Life After Pi

Life After Pi Main Title

On February 24th 2013, Rhythm & Hues Studios received an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, in recognition of their groundbreaking work on Life of Pi.

In an ironic twist of fate, just two weeks earlier, the LA-based company had declared bankruptcy and, in the space of three hours, laid off 254 employees.

Directed and edited by Scott Leberecht, Life After Pi is a documentary chronicling not only this extraordinary chain of events, but also its effects on the visual effects industry as a whole. In addition, it outlines with masterful clarity the complex issue of government subsidies, the economic effects of which have forced many visual effects artists to adopt a migrant lifestyle.

Life After Pi does all this in a calm and measured way, telling a tragic story without once resorting to sensationalism. Its poignant message is all the more powerful for the restraint with which it is delivered.

The film’s real triumph lies in its extensive use of first-hand interviews. A range of staff from Rhythm & Hues – from animators and visual effects artists to the company’s founders – talk candidly about their experiences during the company’s collapse. Less than two minutes in, Animation Layout Supervisor Lulu Simons sets the tone by saying, “What do I love about Rhythm & Hues? Mostly the people.”

Those people are the reason to watch this film.

By all means, watch it to witness the last sad days of one of the truly great LA visual effects companies. And yes, watch it to learn exactly how an on-stage debacle at the Oscars led to an international campaign in which social media icons turned green overnight, spreading the message: “This is what your movie would look like without visual effects.”

Watch it also if you want to appreciate the nomadic life of a “pixel gypsy” living out of hotel rooms in the rootless pursuit of employment, chasing visual effects work as it circles the globe in search of the next cheapest place to set up shop.

Do all that. But above all, watch Life After Pi for the faces on the screen.

The “Go Green” campaign for better working practice in visual effects is in part driven by anger. That’s understandable. Anger is a natural reaction to the human “fight or flight” response to threat. And what is the visual effects industry facing currently if not threat?

However, if misdirected, anger is a destructive force. Only last week I was dismayed to read a torrent of abuse unleashed in the comments stream of an industry blog against a well-respected visual effects professional, all triggered by an out-of-context quote in a British newspaper. The anger represented in those comments may be real, but it depresses me to see it turned against the very industry it wants to save.

That’s why Life After Pi is essential viewing, not just for visual effects professionals around the world, but for everybody in the film industry. It spells out clearly and concisely the state of play in the world of visual effects – and does so with a dignified strength that’s simultaneously calm and irresistible.

More importantly, it reminds us that visual effects is not about pixels, but people. You’ll find no clearer evidence of this than in Rhythm & Hues founder Keith Goldfarb’s simple assertion that, “My best friends in my life are people that I’ve met here.”

That’s why, when you watch Life After Pi, I urge you not to see the people on the screen as fellow professionals fighting against overwhelming odds.

Instead, see them as friends.

Life of Pi shot breakdown

Here’s what Don Shay, founder and publisher of Cinefex, had to say about the film:

Frank, but not inflammatory, Life After Pi takes us behind the scenes of the ironically-timed demise of Rhythm & Hues, and puts a very human face on an industry-wide tragedy that finds award-winning visual effects companies struggling to survive and talented effects artists leading migrant lives in search of gainful employment – all in crucial support of movies that make billions at the boxoffice.

All of the artists and Rhythm & Hues executives interviewed for the film were well-chosen, thoughtful and articulate, with views ranging from sadness to anger to resignation. In particular, I found much of what the company’s soft-spoken founder, John Hughes, had to say quietly heartbreaking.

Life After Pi presents its case and calls for change, but offers little in way of solutions – or even hope. And should it? Possibly not. Why, after all, would film studios, which hold all the cards, change a terribly flawed business model that works so obviously in their favor, unless they are, quite literally, left with no one to make their tentpole extravaganzas?”

For up-to-the minute reporting on the continuing campaign for a better deal for visual effects artists, start here:

Roger Christian’s “Black Angel”

Were you in the audience when The Empire Strikes Back was released in 1980? If so – and if you lived in the UK, Scandinavia or Australia – you may remember the short fantasy film that supported it. The film was called Black Angel, and it was directed by Roger Christian, the Academy Award-winning set decorator of Star Wars, and Oscar-nominated art director of Alien.

After its run with Empire, Black Angel was forgotten. In time, all known negatives and prints were lost. Christian’s film entered the very realm of myth it had sought to conjure up.

Then, in 2012, a copy of Black Angel was found by an archivist from Universal Studios. It had been in storage in a WWII bunker in the UK and gone missing. In October 2013, after painstaking restoration by David Tanaka and Brice Parker with Athena Studios, it was shown at the Mill Valley Film Festival in San Rafael, California.

