Now Showing – Cinefex 145

Cinefex 145 - From the Editor's Desk

Wait! What? That’s not right. It’s only two months since the last Cinefex was out. It can’t be time for a new issue already.

Yes, it can! We’re now publishing Cinefex every two months, instead of every quarter. That’s six issues annually instead of four – 50% more from the world’s premier visual effects magazine, each and every year!

And what an issue to launch our new publishing schedule with. If you haven’t already guessed by the cover, Cinefex 145 transports you to a galaxy far, far away, with in-depth coverage of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

In the article, Roger Guyett and his team of artists discuss the film’s visual effects, Chris Corbould talks about the nuts and bolts of the practical effects, and Neal Scanlan peels back the masks of all those amazing creatures. On top of that, there’s exclusive interview material with director J.J. Abrams, plus a host of behind-the-scenes secrets you won’t read about anywhere else. Trust us, you really won’t want to miss this one!

Chris Corbould also features in our article on Spectre, where he gives us the lowdown on the latest Bond movie’s record-breaking special effects, while visual effects supervisor Steve Begg navigates us through the film’s seamless VFX, ably assisted by an international multi-vendor team.

As if that’s not enough, we’ve got expansive articles on The Revenant and The Finest Hours, not to mention a little extra in the robot department … but wait, I’ll let Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan tell you all about that  …

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

Issue 145 marks a happy return to Star Wars, the franchise that was a catalyst not only for major advances in visual effects, but also for the creation of Cinefex itself.

So top-secret were the details of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, our story’s writer, Joe Fordham, had to operate in spy mode. Not only did he slip into Industrial Light & Magic under cover, but he also signed a non-disclosure agreement in blood, underwent Enhanced Interrogation Techniques to determine if he would break under pressure … okay, not really – but the security around this project was intense, and Joe went to great pains to protect the film’s secrets. His final piece spills the beans with details and behind-the-scenes insights that you won’t find anywhere else.

Speaking of spies – Graham Edwards, in his inaugural story as Cinefex senior staff writer, offers the definitive coverage of the effects, both practical and digital, in the latest Bond film, Spectre. Then there are my two articles, both concerning non-effects films that could only have been made using visual effects – my favorite type of story. In The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance and ILM’s animated grizzly combined to deliver cinema’s most realistic and terrifying mauling sequence ever. Likewise, MPC’s CG stormy seas in The Finest Hours delivered much of the drama surrounding four Coast Guardsmen who set out to rescue the crew of a tanker cleaved in two.

We round out the issue with a visual effects supervisor Q&A for Ex Machina, a little film that had slipped under our radar, but which then earned our attention – and Oscar’s, as well.

I hope you enjoy Cinefex 145 – the first issue to be produced on our new bimonthly schedule!

Thanks, Jody!

Issue 145 of Cinefex is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, stand by your mailbox – your copy is already on its way. And don’t forget our enhanced iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs – many of them exclusive to Cinefex – and stunning video content.

Oh, and when you’ve read the new issue from cover to cover, don’t despair. Now that our new bimonthly publishing schedule is up and running, you won’t have long to wait before the next one!

Cinefex has gone bimonthly

The 3rd Annual Cinefex Awards

The 3rd Annual Cinefex Awards

Here at Cinefex, we spend our time researching and writing about films. We do it objectively, and without editorial comment. It’s what we’re known for, and we do it with pride. As Joe Friday might have said, “We just want the facts, ma’am.”

Once a year, however, we allow ourselves to look back on those films, and consider them not with our heads, but with our hearts. Casting our votes in a number of whimsically-chosen categories, we put the facts aside and offer up pure subjective opinion instead.

So, without further ado, here are the results of the 3rd Annual Cinefex Awards!

Cinefex Awards - "Jaw on the Floor"The “Jaw On The Floor” Award

For visual effects that left us totally amazed

Gregg Shay – “The grizzly bear attack in The Revenant literally had me on the edge of my seat for seven minutes. The seamless shot stitching, ILM’s digital grizzly, and Leo’s performance made this a shocking and unforgettable scene.”

Jody Duncan – “My jaw hit the floor when I saw the epic aerial shot of the massive whale attacking the whaling ship Essex in Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea. Double Negative’s all-CG shot was a model of storytelling – this single view told me that this was a whale like no other, and that the crew of the Essex was doomed. Ship: this big. Whale: THIS big. Game over. Or, to paraphrase a quote from another adventure at sea: ‘They needed a bigger boat.’”

