gravity, commenting, “Ask me again in January. BAFTA is still shoving awards contenders down my throat. I’m looking forward to Spike Jonze’s Her, and I enjoyed the Coen Brothers’ new one Inside Llewyn Davis, but Gravity is right up there.”

Gregg voted for Skyfall, while Don opted for Captain Phillips. “I could make a strong argument for a couple of little indies hardly anyone saw,” said Don, “but if I limit myself to mainstream Hollywood fare, Captain Phillips jumps to the top of the list. I’m sure there were effects in that film, but I was so gripped by the narrative that I never thought to look for them, or remember them if they passed through my mind, subliminally. Anchored by first-rate performances from old pro Tom Hanks and first-timer Barkhad Abdi, this true story of piracy and abduction on the high seas, crackling with Paul Greengrass’ genius for taut, suspenseful, documentary-style filmmaking, makes this film my best of the year.”

That concludes the Cinefex Awards 2013. Now it’s over to you. You’re familiar with the awards categories. You’ve surely seen at least some of the movies on our list of nominees. So what gets your vote?

List of Nominees

  • Skyfall
  • Oz: The Great and Powerful
  • Jack the Giant Slayer
  • Les Misérables
  • Iron Man III
  • Star Trek Into Darkness
  • Oblivion
  • White House Down
  • HENRi
  • Elysium
  • World War Z
  • Pacific Rim
  • Man of Steel
  • Gravity
  • Rush
  • Thor: The Dark World
  • Carrie

The Difficulty With Dragons

Smaug's Eye - Image property of Weta Digital and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

Dragons. They get everywhere, don’t they?

In Europe, the dragons of fairy tale and folklore are best known for roasting knights and eating virgins. In China, the colourful serpent is a symbol of power and good fortune. If you journey to Australia, you’re likely to trip over the Rainbow Serpent, creator of the world and denizen of the Dreamtime. The Americas have Quetzalcoatl, winged god of the dawn, while in Africa snakelike dragons slither limbless through some of the most ancient mythologies on Earth.

Smaug, the latest dragon to fly across our movie screens, is famous for hoarding gold. His anatomy follows the traditional European model: four legs, scaly armour, huge leathery wings and a propensity to breathe fire. However, he’s more than just a monster, possessing as he does the power not only of speech, but seduction too.

As I write this, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is poised to hit cinemas across the world. Tolkien fans are hoping that this latest excursion to Middle Earth delivers the definitive Smaug. All that expectation must weigh heavily on the creative team, and I’m as curious as the next guy to see what Weta Digital have up their sleeves. You see, there are some very real problems associated with bringing to life a creature like Smaug.

In short, dragons are difficult.

Difficulty #1 – Dragons Are Big

It’s tricky to put a massive creature next to a tiny hero and get any kind of relationship going other than your basic visceral thrill. In the Harry Potter films, we see Harry first battling a Hungarian Horntail, and later riding a Ukrainian Ironbelly. The former is your standard arena beast. The latter provides a hazardous mount for Harry and his chums as they flee Gringott’s Bank, but it’s little more than an exotic ride.

When a beast gets too big, it’s hard to see it as anything other than, well, a beast. It’s hard to frame your shots. Pull back enough to see the whole dragon and your human protagonists are reduced to dolls. Go close on their faces and the dragon is just a mass of scales.

Dragon - Die Nibelungen

Picture credit: Decla Bioscop – The Kobal Collection

Difficulty #2 -Dragons Are Dangerous

I don’t just mean they’re dangerous in the stories. I’m talking about the hazards on set. In Cinefex #25, Eric Kettlehutt describes the fifty-foot articulated dragon he created for Fritz Lang’s 1924 epic Die Nibelungen (released in the US as Siegfried):

“The head and neck of the dragon were as hard as iron and moved around hastily and incalculably. An unfortunate stroke of this heavy mass could have broken a man’s bones.”

Fortunately, actor Paul Richter survived not only the physical jousting, but also the risks associated with the dragon’s fire-breathing apparatus – a hazardous assembly of acetylene fuel, lycopodium powder, assorted hoses and a pair of bellows, all of which combined to create jets of flame up to thirty feet long.

Difficulty #3 – Dragons Are Reptilian

Okay, on the face of it this doesn’t sound like a difficulty. But, if you’re trying to create something more than a monster, it’s a real problem. In order to engage with a character, we usually need to see something human in its countenance – and when you’re faced with a long, crocodile snout, rigid scales and eyes with vertical slits, that’s a big ask.