“I stood up in front of the audience,” said Christian. “The cinema was full and they were very expectant. Black Angel was the closing film and I said, ‘Please set your clocks back 33 years.’ You see it’s not fast-paced like today’s films. But a lot of young people really liked it. I grilled them afterwards and they told me the pacing still works, that it really gets into your mind.”

On February 25th 2014, Black Angel continues its journey back into the light at the Glasgow Film Festival, after which it will embark on a short tour of Scotland, where it was originally made. Christian also plans to make it available to a wider audience. “I’m determined to get the film out as fast as I can after Glasgow. Everyone’s telling me I should make Blu-rays and DVDs, and take them to the sci-fi conventions. We’re arranging to do that in Toronto – they have a huge fan expo there through the summer. But the main thing is to get it online.”

"Black Angel" - the maiden

Black Angel tells the story of a mediaeval knight returning from an overseas war. Finding his homeland destroyed and his family dead, he decides to return to the war. On the way, he falls into a river and is transported to a mystical realm where he has to fight the Black Angel – a figure representing death itself – to save a maiden in distress.

Christian first started thinking about Black Angel while at film school, in which he enrolled following his work on Star Wars and Alien. Despite more offers of design work, he dreamed of become a film director. “I remember sitting at home – I was eating a bowl of brown rice and I was absolutely broke – when I was offered the design on Conan the Barbarian,” he recalled. “I turned it down because I was trying to get Black Angel made – but I couldn’t afford to get it made at film school.”

Fate stepped in while Christian was sitting in on a sound mixing session for Alien. “Sandy Lieberson, the head of Fox, came in. I told him the story of Black Angel  and he said, ‘Fax it to me tonight.’ The next day he called me and said, ‘Do you mind if I send this to George Lucas? He got really upset with us at Fox about the short film we put out with Star Wars.’”

Liking the story – in particular its mythological themes – Lucas gave the go ahead to produce the film using money from the Eady Fund. “Typical of George, he told Fox nobody was to touch the movie. I was to finish it completely, and then he would be the first person to see the finished product. So we went and made this film, as an act of faith and with no money.”

Inspired by the films of Akira Kurosawa, Christian scouted dramatic locations in Scotland. “I always had Eilean Donan castle in mind. There’s a certain pre-Raphaelite romantic fantasy idea about the mediaeval world, which I love, and I knew that this had to be the location.”

Roger Christian and Roger Pratt on location for "Black Angel"

Roger Christian (right) and Roger Pratt on location for “Black Angel”

Black Angel was shot in seven days on a budget of £25,000, with Christian’s tiny crew of eight driving frantically between various Scottish locations including Dornie, the Kyle of Lochalsh and Dunoon. “I gambled on going right at the end of the fall,” said Christian, “because the skies up there are amazing at that time of year. When we’d finished – literally as we were driving back to the airport in Glasgow – the snow came with a vengeance. So I lucked out.”

Luck remained with Christian throughout the intense, guerrilla-style shoot. For example, in the fight scene in which the knight Sir Maddox first encounters the Black Angel, Christian wanted specifically to re-create the atmosphere of a Frank Frazetta painting called The Death Dealer. “I found this arena in the pine trees,” he explained, “ and we put in smoke with a little hand-held smoke machine. It looked pretty nice but it wasn’t quite there. And then God struck. The sun burst through the clouds for one minute and made veins of light around this black knight. We just panicked and shot it, and it was exactly what I’d imagined. Things like that just kept happening, and they made a huge difference to the film.”

The Black Angel

To help create the right mythical ambience, Christian hit on the idea of spraying cobwebs into the air. “As we started shooting, the fights weren’t working for me, but I had so little film that I couldn’t experiment. I’d brought cobweb spray for the armour, so I had my costume designer Charles Knode spray it in the air and it came down like gossamer. When it was slowed down it gave a great, weird look.”

The decision to slow down the fight scenes was borne out of necessity: “I didn’t have enough footage to meet my contract of 25 minutes.” After some experimenting, Christian and editor Alan Strachan decided to use step-printing to extend the fights, bringing the film up to the required length. “We duplicated each frame three times, and it looked amazing. It’s different than slow motion. They used the same technique on the fight in the cave in Empire.”

The low budget nature of Black Angel also impacted on the special effects. “I really wanted a dragon, but I couldn’t afford one. So we made a bat instead! An animatronics company made it out of rubber, and we strung it on a fishing wire and had it fly off the Black Angel’s shield. We even got it to spin and flap its wings. It was down and dirty but it worked.”

