Bond, Dune and Spider-Man – the three blockbusters that did most to lure punters back to the cinema – all get nods alongside two Disney films
Five films are vying for the Best Visual Effects Oscar – Dune, Free Guy, No Time to Die, Spider-Man: No Way Home and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, with the winner set to be announced on 27 March.
The VFX goal for the Warner Bros space opera, briefed to overall visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert, was to try to keep everything as grounded and as photoreal as possible.
“We weren’t going to have any virtual cameras which could only be done in CG,” he tells BeforesandAfters . “We wanted to embrace all of the natural environments which we were going to visit.”
This included shooting at Origo Film Studios in Budapest against sand-coloured backdrops without resorting to blue or green screen and devising a method of extracting chroma-keys.
He reveals that an opening sequence to the film, set in space above Arrakis, was shot with LED screens, but that it didn’t make the cut. “[DP Greig Fraser] knew that there was no way we could get that harsh, arid, hot, bright environment with an LED screen,” he says.
“We threw the kitchen sink at it. We threw in more helicopters, more explosions and a bank truck that smashes into a car and all this money comes out, just to start,” Nikos Kalaitzidis, Digital Domain
Similarly for the interiors of the ornithopters they found the highest hill in Budapest and built a gimbal, around which they constructed a 25ft-high sand-coloured 360-degree ramp.
“We called it the ‘dog collar’, the idea being that when it was a bright, sunny day, the sun would bounce off the dog collar into the ornithopter giving us the ideal lighting. Now, the ornithopter was just like a glass bowl. When we had the actors inside the ornithopter and Greig focused on Paul [Timothée Chalamet] and everything was out of focus in the background, it almost looked as if you were over the desert.”
SFX supervisor Gerd Nefzer came up with the idea of using a massive vibrating plate underneath the sand of Abu Dhabi’s desert to simulate the earth-shaking movement of the sandworms.
“What we did in post to help extend this 12x12 plate was we shot extensive photography of the effect so we could then replicate it to make it feel like it covered a much larger area,” he says.
Lambert is employed at lead vendor DNEG, corralling contributions from Rodeo FX, Wylie Co and MPC. Rodeo FX and Weta Workshop worked on concepts for the movie including the worms which had a mouth based on a whale’s baleen.
Wylie Co played a large role in creating the spice-infused blue eyes of certain characters, basing individual looks on the colour of each actor’s eyes. This was after rejecting contact lenses (not ideal in a sandy environment) and even using onions.
“We did a test where we cut up some onions and rubbed them under our eyes to try and get some red going on from the onion which we then tinted blue, but Denis [Villeneuve, director] wasn’t interested in that.”
Spider-Man: No Way Home
A triumph in fully integrating a classic superhero into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), No Way Home was the first film of the Covid-19 era to do pre-pandemic level business, thanks in a large part to male moviegoers between the ages of 18 and 34, according to The Hollywood Reporter. It sits at six on the all-time list of top-grossing films, having clocked over $1.77 billion in revenue and ticking.
Several characters from previous Spider-Man films return to the fray and updating a trio of villains was the main VFX task.
“The technology from the Sam Raimi and Marc Webb movies are outmoded, but the latest advances and ability to iterate quickly have led to greater photorealism,” explains Marvel’s production VFX supervisor Kelly Port to IndieWire.
Digital Domain gave the tentacled Doc Ock a complete CG overhaul by creating a fully developed digital character that could hold up in a medium-to-close shot. This was used in combination with live action with Alfred Molina on a platform rig or wires.
Electro was designed to see more of Jamie Foxx’s face and was given a more comic book-accurate look for his electricity. Luma Pictures, Digital Domain and Sony Imageworks worked on different scenes featuring the character.
Imageworks took a central role writing complex sand simulation of millions of particles for the Sandman. “Finding the look of the character animation was difficult, facially, when he was talking,” says Port. “They’ve made everything look so much more real with light interaction, true bounce and reflections based on the colour of something. It’s integrated in the live-action or CG environment and sits in there more believably than ever before.”
The climactic battle on the Statue of Liberty also featured the three costumed incarnations of Spider-Man. “We had three Spideys swinging around, so they each have their own characteristic pose, especially when all three land for the face off on the head of the statue. We worked hard to create an iconic image of the three of them landing and hitting their poses backlit by the moon. Swinging around is just great animation.”
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
In the MCU’s introduction to Chinese wuxia fantasy adventure, the stand out scene was of a fight on a bus careering around San Francisco. This combined location and reference shooting on location with choreographed stunts filmed on a blue screen stage on motion buses in Sydney. This scene was prevised by The Third Floor and orchestrated by Luma Pictures.
“Planning the sequence, we had to map out the route that the bus took through the streets of San Francisco, always trying to maintain a downhill motion during the most dramatic parts of the fight,” explains VFX supervisor Chris Townsend to BeforesandAfters. “We managed to get most of what we needed in an eight-camera array set of plates, mounted on a car, driving through the streets.”
These array plates were fastidiously stitched together to create the world of San Francisco outside the bus. The Sydney blue screen stage had two different complete articulated buses; one was on an air bladder system, for general driving shots, the other on a six-axis gimbal for the more dramatic twists, turns and jumps.