Draco – star of Rob Cohen’s 1996 movie Dragonheart – is a decent compromise between human and reptilian. Not only does his short muzzle allow reasonable articulation for spoken dialogue, but the artists at ILM also managed to incorporate into his face echoes of Sean Connery (the actor who provided Draco’s voice). The downside of this is that Draco ends up looking more like an exotic dinosaur than a bona fide dragon.

Vermithrax Pejorative - DragonslayerDifficulty #4 – Dragons Can Fly

One of my favourite dragons of all is Vermithrax Pejorative in Matthew Robbins’s 1981 film Dragonslayer. Beautifully realised in both miniature and full-scale form – and benefiting hugely from ILM’s then state-of-the-art go-motion system – I think this iconic creature still looks terrific today … most of the time.

Like the Potter dragons, Vermithrax Pejorative is not really a dragon but a wyvern. Unlike the six-limbed Draco, she has the anatomy of a bat, with two legs and a pair of wings. When she walks, her clumsy loping gait is brought perfectly to life by animator Phil Tippett. When she hovers, huge wings beating the air, she looks glorious. Sadly, when she’s swooping around, all she does is glide, and a lot of the drama is lost.

The decision to use minimal wingbeats was made by writer/director Robbins and his co-writer Hal Barwood. ILM’s Ken Ralston, who animated the flying scenes, fought against it. In Cinefex #6, Ralston says, “The first flying dragon I shot was not at all the way it ended up in the film. It was a slower, more serpentine thing; and there was much more flapping.” Robbins rationalises the changes he enforced by saying, “I wanted it to move with very little wing movement. The more it had to flap to stay airborne, the more it sort of seemed to be struggling.”


After all that, there’s only one conclusion to be drawn: it’s hard to put a really memorable dragon up on the screen. I reckon the Hobbit crew have got their work cut out checking all those boxes. In a recent video production diary, director Peter Jackson proves he’s ready for at least the first of my challenges by promising  to serve up a dragon that truly fills the screen: “The one thing that I knew I wanted from the very beginning,” he says, “was to make him just massive.”

So will Jackson succeed in his ambition? Will he deliver a dragon without difficulties? We’re about to find out.

UK Government Announces VFX Tax Relief

Last week, VFX artists in California held a rally drawing attention to issues raised by differences in subsidies throughout the global visual effects industry. The difficulties currently faced by VFX facilities in the USA stand in stark contrast to the benefits being enjoyed by their counterparts in the UK.

Today, in the UK Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, it was announced that, from April 2014, UK film tax relief is to be extended to support Digital Visual Effects. A key contributor to the Government’s decision-making process was UK Screen, the trade association for the film and TV facilities sector. They in turn took advice from Europe’s largest visual effects facility, Double Negative.

Alex Hope - Managing Director of Double NegativeAlex Hope, managing director of Double Negative, had this to say about these latest tax changes:

“Adjusting the film tax relief so that it reflects changes in the production process will enable the UK industry to capitalise on its strengths in VFX and cutting-edge production technologies. This makes financial and creative sense.

“Digital technologies have transformed the film-making process, and will continue to do so, giving film-makers new ways to tell their stories. VFX sits in the vanguard of these changes, with increases in VFX budgets from between 10 and 50% of the overall budget. This can be £20m-£25m on just one film.

“It is vital that the UK has an integrated approach to the digital future of the film industry. The Government has recognised this with the support announced in April’s budget for R&D into digital content production through the Technology Strategy Board, and support for skills development in the sector, through the Skills Investment Fund. Today’s announcement is crucial in giving VFX companies confidence to continue investing in their UK-based operations and generating further growth for film and the creative industries.

“Over the past 15 years the UK’s VFX businesses have made significant investment in infrastructure, skills and training and the UK has established itself as a global centre for VFX, winning Academy Awards® and securing further incoming production business. The UK film industry has benefited from being able to offer a complete service covering all aspects film-making activity, but until today’s announcement the structure of the tax relief, whilst attracting production activity to the UK, has resulted in some films shooting in the UK taking VFX work overseas.

“Today’s measures target the integral role of VFX in film-making and productions that would not otherwise qualify for tax relief and incentivise them to bring VFX or production business to the UK, representing a significant growth opportunity for the UK film industry.”


Transformation scenes have always pulled in the crowds. Victorian theatres were packed with hidden stage machinery designed to turn pumpkins into princesses, or make entire castles materialise under the gaze of the astonished audience. Even before the days of smoke, mirrors and Pepper’s Ghost, Shakespeare shifted some shapes of his own when he turned the hapless Bottom into a braying donkey.