Black Angel was shot in 35mm Cinemascope, using short ends left over from The Empire Strikes Back. “We had all these tins of film, and Roger Pratt, the director of photography, was just trying to mix and match.” When it came to the lighting, Pratt decided early to go with his gut. “I saw him staring and staring at his light meter. I asked him what was the matter, and he said, ‘This thing’s saying there’s not enough light, but it looks stunning through the camera.’ So he threw the light meter over his shoulder and said, ‘I’m going on instinct.’ And that’s how we did the whole film.”

Those present at the first screening of Black Angel included George Lucas, Gary Kurtz and Irwin Kershner. To Christian’s great relief, the film was warmly received. “It was kind of terrifying when I shot it. I went out on this limb, and I made this thing, with no idea where it was going really. But they loved it.”

Christian tells the complete story of the making of Black Angel in a new book called Cinema Alchemist. He also reveals all about his experiences working on Star Wars and Alien. Edited by JW Rinzler, the book is poised to secure a publishing deal in the near future.

Tune in again next week when, in the second part of this article, Roger Christian talks Star Wars and Alien.

Special thanks to Phil Guest for putting Black Angel back on my radar

Cinefex 137 – cover reveal

Cinefex 137

Dragons don’t come much more magnificent than Smaug. So it’s no surprise he’s on the cover of the next issue of Cinefex, which is just about to hit the presses. Featured articles will include The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Game of Thrones, RoboCop and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Issue 137 spreads its wings and takes to the skies in mid-March.

D is for Dinosaur

VFX ABC - D is for DinosaurIn the VFX ABC, the letter “D” stands for “Dinosaur”.

The word “dinosaur” was coined by Victorian naturalist Sir Richard Owen in 1841. Derived from the Greek, it means “terrible lizard”.

The modern meaning is, of course, “humongous slavering monster that tramples the getaway car, eats the supporting actor and fills the IMAX screen from top to bottom.”

As well as giving dinosaurs their name, Owen was one of the first to recognise their entertainment potential. In 1852, following London’s Great Exhibition, he oversaw the creation of 33 life-size concrete dinosaur sculptures. After the giant models had been artistically placed in parkland surrounding Crystal Palace, Owen hosted a flamboyant dinner party inside the hollow mould that had been used to make the Iguanodon.

After that, dinosaurs swiftly rampaged through popular culture, including early cinema. In 1925, Willis O’Brien – one of the earliest visual effects practitioners – chose them as a subject for his revolutionary stop motion animation techniques in The Lost World, a film which took Owen’s Victorian concept of the dinosaur tableau and made it live and breathe.

Willis O'Brien and a dinosaur from "The Lost World"

Willis O’Brien and a dinosaur from “The Lost World”

For nearly seventy years, stop motion remained the technique of choice for bringing extinct creatures to life. In 1953, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms saw Ray Harryhausen using O’Brien’s methods to resurrect a long-dormant Rhedosaurus – a fictional dinosaur awoken from its slumber by an A-bomb test.

More Harryhausen dinosaurs followed in 1966, when One Million Years B.C. showcased his Dynamation process in glorious Technicolor. Three years later, he repeated the trick yet again with The Valley of Gwangi. Impressive though Gwangi’s dinosaurs were, the film ultimately lacked the box office bite of its prehistoric predecessor (perhaps because it swapped Raquel Welch in a leather bikini for a bunch of cowboys).

The Rhedosaurus from "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms"

The Rhedosaurus from “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms”

Stop motion may have been king of the dinosaur world, but moving a complex puppet frame by frame is time-consuming … and therefore expensive. And you know movie producers: they’re always looking for ways to cut corners. Enter the “slurpasaur” (AKA a lizard in a dinosaur suit).

One of the earliest slurpasaurs appears in The Mysterious Island, made just four years after The Lost World. You can almost hear the conversation during the preproduction meeting:

“Hey guys, is this dinosaur going to be an animated model?”
“Nah, let’s just stick a plastic horn on a baby alligator.”

Slurpasaurs continued to offer a low-rent alternative to stop motion dinosaurs into the ’50s and ’60s. Even the great Willis O’Brien found himself consulting on costumed iguanas for the 1960 remake of The Lost World – a far from satisfying experience for the master of stop motion. (Did Obie ever actual lower himself to getting hands-on with a slurpasaur? I’m not sure. If you know, leave a comment below and tell me all about it!) 

Slurpasaurs battle in "The Lost World" (1960)

Slurpasaurs battle in “The Lost World” (1960)

As you’ve probably realised, in tracking the evolution of movie dinosaurs, we are in fact dissecting the DNA of a much broader subject: creature effects. Name a technique, and I guarantee it’s been used to make a dinosaur. Man in a suit? Check. While you might associate this option with such flops as The Last Dinosaur or Baby: The Secret of the Lost Legend, how about all those Godzilla movies? (Was Godzilla a dinosaur? Discuss.) Nor should we forget the amazing Velociraptor suits created by Stan Winston Studio for Jurassic Park and its sequels.

