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3 Takeaways From The 2018 Oscar Nominations For Best Visual Effects

3 Takeaways From The 2018 Oscar Nominations For Best Visual Effects

Awards season is in full swing! For most of Hollywood, this time of year brings an emergence of grounded arthouse films and select screenings. For VFX artists and enthusiasts, however, this is the time to look back at the biggest and baddest effects magic of the past 52 weeks.

The 90th Academy Awards ceremony offers no surprises in this realm. This year’s nominees for Best Visual Effects pushed the envelope in both scope and technical prowess, and brought many innovations of the last decade to a whole new level. Though diverse in subject matter, they exhibit trends in both viewer expectation and industry technology. Here are three takeaways before the winner is crowned.

1. Fur Is (Still) Getting Better And Better

Warner Bros. ‘Kong: Skull Island.’ Image © Warner Bros.
In 2011, the incredible engineers and artists of Weta Digital changed the way performance capture was utilized with the first film of the modern Planet of the Apes trilogy, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”. While the capture itself was one of the highlights of the work, the film also set new standards in the areas of grooming and fur dynamics.

2018’s Oscar noms show the ripple effects of this technology. Directly of course in the nomination of War for the Planet of the Apes, the third installment in the trilogy—but also in the nomination of “Kong: Skull Island”. “Kong” saw our favorite giant monkey face the elements in all his glory with fur that clumped with water, dried with blood, and blew naturally in the wind. Animation Supervisor Scott Benza told Trevor Hogg for Animation World Network, “We went further with fur on this movie than we have done before as far as how much interaction with the environment was required. We had interaction with water, mud, fire and other creatures.”
“War for the Planet of the Apes” was no different, with Caesar's journey of captivity reflecting directly in the condition on his coat. His fur collected clumps and dustings of snow, became stained with blood, and even featured hints of grey and aging—a display of his long journey through the now complete trilogy. 

2. Digital Is Leaning Analogue (For Your Nostalgia)

Warner Bros. ‘Blade Runner: 2049’ Image © Warner Bros.
Hollywood has reacted to a recent (misguided) apprehension towards CG with promises of a practical focus for many reboots, sequels, and remakes. 2018 VFX Oscar noms Blade Runner 2049 and Star Wars: The Last Jedi are perfect examples of this nostalgia play. 

In the latter, director Rian Johnson unveiled creatures new and old with a focus on practical effects similar to the last mainline installment The Force Awakens. While some of these creatures were honest practicals, others were tweaked for the illusion. If the Porgs filling Luke’s island on Ahch-To looked strangely stiff to you it’s because they were deliberately made to be so. “Rian was pretty firm that he didn’t want us to go too elastic or too expressive beyond what a puppet might achieve,” Ben Morris, one of ILM’s VFX Supes on the film, told Indiewire’s Bill Desowitz late last year. This animatronic look paid homage to the outstanding work of the originals while avoiding the anti-CG gripes that came with both the Star Wars prequels and the infamous Trilogy remasters.

For Blade Runner 2049, a gritty analogue look played a huge role in upholding consistency between the original film—a vanguard of optical printing and old school effects—and its own world, devised in an era dominated by digital. Multiple members of the crew have hailed director Denis Villeneuve for opting to build as much set as possible, leaving less to their own imagination.
The results of this approach certainly show in Blade Runner 2049’s beautiful scenes, but it's the finesse in set extension that brings it all together. The massive city scapes and new worlds we visit in the film mesh perfectly with the grungy and bleak optical composites of the original, avoiding the too-sharp too-shiny tells of CG imagery (setting aside the giant purple woman, of course).

3. Standard Superhero Movies Aren’t Good Enough

Marvel Studios ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.’ Image © Marvel Studios
Despite six major superhero releases in 2017, Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is the sole nominee for Best Visual Effects at this year’s Oscars ceremony. The tired genre’s vfx achievements in the past decade are without contention, but it’s clear the bar has been raised beyond epic battles in Manhattan. Last years’ comic book hero nominee Doctor Strange stood alone for the award as well, setting itself apart from the five other Marvel and DC blockbusters of 2016 with its awe inspiring fractal-porn and Inception-like city transformations.

In the same way, Guardians 2’s incredible sci-fi universe and final sequence in particular exhibit a masterful amalgamation of cutting edge techniques beyond the scope of fellow superhero flicks. As the Guardians battle against the evil living planet Ego, the team at Weta digital found themselves facing a very tall order. From digital characters, to organic x-ray morphs, to lightning, fluids, and dynamics galore, animation supervisor Dave Clayton credits the studios strong preparation and development prowess for their incredible results.

In regards to Ego’s skin-shedding transformation, Clayton told Animation World News’ Trevor Hogg, “Our effects team had been conducting motion studies and formation tests for months leading up to when those transformation shots were in production. They were developing the technology to make the growth look organic and real.”

This year’s nominees for Best Visual Effects show once again the way diverse and compelling stories are empowered and enhanced by technology. Rather than strength by standalone achievement, the nominated films are noteworthy for their seamless incorporation of stunning visual effects as a crucial component of storytelling. When the ceremony beings in March, it’s anyone’s game.

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