Joe Fordham – “Most often, when I get to see a movie I’m covering for Cinefex, I’m checking off the boxes to make sure the educated guesses in the story I’ve just written are as pictured on screen. The Walk made me forget my notebook, especially in a scene when high-wire walker Philippe Petite is up on his wire between the World Trade Center towers and the camera suddenly plummets past him to spectators on the street a quarter mile below – in IMAX 3D, I simultaneously gasped, got sweaty palms and a lump in my throat. Thank you, Bob Zemeckis.”

Graham Edwards – “The radioactive dust storm in Mad Max: Fury Road. Just when I thought I’d got a handle on the exquisitely choreographed mayhem that defines George Miller’s latest post-apocalyptic road trip, the camera pulled back to give me an achingly beautiful, impossibly epic, panoramic shot of the rogue Imperator Furiosa leading her pursuers into a roiling cloud bank. I could practically hear Mr. Miller chuckling in my ear: ‘You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!’”

Cinefex Awards - "Hmm, That's New"The “Hmm, That’s New” Award

Winner – ANT-MAN
For innovation in visual effects

Joe Fordham – “I vote for the macro-photography in Ant-Man – a clever application of photographic optical techniques expertly applied to digital environments. For me, this was perhaps the first convincing cinematic view of an insect-sized world.”

Gregg Shay – “I thought that the journey though the microcosm in Ant-Man was one of the more interesting visual effects stories of the year. The use of highly detailed macro sets was very impressive. Considering the challenges, physics-wise, I thought Jake Morrison’s crew nailed it.”

Graham Edwards – “The Revenant could easily have scooped my nomination for invisible effects. Instead, I’m going to hold up the film’s extraordinary bear attack as an innovative example of visual effects, because it was like nothing I’d seen before. Filmed hand-held, in extreme closeup, with ultra-long takes, those harrowing few moments had me believing – though my intellect told me otherwise – that Leonardo DiCaprio really was get bitten, clawed, and generally hurled around by a gigantic grizzly. Extraordinary.”

Cinefex Awards - "What Did I Just See?"The “What Did I Just See?” Award

For invisible effects we didn’t even spot

Jody Duncan – “Can a grizzly bear fogging a camera lens with her hot breath qualify as ‘invisible?’ Not really, I suppose, but I give ILM’s bear in The Revenant the nod in this category because even though you couldn’t miss her, you definitely could miss the fact that she was a computer animated creature. Except for that whole tearing-Leonardo-DiCaprio-into-pieces thing, I believed that mauling – and so did others at the screening I attended. On the way out to my car, I heard people asking each other, ‘How did they do that?’ How, indeed.”

Gregg Shay – “The Revenant again. There were such a lot of effects in this show that I didn’t catch until I was going through images for our article layout.”

Graham Edwards – “Jurassic World – the scene with the velociraptors trapped in cages, straining against those Hannibal Lecter-style muzzles. They were so perfectly integrated into the live-action plates that I was convinced I was looking at full-on animatronic creatures, with maybe a few digital blinks and tics. Top marks to Image Engine, for fooling me into thinking those raptors really were there on the set.”

Joe Fordham – “BB-8 in Star Wars: The Force Awakens – a superb blend of puppetry and flawless digi-double work.”

Cinefex Awards - "Oldie But Goodie"The “Oldie But Goodie” Award

For the best use of old-school effects

Joe Fordham – “My winner is Mad Max: Fury Road – the Polecats, Immortan Joe’s desert pirates, balancing on swinging bendy poles 26 feet above the desert and leaping truck to truck at high speeds: all the more amazing that they captured them in-camera.”

Graham Edwards – “Mad Max: Fury Road. I felt every bump in the road, and tasted every mouthful of dirt.”

Jody Duncan – “In the old days, if you wanted to hang your actor from a jet as it took off, you attached him to a set piece, hit him with Ritter fans, and projected utterly unconvincing rear-screen imagery behind him. Today, if you want to hang your actor from a jet as it takes off, you create a CG jet, a digital double, and CG aerial environments. The sequence in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation outdid both approaches, actually hanging Tom Cruise from a real jet as it took off. It was so bold and Old School that even the practitioners of the Old School wouldn’t have tried it!”