“In terms of getting the physics right, director Destin Daniel Cretton always wanted to have the drama amped up a bit, with the bus lurching downhill. This meant we had to tread that fine line between reality and movie reality. We studied footage of crazy bus stunts and real bus driving plates to get a better sense of what a bus can do… Yes, you can drive a bus on two wheels!”
Rodeo FX handled the major fight sequence on a skyscraper scaffold and Weta Digital’s 300 shots included the dragons and the power rings themselves.
No Time to Die
The key to Daniel Craig-era Bond is the mix of muscular brutality with real pain and sensitivity. This comes to the fore in the final instalment which has registered $774 million at the box office since release last September.
Director Cary Joji Fukunaga and cinematographer Linus Sandgren avoided green screen as much as possible but still required 1300 VFX shots split between Cinesite, DNEG and ILM.
The extent of this concept can be felt in the pre-credits sequence filmed in Matera, south Italy, which features 007 back in the classic Aston Martin DB5.
“The whole scene feels violent but intimate and immediate, shot with handheld IMAX cameras [and aerial work]. Everything that goes on in this scene is so intense. You can feel how hard it hurts Bond,” Linus Sandgren, cinematographer
“It’s a romantic picture postcard location that turns into an action inferno,” says Sandgren. “The whole scene feels violent but intimate and immediate, shot with handheld IMAX cameras [and aerial work]. Everything that goes on in this scene is so intense. You can feel how hard it hurts Bond.”
When the Aston Martin rotates in the town square the machine guns that pop-out of its headlamp are designed to be shot in-camera FX by special effects expert Chris Corbould (who shares the nomination).
Framestore’s 400 shots on the film included transforming the open scene shot in Norway in the spring into crisp, snowy winterscapes and the set piece chase featuring Land Rovers, motorbikes and a helicopter. This work involved combining CG vehicles into the plates using keyframe animation and removing objects like stunt ramps and then replacing terrain.
A separate team of 40 Framestore artists worked solely on the opening titles with director Daniel Kleinman; on Daniel Craig’s last gunbarrel sequence and the Billie Eilish music video for the title track.
No Time to Die is Bond’s first VFX Oscar nomination since Moonraker.
The Truman Show meets Wreck It Ralf in director Shawn Levy’s comic adventure in which Guy, a jovial background character in a Grand Theft Auto-style multiplayer game, becomes self-aware and decides to play hero.
The film blends live-action characters (led by Ryan Reynolds) and sets with a myriad of digital environments and “a neon rainbow of in-game graphics”, says DigitalTrends, which interviewed Digital Domain VFX supervisor Nikos Kalaitzidis about the work.
The opening scene is 3000 frames and was initially a single shot from beginning to end as Badass [Channing Tatum] free-dives into Free City.
“We threw the kitchen sink at it. We threw in more helicopters, more explosions and a bank truck that smashes into a car and all this money comes out, just to start. And then we just kept on coming up with more ideas, with everyone pitching them to Shawn and his team, and they loved everything.”
Half the sequence was composed of plates photographed in Boston and Pittsburgh and a live action car chase shot using a custom-built 360 camera and a camera shooting hi-speed moving at 70mph.
“You’ve got to be careful when you have actors and stunt people on set – if it made one weird mistake it could chop some body’s head off,” said Kalaitzidis in this making of video.
Digital Domain also used an AI-driven renderer called Charlatan to re-animate the mouth and face performance of a digi-double of Tatum and based the game’s glitching effect on the pixelation from 1980s Atari videogames.
Scanline VFX had the job of destroying Free City, after first building tonnes of buildings, props and other CG assets. Face replacement was used to create Dude, a heightened version of Guy, which involved working with VFX studio Lola to capture Reynolds’ facial expressions and apply his likeness and movement to the on-set performance of bodybuilder Aaron Reed.
“Our goal is always to try to make it as photo realistic and roughly apply to gravity, physics, that kind of thing,” says overall VFX supervisor Swen Gillberg. “But the beauty of this story was like anything goes. ‘You know what I think this shot needs? I think this needs a pterodactyl. What do you think?’ And we put a pterodactyl in.”
Near miss: The Matrix Resurrections
The VFX centrepiece of director Lana Wachowski’s return to the Matrix was a reimagining of the iconic ‘bullet time’ but this time, instead of having the action played out in the middle of camera arrays the camera was to move around the action.
Just to complicate matters they aimed to have Neo (Keanu Reeves) and the Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris) appear to move at different speeds within the same frame.
“Bullet time in this movie is used primarily against Neo, so it’s power that’s taken away,” explains Dan Glass, the production’s VFX supervisor from DNEG to IndieWire. “We looked initially at shooting underwater because you get this very natural sense of exertion but also slowness of movement but the natural effect of reduced weight on actors’ faces was distracting from the overall performance.”
The answer was to use a stereoscopic rig, explained DP Daniele Massaccesi to IBC365. “Instead of having each camera in parallax as if to shoot 3D, dual RED cameras were aligned to shoot an identical view with one recording 120fps and the other at 8fps. The footage was then blended in post to create an 11-minute-long scene played back at normal film speed 24fps.”
There was quite a bit of massaging and trimming before addition of CG hair and retiming for that underwater look.
The film’s 2350 VFX shots were created by DNEG, Framestore and One of Us with Volucap at Studio Babelsberg.