Stan Winston Studio's velociraptor suit - "Jurassic Park"

Stan Winston Studio’s velociraptor suit from “Jurassic Park”

How about puppetry and animatronics? Check again. The challenge of making mechanical monsters was taken up in the 1970s by Roger Dicken in a series of Amicus productions including The Land That Time Forgot. The results may not be VFX gold but, when viewed with a few beers inside you, they’re entertaining enough. Some years later, Doug Beswick made a valiant attempt to resurrect the technique by creating a rod-puppet tyrannosaur for My Science Project (unfortunately, the puppeteers never got the rehearsal time they needed to do Beswick’s impressive miniature justice).

The Land That Time Forgot

“The Land That Time Forgot”

Most film directors prefer to have their performers on set. The sheer size of your average dinosaur has always made that a literally enormous challenge. Many of the films I’ve mentioned saw hapless actors stuffed into full-size replicas of chomping jaws, but it was Stan Winston who finally achieved the impossible when he populated Jurassic Park with full-scale dinosaurs that not only looked stunning, but delivered great performances too.

Jurassic Park also drew a line in the digital sand, heralding the arrival of the truly convincing CG creature. When Dr Alan Grant (Sam Neill) got his first view of a Brachiosaurus and exclaimed, “It’s a dinosaur!” I believed him, and I’ll bet you did too. And by the time the Tyrannosaurus Rex brought the house down at the climax of the film, I was ready to agree that dinosaurs really do rule the Earth.

ILM's digital T-Rex from "Jurassic Park"

ILM’s digital T-Rex from “Jurassic Park”

Jurassic Park spawned two sequels that steadily upped the ante in both the digital and animatronic arenas. The third movie features a stunning fight between a T-Rex and a Spinosaurus which, for my money, still stands as the definitive dino dust-off. Since then, you could be forgiven for thinking dinosaurs have become extinct all over again (unless you count the mediocre monsters served up by cash-ins like Carnosaur and Dinosaur Island, or the endless stream of straight-to-SyFy flicks with titles like Nuclear Tyrannoshark or Crocoraptor).

Full-scale T-Rex and Spinosaurus by Stan Winston Studio, as seen in "Jurassic Park III"

Full-scale T-Rex and Spinosaurus by Stan Winston Studio, as seen in “Jurassic Park III”

But you can’t keep a good dinosaur down. This year brought a whole new generation of prehistoric critters to our screens with Walking With Dinosaurs 3D. While this family-friendly film barely snatched a Rotten Tomatoes score of 25%, Marco Marenghi, Animation Director at Animal Logic, calls their work on the film “game-changing”. A new automated muscle system called Steroid took over control of the interaction between the dinosaurs’ skin and the internal anatomy, with a second system called RepTile taking care of skin and scales. Read more about Animal Logic’s work on the film on their website.

Animal Logic's state-of-the-art dinosaurs from "Walking With Dinosaurs 3D"

Animal Logic’s state-of-the-art dinosaurs from “Walking With Dinosaurs 3D” (Image: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

And there’s more to come: Jurassic World is scheduled for a summer 2015 release with ILM and Tippett Studio partnering up to deliver the dinosaurs. I’ve no idea what sort of reptilian revolution they have up their sleeves, but here are three of my personal predictions:

  • Flesh … As Animal Logic have shown us, the beauty of the very latest digital creatures is more than just skin deep. Life of Pi gave us a tiger whose muscles tense in anticipation of its every move. In The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the titular dragon boasts a virtually complete anatomy moving under that scaly skin. I’m in no doubt the dinosaurs of Jurassic World will be fleshed out like no other prehistoric creatures we’ve seen before.
  • Science … Taking its lead from the Michael Crichton novel on which it was based, Jurassic Park based its dinosaur designs on cutting edge scientific thinking, imagining warm-blooded, intelligent creatures that ran in herds, looked after their young and hunted in packs. If Jurassic World takes account of recent archeological developments, we’re likely to see even more emphasis on interesting behavioural traits. We may see some very big dinosaurs … perhaps even some very, very big dinosaurs. And, despite recent heated debate on the subject, I suspect we may see at least one dinosaur with feathers.
  • Awe … Taking an audience’s breath away is a tall order. Jurassic Park did it by showing us something we’d never seen before. I want Jurassic World to do the same. I want beautiful dinosaurs that really tickle my sense of wonder … as well as delivering that special thrill you get when the object in the mirror really is closer than it appears.

