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Know Your Oscar Nominees: Visual Effects Supervisors

And we’re back with another guide to the Oscars’ often overlooked technical categories. We've covered the nominees for film editing, sound mixing and editing, and costume design, and now we’re set to explore another visual category that could be anyone’s game. Showcasing some of the years’ biggest blockbusters (as well as some astonishing technical achievement), Best Visual Effects nominations have been awarded to a wide range of the year’s films, allowing for a ballot veritably stuffed with heavyweight contenders ranging from Inarritu’s wilderness epic The Revenant to Miller’s Mad Max comeback. To better understand what’s on the line (and who exactly is nominated), we’ve got another handy guide to the visual concepts, execution and winning odds for each of the five nominees.

But first, some definitions. Not only is Best Visual Effects often the only time the Academy takes genre work seriously, it’s also the only category to use a “Bake off” method to determine the nominees. Beginning with ten qualifying films (of which Tomorrowland, Ant-Man and Jurassic World were included), members were given presentations of the years’ best visual offerings. The members were then asked to pick the best five based on the official Oscar criteria: “the contribution the visual effects make to the overall production and the artistry, skill and fidelity with which the visual illusions are achieved.”

And while it’s a surprise to few that Mad Max: Fury Road, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Martian are receiving nominations, Inarritu’s realist The Revenant and Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina have also been given nods, mixing up the category in particularly provocative ways.  For the winners, the Academy has historically chosen a high-profile and high-grossing release, and often one that also received a Best Picture nomination (Hugo, Life of Pi, Gravity). This bodes well for The Martian, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant, all of which have received Best Picture noms, but with Star Wars’ Oscar legacy (all three of the original films took home the statue in this category), it truly could be anyone’s game. That is, except Ex Machina’s. Let’s take a look at the work.

It’s incredibly rare that an independent film receive a nod in the Visual Effects category, with District 9 being the last notable exception. Considering Ex Machina’s paltry budget was less than 8% of The Force Awakens, it’s even more impressive that the relatively low-profile but impressively realized science fiction film would receive this kind of accolade. That is, until you think about what the visual effects team achieved.

Visual Concept: Though Ex Machina is Alex Garland’s first time in a director’s chair (read our interview with him here), Andrew Whitehurst isn’t new to the visual effects world, with credits on high-profile and effects-heavy films like Skyfall and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Whitehurst and Garland worked intimately to create the look for Ava, the artificially intelligent and undeniably magnetic robot around which the world of Ex Machina spins. Turning to collaborator and visual artist Jock, the team began work on basic concept art and photoshop paintings to devise Ava’s robotic exterior, which Whitehurst described to Cinefix as “very loose, impressionistic, to give a feeling of the kind of emotion and some ideas about what structure Ava might have… There was plenty of room for discussion and ideas to filter through.” The duo worked very closely to develop the ultimate look for Ava, drawing figure after figure in order to get Ava just right.

VFX Execution: Despite the complicated effects required to animate Ava’s body, Whitehurst was averse to using excessive green screen to achieve the look he wanted, preferring instead to leave the actors to interact closely. “We actually incorporated tracking markers into parts of the costume design to make it as unobtrusive as possible… If there wasn't that engagement between the characters then we wouldn't matter.” In order to preserve the integrity of the two actors’ performances without bulky effects interruption, Whitehurst worked with Sammy Sheldon, the costume designer, to incorporate “little brass studs gave [the VFX team] discreet points that [they] could use when [they] were tracking her performance in post,” allowing the actors to move about naturally while giving the post-production team plenty to work with.

Chances of Winning: Pretty much nil, but in the case of a small release like Ex Machina, it truly is an honor just to be nominated.

Anyone would be hard-pressed to point to a more anticipated 2015 release than JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens, and despite the fact that the film was passed over for a Best Picture nod, the Visual Effects odds look quite sunny for the seventh installment in the franchise. The film, which was overseen by the iconic ILM (Industrial Light and Magic), was largely publicized for its devotion to practical effects and its decision to be shot on film, but this year’s Star Wars also features enough visual effects shots to give the famously overwrought Phantom Menace a run for its money.

Visual Concepts: For Abrams and the visual effects team at ILM, The Force Awakens was a chance to return to the traditions of the original trilogy, taking a purposeful side-step from the much-maligned prequels. "We all felt very strongly about capturing the spirit of the earlier movies," Roger Guyett, ILM's VFX supervisor, told Slash Film.“We wanna make something with its own kind of forward kind of perspective to it. And at the same time you want the movie to be exciting and have its own level of innovation.”

VFX Execution: In order to preserve the film’s back-to-basics feel without sacrificing slick visuals, the team at ILM worked with as much real-world footage as possible. “By observing [the spaces] and then recording them as accurately as we could, [we got] better understanding of that environment," Guyett explained. "You see things that would never occur to you to recreate in the computer. It's a very different thing than just digitally mocking it up from the get-go." Of course, some of the vistas had to be created by dedicated ILM techs. “Then you have other instances where you’re going, okay, I’m doing a Falcon chase in the desert,” Guyett said. “I’m gonna create a technology where I can essentially create any version of that desert that I want so I can fly around it and create my own camera moves. And if I can achieve that, then I can essentially put a sequence together like a chase sequence and hopefully people believe that it’s all really there, it’s all photographed.”

Chances of Winning: While this category still feels like anyone’s game, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is (by virtue of sheer ticket sales) the audience-favorite, and with a history of Oscar wins in earlier franchise installments, the film stands a good chance of taking home the gold despite its absence from the Best Picture category.

