‘All Quiet on the Western Front,’ ‘Avatar: The Way of Water,’ ‘The Batman,’ ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,’ and ‘Top Gun: Maverick,’ the five films nominated for Best Visual Effects at this year’s 95th Oscars, coming March 12.
Perfectly reflecting the state of Hollywood are the 95th Academy Awards’ nominees for Best Visual Effects: a mix of sequels and remakes dominated by frontrunners Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water, two long-in-development films appearing 36 years and 13 years respectively after the original blockbusters were released.
Superheroes are represented by a revisionist take on the legendary story of a billionaire vigilante in The Batman, and another MCU sequel that closes out Phase 4, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. In a bit of a surprise, beating out contenders Nope, Thirteen Lives, Jurassic World Dominion, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore for the fifth spot is the German remake of the 3rd Academy Awards’ Best Picture winner, All Quiet on the Western Front.
There’s a lot of great work to celebrate this year, as the international box office rebounded – to a degree – from the desultory days of the pandemic, with cinema fans returning to theaters to enjoy four of the five nominees – one you could take in from the comforts of your own home.
Avatar: The Way of Water
Joe Letteri, Richard Baneham, Eric Saindon and Daniel Barrett
Avatar: The Way of the Water is the favorite to win, with the 20th Century’s (hence Disney) aggressive promotion increasing the odds, not to mention its dominance at last month’s VES Awards, while the same cannot be said for Top Gun: Maverick prior to the Academy Visual Effects Branch’s VFX Bake-Off, until then the film was treated as an entirely practical production. However, voters (and the general public) were savvy enough to see through the publicity façade long before the breakdown reel was made public. The sophistication of filmgoers may hurt Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, as the visual effects have been criticized by audiences who are placing blame on the digital artists rather than the studio, as Marvel is notorious for making last minute changes that have led to some questionable CG.
As for The Batman, attention to detail that saw cinematographer Greg Fraser’s unique lens faithfully recreated digitally, as well as the skillfully handled mix of virtual and practical methodologies, places it in better position than its MCU counterpart. And, what initially appeared to be an outlier but is now hard to ignore, All Quiet on the Western Front has the best chance score an upset as it has gained considerable momentum with a recent BAFTA win and a rare Oscar accomplishment – nominations for both Best Picture and Best International Feature Film. Its nine Oscar nominations are quite an accomplishment as well.
The following nominees are discussed in order of probability of being serenaded off the stage by the orchestra….
For James Cameron, visual effects are not treated as a separate “thing,” but an integral part of the fabric of what makes him a filmmaker; it shows in the amount of time and effort he puts into developing technology that will enhance rather than takeaway from the storytelling and actors’ performances. A critical aspect of the development process is that concept art and scriptwriting feed off each other. The goal to excel with facial capture was made even more complicated by the number of underwater scenes; different capture methodology used for above and below water had to be seamlessly stitched together into a singular performance.
More so than the original Avatar, the sequel blends live-action and CG elements, exemplified by how the human character Spider was integrated into the story. To achieve this, shots were decided upon and rehearsed with a virtual camera setup by Cameron before principal photography commenced. Another important element, and key challenge, was to create photorealistic, naturalistic CG water indistinguishable from the real thing. Despite shooting in tanks, with water guns firing at cast members tethered to gimbals, every droplet on screen is digital. For the sequel, creatures have become central characters, particularly the sentient Tulkun called Payakan, made believable by taking the wild imagination of whales in nature and giving it the Pandora treatment.
Top Gun: Maverick
Ryan Tudhope, Seth Hill, Bryan Litson and Scott R. Fisher
Critical to capturing the aerial photography for Top Gun: Maverick was the cooperation of the U.S. Navy, which helped develop and install special camera rigs while enabling critical access to real jets. The visual effects mandate was to work within the imperfections, down to replicating dents on aircraft bodies, scratches on glass cockpit canopies, and heads up displays. A practical version of the fictional supersonic stealth fighter Darkstar was constructed under the guidance of aerospace manufacturer Lockheed Martin, who also helped guide its digitally depicted takeoff and flight. The cockpit was removed and placed on a gimbal situated on a stage surrounded by LED screens projecting lighting and atmospheric visuals that would be found at the edge of the stratosphere.
To get the desired aerial flying formations and compositions, CG aircraft were inserted into plates always shot with at least one or two actual jets as reference. Interestingly, the U.S. Navy jets’ matte grey turned them into giant grey balls that greatly assisted with the lighting. Access to Sukhoi Su-57 and Tomcats was not possible, which along with airspace restrictions for military aircraft meant that reskinning was an important part of the VFX work. To depict accurate jet performance, especially during combat sequences, armaments and munitions were digitally added under the wings and tracked in post-production. The enemy base camp at the bottom of the valley located at the base of a snowy mountain range required digital augmentation along with CG explosions. And yes, there was shot where a pair of pants had to be altered in post-production for the sake of continuity.