None of us really knows what the future holds for movie dinosaurs. I’ll leave the last word, then, for Jurassic Park‘s cynical mathematician Ian Malcolm:

Dinosaurs and man, two species separated by 65 million years of evolution, have just been suddenly thrown back into the mix together. How can we have the faintest idea of what to expect?

In the VFX ABC, “D” stands for “Dinosaur”. I’ve shared some memorable ones here, but I’m sure you have your favourites too. Tell me about them in the comments box below.

Oh, and while you’re at it, tell me what you’d like to see in Jurassic World. A little Pterodactyl tells me some of the people working on the movie may well be reading this blog, so who knows – maybe your vision of the past could help shape their designs for the future of prehistory.

Jimmy T. Murakami

Sad news this morning. A giant of the animation industry, Jimmy Teruaki Murakami — director of When Wind the Wind Blows, and co-director of The Snowman — has died in Dublin, Ireland.

Painting by Jimmy T. Murakami.

Jimmy was born in San José, California, June 5, 1933. As a boy, he was interned with his family at the Tule Lake War Relocation Center during World War Two. He studied fine arts at the Chouinard Art Institute (forerunner to CalArts) where his classmates included animator Chuck Jones. Jimmy first worked for United Productions of America, in Burbank, on Mr. McGoo and McBoing Boing, he then went on to work as an animator in New York, Japan and London, where he joined animator Richard Williams to work on commercials at George Dunning’s TV Cartoons.

During this time, Jimmy won a BAFTA Award in 1961 for his short film, The Insects, and then returned to California to set up his own animation studio, Murakami Wolf, with animator Fred Wolf, producing commercials and more animated shorts.

With Richard Thomas on the set of “Battle Beyond the Stars”.

By the early ‘70s, Jimmy expanded his horizons and moved to Ireland to work for producer Roger Corman as associate producer and second unit aerial director on a World War One aviator drama, Von Richthofen and Brown. This led to his role directing Corman’s 1980 science fiction epic, Battle Beyond the Stars where he befriended a young art director named James Cameron.

Murakami continued to work in Europe, setting up his own studio in Dublin, and directing animation, which led him back to London, where he rejoined TVC, with producer John Coates and co-director Dianne Jackson, to adapt Raymond Briggs’ illustrated children’s book, The Snowman, creating what has become a perennial TV special.

In the mid-80s Jimmy returned to direct a feature film based on Briggs’ much darker graphic novel When the Wind Blows, which used a combination of hand-drawn cel animation and miniatures rephotographed on a rostrum.

Making "When the Wind Blows"

Making “When the Wind Blows”.

I met Jimmy at TVC, during When the Wind Blows, where I was installed in the basement as assistant film editor for a year and a half. It was fascinating to watch him work with animators as I ran footage back and forth on the Steenbeck. Jimmy was barrel-chested and robust, always smiling, and keen to invite passersby to punch him in the stomach to test his muscles. He was a ladies’ man and a bon viveur, full of life, but he was also sensitive, warm and thoughtful, and he had an immense love of film. Those qualities made a big impression on me, particularly his knowledge of acting and camera blocking, which he drew from the greats, including Akira Kurosawa.

Animator Malcolm Draper, Jimmy and producer John Coates, 1989. Photo by Mark Edwards.

Animator Malcolm Draper, Jimmy and producer John Coates, 1989. Photo by Mark Edwards.

As an example of Jimmy’s generosity of spirit, he mentored a good friend of mine, who went on to become a very talented animator and director, with a studio of his own in London. “I met Jimmy in Dublin at art college,” Paul Donnellon recalled. “He was visiting lecturer and I then ended up working as an intern in his crazy Quatero Studio in Dublin. He gave me my first job in London on When the Wind Blows and I met great friends from that time. Jimmy always encouraged me to do my own thing. Without him I would not have come to london and I would not have my own studio. About seven years ago, I flew in a helicopter from London to Cornwall with Jimmy to meet Kate Bush for a video he was making for her last album, so that is a great memory. Thanks, Jimmy. I will miss you.”

A still from “Jimmy Murakami: Non-Alien” a documentary directed by Sé Merry Doyle for Loophole Films (2010).

Here’s a link to Jimmy’s website, reviewing his 50-year career, and a selection of his paintings:

Making a Splash

Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

So wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in 1798. Given the current trend for massive water simulations in big effects movies, I reckon he wasn’t writing poetry at all, but predicting the future of visual effects. Making a splash is a trend I’ve remarked on here before: think BattleshipLife of Pi, Star Trek Into Darkness or Pacific Rim. But is the current VFX obsession with water really anything new?

Realistic water has always been a challenge for the effects artist. It’s just hard to get the scale looking right. It’s one thing building a convincing model of an ocean liner, for example, but it’s quite another creating a correctly-scaled ocean for it to steam through.