Gregg Shay – “For old-school treats, look no further than Star Wars: The Force Awakens. All of the practical creatures and sets gave this film that familiar and gritty look that was missing with Episodes I-III.”

Cinefex Awards - "Eye Candy"The “Eye Candy” Award

For visual effects that just looked gorgeous

Jody Duncan – “The stark beauty of MPC’s Red Planet environments in The Martian took my breath away. The yellow skies, the cratered desert landscapes, the swirling dust devils in the backgrounds all told their own story: Not Earth. Not hospitable. Not for us. And that made one’s heart beat all the faster for astronaut Mark Watney’s dilemma in being stranded there. Environment work doesn’t often get the ticker-tape-parade treatment, but this was a work of art.”

Graham Edwards – “My vote in this category goes to the achingly beautiful Marscapes of Ridley Scott’s The Martian, conjured by those clever fellows at MPC. During those long, lingering shots in which Mark Watney traverses the surface of the Red Planet, I truly felt that I’d been transported to another world.”

Gregg Shay – “Avengers: Age of Ultron. The entire movie looked gorgeous. When you bring so many superheroes and villains together, you’re sure to get a stunning result. The Hulk looked even better than he did in the first Avengers, and the Hulkbuster v Hulk scene was so much fun to watch.”

Joe Fordham – “You want eye candy? Watch the ‘Get Down Saturday Night’ dance sequence in Ex Machina – let’s boogie!”

Cinefex Awards - "Big Cheesy Grin"The “Big Cheesy Grin” Award

For visual effects that made us feel like kids again

Gregg Shay – “What can I say? While I was watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I felt like a kid again. I was nine years old when the original Star Wars hit theaters. I fell in love with the story. This time around, I was able to sit down next to my seven year-old son and rediscover the magic.”

Graham Edwards – “As someone old enough to have stood in line outside the cinema when the original trilogy first came out, I’m pleased to nominate Star Wars: The Force Awakens for this award. The sequence that got me grinning was the one in which the Millennium Falcon speeds through a graveyard of derelict Star Destroyers. My only regret is that, for all its liberal doses of nostalgia, the film still didn’t give me anything that thrilled me as much the asteroid field chase from The Empire Strikes Back. Maybe I really am getting old.”

Joe Fordham – “The Millennium Falcon in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. She’s still got it where it counts.”

Jody Duncan – “My grin was all-cheese when I saw the petting zoo sequence in Jurassic World, in which kids ride a baby triceratops. I had seen concept art of Hammond’s granddaughter doing just that for a planned scene in the original Jurassic Park, and Stan Winston Studio had even built the baby triceratops before the sequence was cut. Kind of nice to see it finally come to fruition 22 years later! It made me feel like a 39-year-old again.”

Cinefex Awards - "The One That Got Away"The “One That Got Away” Award

For the best visual effects in a film Cinefex didn’t cover

Graham Edwards – “One of my favorite films of 2015 was Alex Garland’s stunning Ex Machina. Where does Alicia Vikander’s mesmerizing performance end, and where do Double Negative’s exquisitely executed robot effects begin? Who cares? When you’re this bewitched by the story, none of that matters. As for Cinefex not covering it, well, it’s not entirely true. We did run a Q&A with visual effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst on our blog – a story we’ve since republished in our magazine issue 145. But I think we all regret not giving this gem of a film the full Cinefex treatment. It deserved it.”

Gregg Shay – “Ex Machina – it’s a shame that film got away from us.”

Joe Fordham – “Shaun the Sheep – baa!”

Cinefex Awards - "Never Mind the Effects"The “Never Mind The Effects” Award

For our favorite movie of the year

Joe Fordham – “My vote for best film goes to Ex Machina. I was glad to see this smart and smartly made sci-fi film had legs.”

Jody Duncan – “The Revenant is, to me, the best film of the year. When judging films, I often ask myself: Will people still want to watch this 50 years from now? Will anyone care about the subject matter? Will it hold up? In the case of The Revenant, my answers are ‘yes,’ ‘yes’ and ‘yes.’ It is a classic story of survival, and a masterpiece of filmmaking. ”

Graham Edwards – “This is a no-brainer. Mad Max: Fury Road hit me right between the eyes with its rip-roaring energy, sumptuous visuals, creatively choreographed action, and unexpected jolts of genuine emotion. I’m still reeling.”