All Quiet on the Western Front
Frank Petzold, Viktor Müller, Markus Frank and Kamil Jafar
Practical techniques were also mandated for All Quiet on the Western Front, including when a monstrous tank drives over some trenches; separate plates were captured and composited together to create the signature moment. Storyboards were created for anything battle related, used not just to determine how many shots were needed for bidding the VFX with vendors. The opening shot of a tranquil forest slowly tracks across the terrain to snow covered corpses before concluding in the chaos of a trench under siege by enemy fire. Different iterations were produced, each experimenting with the amount of fog in front of the camera to get the correct contrast. The tanks were treated like creatures attacking out of the fog. Dummies were placed under the tanks to get the proper interaction with soldiers getting crushed under the tracks.
The addition of black smoke was especially helpful to put some texture into shots where the location had to be extended to infinity. Four cameras were used by the visual effects crew for element shoots that involved blowing stuff up. The close explosions are real, though digitally enhanced, which meant there was always dirt and debris hitting the actors and extras. When that was not possible, someone off camera would toss shovels of dirt onto them! Prop markers, like burning tanks, were placed in the CG to enable viewers to better orient themselves on the battlefield. A lot of visual effects take place during long dialogue scenes, where debris constantly falls into the bunkers and trenches to create a sense of claustrophobia, alongside CG breaths, spurting blood, and camera shakes.
Dan Lemmon, Russell Earl, Anders Langlands and Dominic Tuohy
Unreal Engine was used for VR scouting as well as developing concepts into virtual sets to help filmmakers determine what could be built physically rather than digitally on The Batman. The optically pristine and detuned lenses used by cinematographer Greig Frasier, plus his spiderweb flares made by placing gobs of silicone caulking over a glass, also had to be digitally recreated. These lens and filtration choices made the tracking, integration and compositing much harder, but made the digital extensions and all CG shoots more believable. The StageCraft team at ILM was responsible for the virtual production methodology adopted for the city extensions, in particular for the views from balconies. Practical versions were shot of everything even if expectations were that it would be replaced in post-production.
A fully flyable wingsuit was constructed and placed on a sound stage with a small wind tunnel made out of LED panels that displayed stitched together drone footage of Chicago’s LaSalle Street. Four different Batmobiles were constructed by the special effects teams that were fully functional, each with rear wheels bigger than the front ones except for when the four wheel-drive system was needed. The Batmobile jumping through a wall of fire was almost done entirely practical. For the Penguin chase sequence, the torrential rain and rooster tails of splashing water were added digitally by Wētā FX. Gotham itself was a hybrid of London, Liverpool, Glasgow, Chicago and New York; a backlot set enhanced with major simulations by Scanline VFX was used to depict the city getting flooded by the Riddler, who sets off a series of bombs that destroy a sports stadium.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Geoffrey Baumann, Craig Hammack, R. Christopher White and Dan Sudick
There was considerable trepidation for how filmmaker Ryan Coogler and Marvel Studios would handle the sequel Black Panther: Wakanda Forever following the death of lead actor Chadwick Bosman in 2020 from cancer. However, in the end, the biggest challenge was moving from the futuristic African country of Wakanda introduced in the original movie to the big screen debut of the underwater kingdom of Talokan and its leader, Namor. Underwater scenes were first captured an underwater unit directed by Marvel Studios VFX Supervisor Geoffrey Baumann, with the cast recreating their performance on a dry stage. The underwater and dry footage as well as real water measurements were integrated into a spectral renderer.
The third act takes place in the middle of the ocean, highlighted by a fierce battle onboard and in the waters surrounding a highly stylized, futuristic Wakandan ship. Since only a small portion of the vessel was built practically, everything from bare feet to breathing masks had to be added to the cast members for safety reasons and the water simulations were extensive. Also, Namor has wings on his ankles, which allows him to fly, and give him the explosive movements of a football or track and field athlete. To create a seamless blend between plate photography and CG, and ensure a consistent look across the visual effects, a new digital lens toolkit was developed to emulate the unique characteristics and aberrations of the custom detuned full-frame anamorphic Panavision lenses, each with unique characteristics and aberrations, that was then shared among the 17 vendors.
Good luck to all five nominated VFX teams. The 95th Academy Awards ceremony is set for March 12, 2023 at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.