Over the years, the movie business too has offered up all manner of magical metamorphoses. Early experiments involved simply stopping the camera mid-shot and replacing one actor with another. As filmmakers perfected optical tricks like dissolves and wipes, transformation effects became more subtle. At the same time, developments in make-up and mechanics permitted ever more elaborate illusions to be played out right in front of the lens.

Given the extraordinary variety of shapeshifters that have writhed their way across the silver screen, it’s hard to choose a favourite. Here are three of mine:

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde TransformationDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

In Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Fredric March plays a brilliant physician who creates a potion that unleashes his monstrous alter ego. In the central transformation scene, we see March change from gentle Jekyll to homicidal Hyde in a single shot. The special effects for this sequence were masterminded by Wally Westmore.

The master shot begins on Jekyll’s face, which contorts in agony as the potion takes hold. The flesh around his eyes darkens and his cheeks appear to sink. The camera pans to Jekyll’s hand clutching the arm of the chair on which he’s sitting, before returning to his face. Each time this move is repeated, the actor’s face has changed further. By the end of the shot, Jekyll has become Hyde, complete with unruly hair, an upturned nose and a set of ferocious teeth.

It’s easy to guess how some of the gross changes were done, with unseen artists altering March’s face while the camera was pointed at his hand. Less obvious – and infinitely more clever – is the way layers of different-coloured make-up were applied to March’s face, with each layer revealed in succession by switching coloured filters in front of the lens. Photographed in black and white, the shifting colours read as fluid changes in the actor’s physiognomy. As with all great illusions, the changes happen right before your eyes.

An American Werewolf in London TransformationAn American Werewolf in London

Until An American Werewolf in London was released in 1981, filmmakers had relied mostly on clever cutting and nifty optical dissolves to turn their leading men into lycanthropes. Director John Landis changed all that when he briefed Rick Baker to create what still stands as the best werewolf transformation ever.

In an Oscar-winning tour de force of animatronic and make-up effects, Baker shows us every painful contortion of David Kessler’s body as his anatomy reshapes itself from human to lupine form … while all the time Bobby Vinton sings Blue Moon. Using home-made pneumatics, a super-stretchy urethane-elastomer flesh substitute called Smooth-on #724 and upwards of ten operators, he reshaped actor David Naughton into a horrific, hairy beast.

I hardly need describe the sequence, so iconic has it become. But I will remind you how everything – the extending fingers, the vertebrae snapping out of Naughton’s spine, the juddering extension of his jawline into the muzzle of the werewolf – plays out in bright daylight in an ordinary London apartment. No horror-movie lighting here, no shadows to hide the joins. I’ll also point out how successfully Baker’s effects integrate with the editing and sound design. The result is compelling storytelling, agonisingly presented from the poor protagonist’s pain-racked perspective.

(1981 was a bumper year for werewolves, with Rob Bottin’s decidedly more funky transformations in The Howling giving Baker a run for his money. In my opinion, Baker wins this one hands down.)

Dark City TransformationDark City

Shapeshifting isn’t just about fantasies of the flesh. In Alex Proyas’s Dark City, released in 1998, entire city blocks are on the move. Yes, I’m talking about a marvellous metropolis metamorphosis!

Now, I know there are still lots of you out there who haven’t seen Dark City. For that reason, I’m going to avoid spoilers – this is one of those films you really do need to see without any preconceptions. All I’ll say is, if you like Blade RunnerThe Matrix and Inception, and don’t mind a film that’s a little rough around the edges, this one’s definitely for you.

In Dark City‘s transformation sequences, whole buildings twist and turn. A brownstone tenement elongates to become a skyscraper. A mall becomes a church. A moody and vaguely gothic skyline rearranges itself in an ballet of architecture. Why does this happen? In story terms, I’m not telling you, but I will reveal that the visual effects are the product of what at the time was boundary-pushing CG and miniatures work, created by Sydney-based DFilm Services, now part of Animal Logic.

Okay, what was boundary-pushing in 1998 looks a little dated now. The morphing of the buildings, extraordinary as it is, is somehow just a little too smooth and mathematical. But I don’t care. The concept is so visionary, and the execution so brave and ambitious, I can forgive the sequences – and indeed the film – any minor shortcomings. And that’s all I’m prepared to say, other than to encourage you to dust off that DVD (make sure it’s the superior Director’s Cut) and give Dark City a second look. If you’ve never seen it before, prepare yourself for a treat.

Well, I’ve shared my own trio of transformations. Now it’s over to you. Have you got a favourite shapeshifter?