Those are OUR winners. So what are the visual effects that blew YOU away in 2015?

What Makes an Award-Winning Visual Effect?

Actor John Krasinski and Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced the Best Visual Effects nominees for the 88th Annual Academy Awards in the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

Actor John Krasinski and Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs announce the Best Visual Effects nominees for the 88th Annual Academy Awards in the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater. Photograph by Matt Petit / ©A.M.P.A.S.

The Oscars are just around the corner. The 14th Annual VES Awards will be presented later today. Among the memorable movies nominated for extraordinary achievements in visual effects this year are Ex Machina, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

14th Annual VES AwardsBut just how do you choose between a sexy robot, monumental vehicular carnage, extra-terrestrial super-science, trials and trauma in the North American wilderness, and an entire galaxy filled with beeping droids and exploding spaceships? In an age where seamlessly-integrated, photoreal effects are taken completely for granted, what constitutes a “good” visual effect?

In search of some answers, we asked an international panel of visual effects professionals this simple question:

“How do you go about judging award-winning visual effects?”

88th Annual Academy Awards nominee for Best Visual Effects: "Ex Machina" - Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Mark Ardington, Sara Bennett. Image copyright © by Universal Pictures.

88th Annual Academy Awards nominee for Best Visual Effects: “Ex Machina” – Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Mark Ardington, Sara Bennett. Image copyright © by Universal Pictures.

It’s a question that could take us into some rocky territory. Luckily for us, Randall Smith, visual effects supervisor at Pixomondo, has sketched out a road map to help us on our way:

“I judge visual effects based on three criteria. First I’m looking for accuracy and photorealism — visuals so realistic that the viewer accepts what they are seeing, and their disbelief is momentarily suspended. Secondly, I’m looking for pure, artistic expression. The best effects stand out when the artists aren’t held back by the limitations of a cost-effective solution, and instead aim towards new discoveries within their art. Last — and most importantly — the measure of a great effect will always be its success in storytelling. It’s amazing that a Muppet, with a team of artist’s hands shoved up its backside, can create a compelling story with a huge range of emotion. In comparison, some of most expensive effects shots often fall flat, losing the narrative and thereby losing the viewer.”

Parallel to Smith’s three basic criteria, Marque Pierre Sondergaard, texture artist at Atomic Fiction, suggests studying visual effects through two different lenses, which he describes as the “yin and yang of visual effects”:

“On one hand, you have visual effects that impress you when you are later told that the sequence was actually CG, and you never guessed. On the other hand, you have visual effects that seduce you with dazzling visuals and make no attempt to blend with the wallpaper. An example of the first would be Jurassic Park. At the first viewing, I kept asking, ‘How did they have real dinosaurs on set?’ The second could be exemplified by Guardians of the Galaxy, where the over-the-top world of a comic book makes no excuses for bending the laws of physics if it results in cool images.”

88th Annual Academy Awards nominee for Best Visual Effects: "Mad Max: Fury Road" - Andrew Jackson, Tom Wood, Dan Oliver, Andy Williams. Image copyright © by Warner Bros. Entertainment.

88th Annual Academy Awards nominee for Best Visual Effects: “Mad Max: Fury Road” – Andrew Jackson, Tom Wood, Dan Oliver, Andy Williams. Image copyright © by Warner Bros. Entertainment.

What’s the Story?

There’s no shortage of people ready to agree with Randall Smith’s assertion that successful storytelling is the key to great visual effects. Here’s what Alex Hessler, CG supervisor at Tippett Studio believes:

“The effects which tend to win awards are those that play the largest role in telling a great story. The technical advancements of visual effects come second to how good the story is, and how well that story uses the effects. So often, the script and direction is the deciding factor.”

Start thinking about story, and you’ll probably find yourself contemplating the film as a whole. But narrative also exists at the level of an individual shot, as Kent Matheson, environment artist at Tippett Studio, points out:

“Like Douglas Adams’ secret to flying, generally I judge visual effects shots by whether or not I can forget I’m watching an effect. I want my imagination to be carried along with the story. And not only the story of the film or sequence. Each shot has a mini-story in itself, and everything in that shot has to work together, and be balanced and integrated in support of that.”

