The Oscars 2023 nominees for Best VFX have been announced, Adrian Pennington takes a deeper dive into the details behind the headlines.
The Oscars 2023 nominees for Best VFX are:
All Quiet on the Western Front - Frank Petzold, Viktor Müller, Markus Frank and Kamil Jafar
Avatar: The Way of Water - Joe Letteri, Richard Baneham, Eric Saindon and Daniel Barrett
The Batman - Dan Lemmon, Russell Earl, Anders Langlands and Dominic Tuohy
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever - Geoffrey Baumann, Craig Hammack, R. Christopher White and Dan Sudick
Top Gun: Maverick - Ryan Tudhope, Seth Hill, Bryan Litson and Scott R. Fisher
- Oscars 2023: A look at the Best Cinematography Nominees
- Oscars 2023: A look at the Best Editing Nominees
Avatar: The Way of Water
While every shot in Avatar: The Way of Water is a significant achievement it is the facial performance capture that represents the major breakthrough. For the first film, Wētā had developed an image-based facial performance capture system, using a single SD head-rig camera to record the actors’ expressions and muscle movements including eye-movement. This head-rig has been upgraded to HD for the sequel with two HD cameras designed to capture an even higher fidelity performance.
“We look at every actor and every performance at a frame-by-frame level to make sure it matches [with the VFX],” said Senior VFX Supervisor Joe Letteri. “To me, it always comes down to the characters and the ability to be in the moment with them. Having that performance as detailed as possible [helps us] make sure that that’s what we see in the final shots.”
One of the reasons for the unusually high frame rate of 48fps was to give VFX more information to use for composites. The team also achieved a way of integrating depth compositing and moving eyeline systems when shooting the live action portions of the film. “When you’re doing compositing, the old way of doing it was in layers,” Letteri told The Wrap. “But if you imagine a character walking around a tree within one shot, at one point they’re in front of it and another they’re behind it. We created a neural network to train for what we were shooting.”
Solving water movement was another challenge and ranged from the accuracy of a huge creature moving through the ocean to when the tiniest raindrop lands on somebody’s forehead and trickles down their face.
“The beauty of it is, if you can solve water for this movie, you can do all water anytime until the end of time,” Cameron said. “So, these tools become incredibly important for the effects industry at large.”
Top Gun: Maverick
Top Gun 2’s producers and studio Paramount foregrounded the stunt work involved in flying airforce jets, but while Tom Cruise, Miles Teller and co were indeed in the cockpit really pulling g-forces during most of the film’s aerial acrobatics they were not in control of the aircraft.
Admitting that during the film’s rocket to the top of global box office charts in 2022 would have undermined its narrative of authenticity. In fact, Maverick contains a sizeable 2400 VFX shots ranging from creating CG planes in the dog fights, to missiles, plumes of smoke, and explosions all faultlessly comped into Claudio Miranda’s live action plates. Supervisor Ryan Tudhope said that his aim was to preserve the “messiness” of Miranda’s practical aerial photography.
The VFX team benefited from incredible access to some of the world’s leading engineers, designers and pilots. The opening action sequence for instance involved Cruise reaching Mach 10 in a prototype supersonic craft – all shots created digitally. The work was completed by the Montreal team under the Method Studios banner of UK-based VFX power house Framestore.
The only instance where Cruise does really fly in Top Gun 2, was the final sequence when Maverick take Penny (Jennifer Connelly) for a spin in his P-51 Mustang – a plane that Cruise (who has held a pilot’s licence since 1994) owns in real life.
Read more Behind the Scenes: Top Gun: Maverick
All Quiet on the Western Front
‘Invisible’ effects were employed to help create WWI battles in Edward Berger’s German language telling of All Quiet On The Western Front. As DP James Friend explained to IBC365, “A lot of what you see is practical with special effects digging mortars into the ground, blowing up large amounts of earth and dust. The general approach was do as much in camera as possible.”
A reason why the film has connected with audiences is that viewers can feel the muddy, frozen, chaotic conditions that the production went to great lengths to recreate in camera, shooting in winter in a network of trenches constructed for the film near Prague.
The VFX team led by Frank Petzold (Starship Troopers) aimed to complement never overwhelm the photography created by Friend with production designer Christian Goldbeck and the special effects Unit on location.
“In other words when, say, there was an explosion we did not entirely rely on CG models,” Petzold explained to FX Guide. Rather, the team used photographic elements as the primary foundation, implementing CG simulations to augment principal photography.