In James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic, the problem was solved by comping a miniature ship into a digital sea. Back in 1958, the makers of A Night To Remember – an earlier film about the same maritime disaster – had no choice but to use real water. And nothing kills the scale of a miniature quicker than a seemingly gigantic water globule wobbling across the frame. The effects in A Night To Remember are good, but sadly a few such globules do make their inevitable appearance.

It’s just really hard to make a splash.

Over the years, artists have used many ways to avoid the curse of miniature water, like disrupting its with compressed air jets to create finer droplets. As with most miniatures, overcranking the camera makes a big difference. Others have experimented with additives: wallpaper paste to increase the water’s apparent density; paint to alter its colour and opacity; detergent to reduce its surface tension. Sometimes water was abandoned altogether. Need a distant waterfall? Why not use a stream of marble dust?

However the illusions were created, there’s no doubt that water effects have contributed to some of cinema’s more memorable scenes. Here are three of my personal favourites.

The Dam Busters - breaching the Mohne DamThe Dam Busters – destruction of the Möhne Dam

In Michael Anderson’s 1955 film The Dam Busters, a squadron of Avro Lancasters from RAF Bomber Command mounts a daring raid on the dams of the Ruhr. For the climactic attack sequences, enormous models were built of the dams and surrounding countryside. A moving camera created aerial views of the miniature reservoirs, which were filled with real water. Tricky stuff. But the shots of the explosions, in which the famous bouncing bombs creating huge plumes of spray, proved more tricky still.

The explosion shots were created optically, with footage of practical water plumes composited into the miniature scenes using hand-drawn traveling mattes. The results look either quaint or awesome, depending on your taste. Personally I love their sheer ambition. Imagine the sweat on the brow of the poor rotoscope artist as he tries to track the movement of the camera by eye on an animation stand, while drawing frame by frame an articulated outline of a nebulous and constantly moving column of liquid and foam.

(For more about the effects of The Dam Busters, visit Peter Cook’s gold mine of old-school effects: Matte Shot – a tribute to Golden Era special fx.)

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom - mine floodIndiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – flooding the mineshafts

We’ve all been there. No sooner have you stopped a runaway mine cart using only the soles of your boots than you find your feet are on fire. What other option is there than to yell, “Water!”

When intrepid archaeologist Indiana Jones found himself in this precise predicament while escaping from the Temple of Doom, he got more than he bargained for – namely an almost Biblical wave of water pouring towards him through the flooded mine tunnels. For a shot where the water spirals through a tunnel, crossing over itself and causing an explosion of spray, Dennis Muren’s team at ILM fired water at an angle of 45° into a miniature set, using baffles to control its flow and operating the camera at between 80 and 120 frames per second.

The effect is spectacular, but Muren had no doubts about the challenge of scaling water. Here’s what he had to say in Robert P. Everett’s article on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in Cinefex #18: “We looked into various ways of thinning water. I’d heard for years that there were ways to do it … but we sure couldn’t find them. So what we ended up doing was blasting tons of air at it from the front and from the sides … to break up the droplets. That seemed to do a pretty good job.”

Yeah, pretty good, I’d say.

(The digital edition of Cinefex #18 is available for iPad at the iTunes store.)

Cast Away - post-crash ocean swellCast Away – post-crash ocean swell

On its release in 2000, Robert Zemeckis’s survival story Cast Away was praised for its innovative use of invisible visual effects. Even today, the seamless integration of digital skies and seas still looks, well, seamless.

The shot I’m picking doesn’t quite fall into the “invisible” category. It comes at the end of the crash sequence, when Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) lies sprawled on an inflatable life raft while the plane he was flying in sinks to the bottom of the Pacific. It’s night. There’s a storm. The shot starts close on Hanks, gradually craning up until the raft is a tiny mote riding on the back of a truly gigantic heaving ocean. And that’s all.

I love this shot for its perfect placement and pace after the harrowing crash scenes. It’s simultaneously peaceful and threatening. Analyse it, and you’ll discover you see very little. Lightning flashes on the flank of an enormous wave. The raft rides the swell. The sea is slowly revealed as not just immense, but vast beyond comprehension: an endlessly fluid and alien realm.

Most respectable 3D packages now come out of the box with water plugins that are infinitely more sophisticated than the antiquated algorithms used by Sony Pictures Imageworks to create this digital ocean back in the year 2000. Shots to equal the artistry of this one, however, are still few and far between.

So there they are: some of my favourite water shots. While I’m mopping up the mess, why not dive into the comments pool and tell me some of yours?