For Will Cohen, CEO/executive producer at Milk VFX, the power of story has never been in doubt:

“Outstanding visual effects must always support the storytelling.”

88th Annual Academy Awards nominee for Best Visual Effects: "The Revenant" - Rich McBride, Matthew Shumway, Jason Smith, Cameron Waldbauer. Image copyright © by 20th Century Fox.

88th Annual Academy Awards nominee for Best Visual Effects: “The Revenant” – Rich McBride, Matthew Shumway, Jason Smith, Cameron Waldbauer. Image copyright © by 20th Century Fox.

Art VS Science

It’s all very well talking about story, but what about the nuts and bolts of creating visual effects? In an industry that relies on artistic vision and technical excellence in almost equal measure, surely there’s a place for innovation at the awards table? Storytelling advocate Will Cohen agrees that there is:

“Award-winning work should be somehow special and — by definition — push the boundaries in some way, whether artistically or technically.”

However, herein lies a problem. Faced with one bunch of visual effects that’s dripping with artistic achievement, and a second that’s technically out of this world, which do you vote for? Nicolas Chevalier, visual effects supervisor at Cinesite, mulls it over:

“Now that techniques allow us to create highly complex imagery, we need to rely on the artistic side of the work. Of course, you still have to obey certain rules to make a visual effect believable — lighting and physics to start with — but ultimately the work needs to serve the story, at any price. I guess this year’s Oscars selection reflects this.”

Some people — such as Mat Krentz, visual effects supervisor at Image Engine — consider technical achievement to be the most important check-box when making that final judgement call:

“Because of my compositing background, the first thing that I look for is if a shot technically works. If I spot any problems, then I immediately take note. I try to break down the process of how a final shot was achieved, and figure out what steps might have been taken to get there. I’m always impressed when seeing something new or inventive, as long as it was executed and finished appropriately.”

While maintaining a balanced view, Rudy Grossman, CG supervisor at Atomic Fiction, notes that technical innovation itself has many different facets:

“Great visual effects seamlessly support and tell a film’s story through aesthetic visuals created by an innovative use of technology. However, innovation isn’t always the development of new technology; it can also be a creative use of existing tools to make successful visuals in a new way.”

The Martian - Cinefex 144 Extract

88th Annual Academy Awards nominee for Best Visual Effects: “The Martian” – Richard Stammers, Anders Langlands, Chris Lawrence, Steven Werner. Image copyright © by 20th Century Fox.

The Quest for Reality

We’ve gone into this debate under the assumption that visual effects need to look photoreal in order to be considered ‘good’ — but is that really the case? Jim Gibbs, visual effects supervisor at Atomic Fiction, is confident about what modern movie audiences expect to see:

“We’ve reached a point where visual effects are expected to look seamless to audiences that have become more discerning, and accustomed to a high level of detail and realism.”

So, what are the advantages of serving up visual effects that look realistic enough to be called ‘invisible’? Peter Rogers, creative producer at Bait Studio, offers his opinion:

“I think that truly unforgettable visual effects are those that go unnoticed on first viewing. Those kinds of shots add to, rather than detract from, the narrative, helping to enhance the director’s vision, and building a truly believable world on screen. If you can forget you are watching a visual effects shot despite having industry knowledge, because you are so immersed, then you know that it’s doing the job it was intended for.”

While most seem to agree that photorealism is critical, where does that quality feature on the list of awards criteria? Shawn Walsh, visual effects executive producer at Image Engine, ranks it near the top:

“While respecting the banal, yet crucial, on-set data acquisition and chosen methodology of execution in post-production, ultimately seamlessness is always a must-have element in the success of the work. In the case of something like Chappie, we want the audience to forget they’re looking at a computer-generated robot.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

88th Annual Academy Awards nominee for Best Visual Effects: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” – Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Neal Scanlan, Chris Corbould. Image copyright © by Disney/Lucasfilm.

Putting Everything in Context

So far, we’ve looked at ways of measuring visual effects by breaking them down. Do they tell the story? Are they artistically or technically successful? Do they look real? But can we really study visual effects, and their component parts, in isolation? Isn’t it really all about the complete moviegoing experience? Mark Stetson, creative director and senior visual effects supervisor at Zoic Studios, suggests that it might be:

“I try to watch visual effects the same way I watch ‘best picture’ candidates — as an emotional response to a matrix of every aspect of filmmaking. Since our work is like a subset of almost the entire production — including production design, cinematography, performance, editorial, and image finishing — so must our work sit in the movie. If anything technical jumps out, we failed. If filmmakers find a new way to integrate the visual effects work into the production, we win. Despite the feeling that we can do anything in visual effects, there are still many boundaries to push, especially in the realms of animation — and more especially in virtual human actor performance. So I see plenty of opportunities for more ‘Wow!’ moments to come!”