The team based their work on extensive research, to be as historically correct as possible. All locations and props were 3D scanned and modelled, to support the placement of the photographic elements with CG shadows and reflections. The appearance of the first ‘machines of war’ were handled in 3D, as the team wanted the machines to come across as gigantic creatures. Some of the close-up tanks were separately shot with SFX support, and 3D was used to control the timing of the tank fleet as they break through the fog and attack the soldiers.
Friend added practical smoke to his shots in the deep background an effect enhanced by CG “making the battlefield endless and claustrophobic at the same time,” Petzold said.
Gritty realism of a different sort was required for Warner Bros latest incarnation of the dark knight, this time with a caped Robert Pattinson directed by Matt Reeves. It was shot largely in the UK during Covid, including location work in Liverpool.
But not even Liverpool is as wet as this Gotham. It rains a lot in The Batman presenting an issue for the VFX teams working to match CG plates with DP Greig Fraser’s ’70s inspired moody lighting.
“Rain may seem simple, but it is pretty random in how it behaves,” explained New Zealand-based VFX house Wētā. “We developed a new set of tools and templates for the technical task of simulating hundreds of millions of raindrops for every shot.”
Weta’s biggest single piece of work was the car chase where Batman in the Batmobile chases down the Penguin in his Maserati. They augmented the live-action—sometimes with entirely CG shots, which animation Supervisor Dennis Yoo choreographed in post-vis.
“The sequence was shot in dry conditions but needed to be drenched in the ever-present Gotham rain to amp up the intensity of the chase,” Wētā added.
Wētā also made environments and set extensions for City Hall, scene of the Mayor’s memorial service. Working off 11 plates with swathes of green screens, they extended the interior of the building with models and matte painting and filled out the background offering glimpses of the streets on both sides of the building. For close-ups of the Batcave they created some bespoke lensing and added vignettic bokeh effects for background light sources.
“[Grieg] wanted the forms, architecture, and the fabric of the city to look like it was really in decay,” according to Wētā’s VFX supervisor Dan Lemmon.
ILM customised a pop-up version of its StageCraft virtual production system in London for The Batman. Fraser, who had helped ILM design the original Volume for The Mandalorian, used it principally create detailed cityscapes.
“As it evolved, more of the buildings became full CG builds, and the majority of the photography was gone because they had to replace the facades and many of the looks of the buildings, and had to add levels of complexity, particularly the rain,” said ILM VFX supervisor Russell Earl to IndieWire. “We went through different times of day: night, dawn, dusk, day. We also had different sun positions to put up for Fraser to pre-select [for] each shooting day.”
Read more Behind the Scenes: The Batman
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Wētā FX also helped create the underwater kingdom of Talokan, whose leader Namor wages war against Wakanda in Marvel’s Black Panther sequel.
Like Cameron, director Ryan Coogler was determined to use practical methods to capture many of the movie’s underwater scenes. Unlike Avatar 2 this was achieved with a mix of underwater photography in a tank and ‘dry-for-wet’ techniques mostly for actor close-ups.
Despite an emphasis on practical filmmaking, 87% of the total 2548 shots required VFX. shots required some CGI work to match DP Autumn Durald Arkapaw’s lighting, colour choice and lenses including the defocus, bokeh, and curvature.
“All of those anamorphic qualities needed to match so if you flipped between live action photography and visual effects, there’d be no difference,” Wētā VFX supervisor Chris White explained to befores & afters.
Wētā FX filled the underwater civilisation with temples, inhabitants and transportation. The VFX studio also took dry-for-wet and wet-for-wet plates of actors to feature them in the scenes, often simulating CG hair and costume pieces for the right underwater look.
One issue was rendering colour underwater. For instance, Namor’s temple area is red, which is important to Mayan culture and design, but red diminishes visually underwater. Likewise, ensuring that skin tones of actors translated when they were submerged was a technical challenge solved by studying how melanin affects how people look underwater.
In every underwater shot they simulated “marine snow” (floating particulates) and devised a shorthand for different water classifications so that Coogler could tune the motion and opacity of the aquatic environment.
ILM worked on the sequences where Wakanda’s Golden City is attacked and flooded after the Talokan unleash water bombs.
ILM VFX supervisor Craig Hammack said, “Because it’s going to cover a lot of screen space you need [sufficient detail] to carry someone’s attention and not just wipe out the screen with bland looking stuff. If you go to whitewater immediately, you lose structure, you lose weight, and it becomes incredibly difficult to light.”
Their solve broke down the water into a surface layer, a splash layer, and a mist layer “so that we could tune each shot to get enough visual complexity to feel like this massive structure could cause real damage.”