Predictinating the Oscars with Todd Vaziri

Todd Vaziri fires up The Predictinator - cartoon by Graham Edwards, CinefexAs a movie-mad Chicago kid, Todd Vaziri dreamed of being a stuntman. He never did get to ride a horse along the top of a moving train, but he did get to work in the movies – as a visual effects artist.

Todd began his career at Banned From The Ranch, under mentors Van Ling and Casey Cannon. “I got my feet wet in the crazy world of compositing and rotoscoping,” Todd told me, “using a brand new tool at the time called Commotion, which was developed by Scott Squires.”

Todd eventually moved to Industrial Light and Magic, where he’s worked for the past thirteen years in a job he describes as “absolutely a dream come true.” Recently, he was a sequence supervisor on Star Trek Into Darkness, and handled a number of shots on The Lone Ranger. Both films are Oscar-nominated for their visual effects in the 86th Academy Awards, which brings us neatly to Todd’s secret obsession: devising a foolproof method of predicting VFX Oscar winners. It’s called … The Predictinator!

So, Todd, the Predictinator – what is it, and what does it do?

It’s a formula that my wife and I came up with. Taking the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects nominees, and based on quantifiable criteria, it accurately predicts the winner of the visual effects Oscar.

What inspired you to create it?

It all started out of an attempt to investigate how and why The Golden Compass beat Transformers in 2007. Transformers was very near and dear to my heart – I spent a year of my life on that movie, and thought it deserved to win. But the Academy voters thought otherwise. After many discussions with colleagues, we wondered how we could get inside the heads of the Academy voters. Why is it that some years it’s a slam-dunk, and other years it’s just weird?

My first attempt was to ask, “Which is a better predictor? Critical acclaim or box office?” Looking at the Rotten Tomatoes aggregator, I used its percentage value as my quantifiable gauge of critical acclaim. Then I took domestic box office as a measure of popularity. I can’t remember exactly, but in maybe two out of three cases, critical acclaim was a slightly better predictor than box office.

I wrote a series of articles about that on my blog FXRant. When I showed them to my wife, she said, “This is nice, but it’s kind of fuzzy. You should make a formula. You know what’s happened in the past, so why not craft a single formula to predict which will win, and see how it works in the future.”

So in late 2009, we came up with this formula. Working out the criteria was fun. We included critical acclaim and box office performance, then we reverse engineered it.

The Predictinator's brainWhat criteria does The Predictinator use to make its prediction?

Well, the full Academy has something like 6,000 members, and most are actors or retired actors – so we ask what do they look for in a film? Oscar season is typically in the Fall, so do some Academy voters have a shorter memory span? How many additional Academy Award nominations did the films get? Is the film a sequel? Looking over the statistics since 1989 (which was when we decided to start the data) we noticed that sequels, even if they had great visual effects, were not generally winners – especially if a previous film in the series was a winner.

After a lot of trial and error, we got many of the previous winners to “win” with this formula, but there were a couple that really stuck out. It was very difficult to come up with additional criteria to make those films win, particularly The Golden Compass over Transformers, and Babe over Apollo 13. So we came up with what I call the “fuzzy creature” question, which asks, “Are the primary effects for that picture organic character animation?” Not robots, not hard surface stuff – creatures. If the answer’s yes, we then ask, “Does it involve facial acting?” A film gets extra points if it fulfils those two pieces of criteria.

The final difficulty was films like Death Becomes Her and What Dreams May Come. They were somewhat critically acclaimed and got modest box office, but didn’t have the hallmarks of other visual effects Oscar winners. We realised that both of those films had lead actors who had won an Oscar before. So we gave points for that, which allowed them to win. We rationalised that the Oscar-winning star power of a lead actor in a visual effects film pushed the Academy voter to support that film.

All that gave us a formula that worked historically from 1989 to 2008. In the four years since, it has correctly predicted Avatar, Inception, Hugo and Life of Pi.

The Predictinator results for the 86th Academy Awards

Click on the image to read Todd’s in-depth analysis of The Predictinator’s results at FXRant

Do you tweak the formula each year, or is it set in stone?

We’re intending to lock it. It was really, really difficult to come up with this one formula, and it was a point of pride that the same formula we developed back then would work into the future. We had to adjust it a little bit when the Academy finally allowed for five nominees instead of three. Also it’s a lot of work to change it. But it’s all working just fine, and we’re very proud of it.

This year, the five nominees for the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects are Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, The Lone Ranger and Star Trek Into Darkness. The Predictinator predicts that Gravity will win. Some people might say that, as predictions go, that’s a no-brainer. How would you answer that?

You could say it’s a no-brainer, sure. But that’s an emotional statement. Gravity was a big hit, near universally loved by critics, with two extremely likeable stars. It has ten Academy Award nominations. Alfonso Cuarón just won the DGA Award. That’s not to mention the innovative visual effects; the process that created them is unlike any other, and pretty much everyone would agree they were nearly flawlessly executed.