Whether or not you’re thrilled with its significant Oscar attention, Ridley Scott’s The Martian was one of the most broadly enjoyable films of the year, featuring winning performances, a tight script and impeccable world-building, coalescing into a film that was nothing if not difficult to hate. Considering the film’s impressive visual undertakings, the visual effects team at MPC (Moving Picture Company) have been treated to a well-deserved Oscar nominations — for turning the vistas of Jordan into the rocky surfaces of Mars.

Visual Concept:  Rather than having to create a planet in a galaxy far, far away, the team at MPC was faced with an even tougher challenge: turning the world we know into a planet we don’t. “We looked at a lot of the NASA photos from the rovers – some of them from Mars,” Anders Langlands, the visual effects supervisor of MPC in Montreal, told i09. Unsurprisingly, the visionary Ridley Scott was extremely specific about the look of the film that he wanted to achieve, so much so that he eventually became known on set for drawing “Ridley Grams,” small sketches of the exact visuals he expected the team to deliver. “We’d ask ‘What do you want the background mountains to look like in this shot?’ And he’d sketch out a little diagram of what they wanted. So you just literally match that and he’d be happy,” Langlands explained.

VFX Execution: Though modern technology has allowed us access to many photographs of Mars’ surface, even simple questions like what color the planet’s sky should be posed difficult questions for the MPC team. “Mars has an atmosphere that is laden with dust and depending on how you treat the photographs, that sky can be yellow, sometimes gray , sometimes almost blue,” VFX supervisor Richard Stammers told Deadline. “The color is very similar to some of the ground on the Mars photos. Once we could match the ground, it told us what we needed to match for the sky.” When we spoke to Stammers, he clued us in on how the work was being done even before production began. "During our scouts of the locations before we started filming, we did a lot of texture photography, and pre-built the digital environment that we were later going to need for the shots, before we started shooting." Once the team could create the correct look of Mars, the rest was slightly less complex: In fact, the other biggest visual effects stunner in the film: the dust storm that takes place early on, was done largely practically, with smaller touches of digital enhancement.

Chances of winning: Considering the Academy’s predilection for the space film in this category (Gravity and Interstellar are the most recent winners), and Ridley Scott’s critically heralded return to form, The Martian stands as one of the odds-on favorites against the other big names in the category.

This year’s Oscar favorite and surprising Visual Effects nominee owes its nod to one obvious scene: the bear scene. The source of much controversy, interest and (misplaced) outrage leading up to and even after the film’s release, it’s hard to consider ILM’s vivid bear animation anything less than a rousing achievement. But is it enough to take home a statue?

Visual Concept: As with the majority of the film, director Alejandro Inarritu was devoted to achieving as much gritty realism as possible, but considering the improbability of Leonardo DiCaprio going toe-to-toe with a living bear (and living to tell the tale), VFX production supervisor Richard McBride and animation supervisor Matt Shumway were required to help Inarritu to fulfill his vision. Unsurprisingly, the production’s biggest visual influence was footage of a real life bear attack, after a drunken man fell into an exhibit at the zoo. In order to enhance the realism, the team also needed to create a scene that could be seamlessly edited together into one long take, requiring painstaking choreography and planning to achieve the shots of Leo and the animation of the animal.

VFX Execution: ILM, using work that had been developed for the upcoming Warcraft, were able to render one of the most lifelike animals ever brought to the screen. "One of the unique aspects was there wasn't the customary separation between grooming and simulation," McBride told Indiewire. "This project pushed the pipeline so that it adhered to the initial look that you built into it. So there was the simulation of flesh over the bones and then a layer of skin that got another [round] of simulation and then the fur got simulated on top of that. This provided complexity to the motion.”

Chances of Winning: For a film that seems poised to sweep the Oscars this year, The Revenant stands a chance of taking home the statue, but considering the film remains separate from the other nominees by virtue of not being a special effects film, our guess is this may be one of the few categories The Revenant doesn’t stand much of a chance in.

It was difficult to turn around without hearing someone rave about Mad Max: Fury Road this year, Miller’s return to form after two decades of family films with what could be understandably construed as a 90-minute car-chase. And while much of the press surrounding the film focused on the practical effects of the film, the fact is that nearly every frame of Mad Max has been digitally altered in some way to help bring the exacting director’s vision to cinematic life.

Visual Concept: Conscious to avoid the visually flat post-apocalyptic screen look, Visual Effects Supervisor Eric Whipp told FX Guide about Miller’s visual point of reference. “We had two words in the back of our heads the whole time – graphic novel,” he said. “We just kept saying that to ourselves. Whenever we could we changed the sky – we just tried to make it as graphic as we could.” After achieving the unique visual concept, Miller was also very specific about how to stage the action.“George pays an enormous amount of attention to the audience’s point of view,” explained VFX supervisor Andrew Jackson. “He calls it ‘eye scan’ – you have to be very aware which part of the frame the audience’s eyes are focused on in terms of the last frame of one shot and the first frame of the next shot…. It’s absolute testament to that technique that those very fast sequences are easy to watch, and you don’t get lost.”

VFX Execution: Both Jackson and Whipp have noted that the film’s substantial publicity as a practical effects film feels a bit ironic considering how much CG went into the film’s final product. “The reality is that there’s 2000 VFX shots in the film,” divulged Jackson. “A very large number of those shots are very simple clean-ups and fixes and wire removals and painting out tire tracks from previous shots, but there are a big number of big VFX shots as well.” In order to achieve the complex and massive car chases that form the backbone of the film, the effects artists combined real photography in Namibia with greenscreen and CG to tie the film together into a seamless and immense single image.“You shoot the layout and vehicles and gradually everything might get replaced,” he explained. “You may end up with nothing left of what was actually filmed, but the shot still inherits something real from the plate you shot originally. I still believe it’s worth doing for that reason.”

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