As far as Shawn Walsh is concerned, context really is king:

“When I judge visual effects work, the context for the work is very important. Where is the location? What is the narrative implication of the action? How will this work affect the viewer?”

Likewise, Jim Gibbs believes that the very best visual effects succeed because of their contribution to the production as a whole:

“Visual effects that receive acclaim are well woven into the filmmaking process. They develop clever ways, and/or new technologies, to help achieve the director’s vision with the resources available. The final shot or sequence appeals to the audience as a vehicle for story-telling, and the process appeals to the visual effects and moviemaking community as interesting and forward-thinking.”

If you take the advice of Andrew Morley, visual effects supervisor at Cinesite, you won’t dream of judging the merits of an individual visual effects shot without also assessing its impact on the rest of the movie:

“Assuming technical correctness and excellence, a ‘good’ visual effect is hard to define, and consequently to judge. Shots make scenes, scenes make sequences, sequences make the film. A single shot — whether it contains visual effects or not — can influence the audience’s immersion within the entire film. Likewise, the qualities of the film, the story, the performances of the actors, and the vision of the director can all affect the feeling of an individual shot. The work needs to be judged taking into account the whole film. So, a mind-blowing, clever, beautiful visual effects shot that is ‘good’ will only ever enter the realms of ‘unforgettable’ if the film itself is up there in the stratosphere of the best films. If the film is forgettable, certainly the visual effects will disappear into the pixel grave of history.”


Winner of the 87th Academy Award for Best Visual Effects: “Interstellar” – Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter, Scott R. Fisher. Image copyright © by Warner Bros. Entertainment.

How Much is Too Much?

One criticism frequently levelled at today’s effects-heavy tentpoles is that the sheer weight of visual imagery threatens to overload viewers’ senses and derail flimsy storylines. Randall Smith is as familiar with the trend as the rest of us:

“Much of what we see today is visual effects for the sake of visual effects, effects that are distracting the viewer, begging for attention.”

Jim Gibbs agrees that, when it comes to judging films in a best visual effects category, excess should not necessarily lead to success:

“In an age of movies with gratuitous and over-the-top effects for the sake of visual spectacle, those that truly stand out are those which not only instil a sense of wonder in the audience, but are absolutely necessary to the film and the way the story is being told.”

Another person who also prefers quality over quantity is Aladino Debert, creative director at Digital Domain:

“Given the maturity of the industry, and the evolved expectations of what constitutes award-winning work, I’d say it comes down to a combination of uniqueness, art direction and technical prowess. I believe you need those three elements in order to really make me pay attention and consider it worthy of an award. Quantity does not impress me, but creative choices and the smart use of visual effects do.”

Winner of the 86th Academy Award for Best Visual Effects: "Gravity" - Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk, Neil Corbould. Image copyright © by Warner Bros. Entertainment.

Winner of the 86th Academy Award for Best Visual Effects: “Gravity” – Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk, Neil Corbould. Image copyright © by Warner Bros. Entertainment.

It’s a Tricky Business

One thing’s for sure, the more you break down the business of creating visual effects, the more you appreciate just how challenging the craft really is. Given their complexity, is it even possible to judge visual effects at all? Mike Janov, VFX supervisor at Atomic Fiction, is all too aware of the difficulties involved:

“There really is no one way to judge ‘award-winning visual effects’ — there are so many aspects that go into a final image. There are many decisions made on-set that act as a canvas for whoever is doing the visual effects — camera, lens, camera movement, composition, lighting, and so on. After a shoot wraps, it’s up to the talent of a visual effects studio to bring the shots to life. More decisions need to be made based on the previous on-set choices. How do you take a plate to the next level? Are the effects making the image a more emotional experience for the audience? Are they being pushed to a level of realism never seen before? Is the intention of the visual effects clear, making the overall viewing experience better?”

