From Dune to Spider-Man: Lessons from the Oscar for Best VFX

From Dune to Spider-Man: Lessons from the Oscar for Best VFX

March 25, 2022
Logan Leavitt

These 5 VFX heavy hitters are sure to take home some gold this weekend.

It’s that time of year again. Screeners are out, nominations are in, and opinions are flying about the broadcast of the 93rd annual Academy Awards. The fully-named Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is an organization inseparable from the Hollywood machine. On one hand, the Oscars always feel a bit contrived—whether it be unworthy winners or shocking snubs—on the other, it’s a great opportunity to look back on the year's greatest silver screen moments. 

For VFX, this often means a celebration of the biggest and baddest our industry has to offer. Whether it’s an incredible new world or even more destruction of New York at the hands of the next super-villain, these films are on the bleeding edge. 

Dune - Paul Lambert, Tristan Myles, Brian Connor, and Gerd Nefzer 

I’ll reveal my bias upfront: I loved Dune. The rolling vistas of sand, the gritty and tactile machinery, the incredible scale of the sandworm—the VFX of Dune are operating at a level beyond most blockbusters. Dune is a film whose visual achievement comes from top to bottom cohesion. 

Everything from Paul’s fashion choices throughout the film to the incredibly unique dragonfly-inspired aircraft is not only aesthetically consistent but inherently justified. The world calls for these visuals in their diverse cultural groups and settings. It’s not just the VFX themselves that make this film spectacular either, it’s the way they meld into the overall package with cinematography, coloring, editing, audio, and everything in between. The VFX of Dune isn’t just icing on a cake, rather it’s a key ingredient that’s seamlessly mixed in. 

In this incredible webinar from Double Negative, we get to see the range of work required to achieve such a result as well as some of the smart choices made in creating the film. Most notorious is the use of “sand screens” in place of our traditional green. This cuts down on spill, makes reflections more forgiving, and allowed the artists to lock in an iconic look to match the namesake of the film. If you want to recreate it yourself, don’t worry we’ve got plenty of (free) dust

Free Guy - Swen Gillberg, Bryan Grill, Nikos Kalaitzidis, and Dan Sudick

Unfortunately, video game movies aren’t always the best. Free Guy sneaks past this by being a movie that is just generally about video games and less about one specific IP. The film is a fun time out to the movies and brings with it some shiny fun effects courtesy of Digital Domain among many others. 

In the car chase scene in this breakdown, we get a glimpse of the wild and high-octane energy that this film brings forward through VFX. The “in-game” sequences especially offer opportunities to throw caution to the wind and truly test how many ways you can destroy a city. Free Guy works because the world supports its absurdity. Just as Dune’s rolling hills of sand fit right in, so do Free Guys bullet-time car flipping explosions. 

No Time to Die - Charlie Noble, Joel Green, Jonathan Fawkner, and Chris Corbould

No Time to Die is another film with car chases but brings a bit more of a serious tone to the mix. The thing that’s interesting about the VFX of a spy movie is you have to know where to draw the line. It’s 007, not Fast 12, so the artists are going for something a bit more understated, yet just as gripping. 

Double Negative is back for this breakdown (they’ve done a lot of work across this list) and showing off a range of work. When you think about a Bond film, your mind might go straight to bullet hits and helicopters, but perhaps even more impressive are the “invisible” effects used to build the world around our favorite British spy. This work can be as simple as a sign on a city corner, and as complex as entire cities on the horizon. Regardless, the effect is all the same: a world which you get lost in without even knowing it’s made in post.

The lesson from NTTD is to see how far you can push the environment while holding onto its realism. The shot at 20 seconds is perfect here, as Bond walks towards his destination off a dock, we see what is a perfectly serviceable port town—the artists could have stopped there—but they wanted to take it up a notch. With a wipe, we’re greeted by the faint glow of buildings up into a mountain-bound city. It’s a great touch and brings us to an uncharted location fit for a spy. 

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings - Christopher Townsend, Joe Farrell, Sean Noel Walker, and Dan Oliver

It wouldn’t be the Oscars for VFX without a Marvel film, and Shang-Chi is bringing something much different than the usual Avengers vibe. The film is teeming with mythology and color and wonder that brings Marvel's charm to the roots of Chinese folklore. What’s more? It’s got creatures; and who better to bring them to life than the talented folks over at Weta Digital. In this breakdown, we get a glimpse of this theater-worthy work, especially in the final battle scene (spoiler warning). 

As we see the value of IP and franchise fandom skyrocketing in recent years we again find the visual focus to be on world-building and creating a unique visual identity for Shang-Chi. From the colors to the shapes, the artists knew they had to make something different from the other Marvel films so that the latest hero could stand on his own. 

You may not be ready to drop a perfectly rendered sky dragon into your scene, but if you want to give it a shot, consider how you can use our energy effects to build character power and identity in your own sci-fi/fantasy. 

Spider-Man: No Way Home - Kelly Port, Chris Waegner, Scott Edelstein, and Dan Sudick

It wouldn’t be the Oscars for VFX without two Marvel films. Spider-Man: No Way Home is by every metric the year's biggest film. Its blockbuster success has established Marvel’s ability to sell enormous amounts of tickets outside of the Infinity Saga and surely inspired generations of filmmakers to come. 

The VFX of No Way Home is what you’d expect, but one thing that stands out is the use of Georgia as the primary filming location. Chromakey and even the overuse of CGI itself have garnered a bad rap among laypeople in recent years, but it's the only way Sony was able to turn Georgia into New York and we’re better for it. 

Beyond just set pieces and extensions, there is some serious stuntwork happening with NWH that simply wouldn’t be possible on location or in an uncontrolled environment. This level of control is an oft-overlooked benefit of our work. You can be safer, have more options, and shoot anywhere in the world with enough VFX legwork to make it New York before it hits the screen.

Make sure to support the VFX category and tune into the Oscars on March 27th! 

If you are ready to take your visuals to the next level, check out our VFX stock footage library. You will find dozens of VFX assets including flamethrowers, water splashes, blood hits, ground fog, snow, fireworks, and many more. 

You can buy asset collections with FX of your choice separately starting from $50 or subscribe for as low as $14.99 per month to get instant access to our entire library. 

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