But those are all subjective statements, and my counterpoint would be that the formula breaks all that down to the level of data. I would also add that while the formula works for the “no-brainer” years – like the Avatar year – it also worked for the Hugo year. A lot of folks weren’t picking Hugo with lots of confidence. The good money was on Rise of the Planet of the Apes or the final Harry Potter film. But no, Hugo was picked by The Predictinator … and it won!

So what’s next? Will you expand your offering to include other awards? Can we look forward to The Predictinator 2.0?

We’ve considered it. I just pitched to my wife the other day: “You know, maybe we could do this for animated features. Maybe there’s a correlation between box office and …” and she was like, “We have enough on our plate!”

The other categories where it might be possible to do a Predictinator-type treatment would be the “technical” categories: things like editing, cinematography and sound. I personally don’t have any interest in tackling those – it’s a great deal of work. But I applaud and support anybody who wants to go ahead and do this. Let me know and I’d love to help.

How does it feel to have your work showcased in the Academy Awards nominations? Were you even a little bit tempted to skew the results to Predictinate one of your movies into the top slot?

Of course not! This is a thing of science! But seriously, when I wrote my article about The Predictinator’s results, I didn’t want to mention the fact that I had participated in two out of the five pictures. I didn’t want to give even the remotest semblance of skewing the data.

The Enterprise rides out of the Nibiru ocean

Could you talk about your work on Star Trek Into Darkness and The Lone Ranger, picking a favourite shot from each film and describing its creation?

I was on Star Trek Into Darkness for almost an entire year, in charge of the space jump that Kirk and Khan do between the Enterprise and the Vengeance, and the Enterprise falling towards Earth. I also worked on some of the early Nibiru volcano stuff, and composited the shot of the Enterprise rising out of the water. Lee Uren was the lighter, and he rendered and simmed all of the water for that. It turned out to be a really, really great shot – a really collaborative effort.

(Among the shots composited by Todd were the shots of the Enterprise regaining power and firing her thrusters, triumphantly reversing her headlong plunge into the Earth’s atmosphere.)

The Enterprise falls to Earth

It’s a sister shot to one in JJ Abrams’s original Star Trek movie, where the Enterprise emerges from Saturn’s rings. Roger Guyett and Pat Tubach, the visual effects supervisors, were very open to ideas about how the thrusters turn on, and so was JJ. We saw the thrusters very briefly in the original Saturn shot. But there was no atmosphere, and it was zero gravity, so we decided we could diverge from that look if we wanted to.

(Using practical elements alongside CG, the shot includes details like tiny puffs of smoke that precede the actual firing of the thrusters.)

It’s like a dirty chamber being burned up as the rocket fuel comes out, just to give it a sense of reality and scale. It came out pretty well.

The Enterprise recovers from her fall to Earth

(After Star Trek Into Darkness came The Lone Ranger, which saw Todd working under visual effects supervisor Tim Alexander. One of Todd’s shots had the Lone Ranger riding his horse Silver along the top of a moving train. An instant before the train enters a tunnel, our hero spurs his horse in a spectacular leap down on to a flatbed car, narrowly avoiding being smeared against the tunnel entrance. During the shot, the camera tracks behind the stuntman’s shoulder as the horse performs its jump.)

It was actually quite a brilliant shot design that Gore Verbinski and Tim came up with. It started with a full live action stuntman, in costume, on a horse, galloping on a full bluescreen set, shot outside. That made it look very real.

The jump was only two or three feet, but it was enough to get things going. You could feel the horse pull all of its muscles and tense, so we got that true organic motion. Then we transitioned to a fully CG Lone Ranger and horse for the rest of the leap. I had to do a blend morph from the live action to the CG, with nowhere to hide.

I’m so incredibly proud that both projects got nominated for Oscars, particularly The Lone Ranger. Despite the amount and density of the visual effects work, we’re hoping that people aren’t thinking about the visual effects at all – that the effects are truly invisible.

The Lone Ranger

The Predictinator's nuclear powerplantFinally, Todd, it’s time to come clean. We both know The Predictinator isn’t a formula at all. It’s a machine you’ve built in your basement using old household appliances and bootleg body parts. So tell me, does it run on regular unleaded, or is that sucker nuclear?

No, it’s not nuclear! It’s electrical! But I need a nuclear reaction to generate the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity I need. Besides, the stainless steel construction makes the flux dispersal much more smooth. You know that! I know that!

Star Trek Into Darkness images copyright © 2013 by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved. The Lone Ranger images copyright © 2013 by Walt Disney Pictures. Special thanks to Greg Grusby, ILM.