Even when you do identify ways to facilitate the judging process, there are plenty of ways in which logical argument can get subverted, as Anders Beer, animation director at Image Engine, remarks:

“At its core, visual effects work is about creative problem-solving. That much has never changed. So, measuring great visual effects means weighing the difficulty of the problem against the quality of the solution — measuring the quality of the solution is always going to be subjective. Unfortunately, some of the most challenging visual effects problems that get solved are too dramatic or political to make it into the visual effects breakdowns. And many of the solutions are misrepresented in the breakdowns to promote studio marketing or even personal agendas.”

One of the big challenges for visual effects professionals is how to present their work to judging panels made up of people who know little — if anything — about visual effects. Aidan Fraser, VFX supervisor at Atomic Fiction, identifies some of the issues:

“Nowadays, one can’t determine the line between CG and practical simply by watching the film. The judges of visual effects awards need to see breakdown reels even to know what is visual effects and what isn’t. The obstacles a team had to overcome and the innovations they made along the way must also be considered in judging the final image. For example, our hope is that you watched The Walk and believed that Joseph Gordon Levitt learned to juggle five clubs while balancing on a slack line. However, to judge the visual effects in the film, you would have to know that those shots were digital face replacements. Also, the massive 1970s New York environments become more of an achievement when you know the time and budget constraints of the film, not to mention the scale of cloud computing never before seen in cinema. You have to understand the process to accurately judge the product.”

No two visual effects shots are the same. Similarly, every awards ceremony differs from the next. That’s why Guy Williams, visual effects supervisor at Weta Digital, adjusts his judging criteria according to the prize that’s up for grabs:

“For the VES awards, I judge a shot by its merit against other effects – in other words, I take into account the difficulty of the effect, and the creativity of the solution. For the Academy, I base it more on how the effects contribute to the storytelling. For both awards, quality is also a main concern – although the industry is so evolved now that most nominated films are skirting the edge of perfection, so it isn’t usually a deciding factor.”

In an age when the term “CG” is seen by some uninformed individuals as a dirty word, visual effects professionals can take heart from the knowledge that much of their work is going more unnoticed — and is therefore more successful — than ever, as Peter Rogers observes:

“Recent successes like Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens have both led to audiences praising the return to ‘all-practical’ effects. This shows how seamless really good visual effects can be.”

Here’s another thought. Because many judging panels are ignorant of the visual effects process, is the “context is king” model really the best way to measure success in the craft? Brooke Lyndon-Stanford, visual effects supervisor and owner at Atomic Arts, and chair of the London branch of the Visual Effects Society, shares his personal reflections on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voting process:

“For me, it is extremely important to take the visual effects out of their context — we are here to judge the quality of the actual work, and nothing else. To this end, it is vital that we understand what we are looking at, and judge it on its own merit. A badly scripted film can still contain excellent effects, and just because a film is by a great director should in no way elevate the perceived quality of the effects.

“Having sat through the AMPAS VFX branch bake-off on a few occasions, it is clear that the way we should judge visual effects is very different from how the Academy judges them. I sat beside a senior studio executive at the bake-off for the 2012 Oscars, for which a movie we had contributed to — Rise of the Planet of the Apes — was nominated. Seeing the other films in contention, in my naivety, I declared that Apes would be a shoo-in for the Oscar. It was the first ever live-action movie where the lead was totally computer generated — a pivotal moment in movie history. The exec disagreed — history showed that, where there was a movie in contention by a director favoured by the Academy which wasn’t quite good enough to receive ‘serious’ awards, members would vote for their film in other categories. I was astounded that this could ever happen, and genuinely didn’t believe him. Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese, won the 2012 Academy Award for Visual Effects.

“To be fair, Academy judges are hindered to a great part because the Academy (which incidentally has a median age of 62), still does not allow breakdowns in the reels shown to them, so how can they be expected to understand what they are looking at? I chatted to a couple of grey-haired Academy members after the bake-off who were amazed at how we got the apes to act so well on camera.”

The bottom line has to be that visual effects is, at is always has been, an incredibly difficult category to judge, as Will Cohen admits:

“Creativity will always be difficult to judge. Much of the time, what is perceived to be award-winning work is subjective opinion and personal taste, and will depend on the comparative quality and impact of the batch of works that are created in a particular year.”

Winner of the 85th Academy Award for Best Visual Effects: "Life of Pi" - Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan de Boer, Donald R. Elliott. Image copyright © by 20th Century Fox.

Winner of the 85th Academy Award for Best Visual Effects: “Life of Pi” – Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan de Boer, Donald R. Elliott. Image copyright © by 20th Century Fox.

The Feelings of the Panel

Our panel of experts has discussed at length the myriad ways by which visual effects can be judged. However, perhaps the most useful insights they can give us are concerned not with what they think, but how they feel. So away with the commentary — let’s allow the emotions to speak for themselves:

“When watching a film, I’m always hoping for an emotional experience that is unforgettable. Ideally, when there are visual effects, I’m not evaluating the image technically, simply enjoying the experience and being left wanting more!”
Mike Janov, VFX supervisor, Atomic Fiction

“The visual effects which hold a special place in my heart are those that leave an emotional imprint, long after the initial viewing. Cutting through the fog of obligatory effects found in most features are a few, rare beacons of how this craft can truly shape an experience. That happens when the creators are so good that you genuinely feel joy or sadness for an illusion made of triangles. In those moments, an artist transcends the medium, and the computer vanishes.”
Vince Cirelli, visual effects supervisor, Luma Pictures

“In recent years, we have learned the hard way that bums on seats and big budgets alone don’t necessarily produce award-winning, eye-watering and envy-inducing visual effects. We shouldn’t strive to pull the rabbit out of the hat with as much fireworks and fanfare as possible. What turns heads is when you can subtly feel the passion, the pain, the endurance and creativity a project demanded of its crew. When disadvantages get turned into advantages, when problems turn into solutions — that’s when a show reaches its ‘bliss point’ and turns from a 99-cent fast-food burger into a well-aged French Camembert, melting in your mouth, challenging your nose and tickling your taste buds.”
Guido Wolter, 2D supervisor, One of Us

“Once in a blue moon, you will find a visual effect that includes both extraordinary amounts of artistic vision and near-perfect realism. The moment may go overlooked by the audience, because it fades so completely into the story supporting it. These moments will be studied for years to come.”
Randall Smith, visual effects supervisor, Pixomondo

“For me, award-winning visual effects are always those that are the deepest, richest, and most captivating — not the largest or most flashy. The effects which facilitate a visual result that is otherwise unachievable, and in so doing return incredible value to the filmmaker.”
Shawn Walsh, visual effects executive producer, Image Engine

“Perhaps the best visual effects are the ones that fool the experts — when even we, as professionals in the industry, forget that we are watching a character, event, or place that never actually existed.”
Rudy Grossman, CG supervisor, Atomic Fiction

“Good visual effects tell a story that can’t be told using any other tools. If you were to remove the effects, you’d leave an irreparable hole.”
Niketa Roman, PR manager, Tippett Studio

“As is true with all artistic challenges that go into the making of a film, we are in the business of contributing to the director’s vision. One should judge the success of a visual effect by its artful addition to a film, the ingenuity that went into its creation, and by the degree to which it creates an exceptional experience.”
Brian Flora, art director, Atomic Fiction

Winner of the 84th Academy Award for Best Visual Effects: "Hugo" - Rob Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossmann, Alex Henning. Image copyright © by Paramount Pictures.

Winner of the 84th Academy Award for Best Visual Effects: “Hugo” – Rob Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossmann, Alex Henning. Image copyright © by Paramount Pictures.

And Finally …

Of all our contributors, only one was brave enough to offer up a working blueprint of what actually constitutes an award-winning visual effect. Frankly, we’re not convinced that Dominic Parker, VFX supervisor at One of Us, was entirely serious when he compiled his ultimate checklist. Nevertheless, if you’re a visual effects artist keen to display one of those heavyweight gold trophies on your shelf, maybe you should try following his step by step instructions:

“An award-winning visual effect should have an A-list actor in front of a greenscreen, three or more practical elements, a complex CG pass — maybe of some kind of space creature or something being blown up — with multiple angles of view, there should be a non-nodal camera move, and when all this stuff is stuck together there should be some kind of cool effect over the top which makes it feel organic.”

Thanks to all our contributors from the following companies:

Special thanks to Jenny Burbage, Alex Coxon, Dave Gougé, Sophie Hunt, Ella Keeven, Geraldine Morales, Sepi Motamedi, Helen Pooler, Niketa Roman, Tiffany Tetrault and Sirena Ung.