AWARDS SEASON HAS BEGUN – HOW WILL YOUR FAVORITE FILMS STAND UP TO THE COMPETITION?
As most of us prepare for the holiday season and festivities with friends and family, Hollywood is busy preparing for awards season – filling out entry forms, preparing materials, and so forth. Studios and fans take the competitions seriously. And why shouldn’t they? After all the time, work, and investment that go into a major feature, recognition is certainly warranted for the multitude of talent who made the film a reality.
Here we look at some of the year’s more complex digital work appearing in theaters, or about to debut before the end of the year, and their likelihood for becoming a viable contender for the many awards competitions, including the Oscars.
ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
In this continuation of the Alice in Wonderland story, Alice travels through time to save the Mad Hatter and Underland’s fate from the evil Red Queen and a clock-like creature known as Time. The digital technology used for the film continues the tradition of photographic manipulation, greenscreen elements, as well as CG characters and environments, all used on the previous Alice films. While the effects are as wondrous as always, the work may not get as much attention as it did the first time we saw the techniques in 2010.
Assassin’s Creed is an action/adventure film based on the mega-popular video game franchise of the same name. The film contains a new story, as Callum Lynch participates in a secret project whereby he experiences the memories of his ancestor, an Assassin, during the time of the Spanish Inquisition, and uses that experience to bring down the Templars, enemies of the Assassins, in present day. The graphics in the game series have always been extraordinary, painting a vivid picture of the period depicted in each title thanks to the captivating backgrounds, environments, and characters. The expectation is that the prerendered imagery in the movie will surpass the real-time quality, making for a visually rich experience on the big screen.
BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE
What happens when two superpowers are at odds? In Batman v Superman, Batman believes that Superman’s powers need to be held in check, leading to a clash between the justice-seekers. The film is packed with VFX from top studios. Yet in the past, everyone had been talking about the work in the individual Superman and Batman movies for quite some time, but not here. Is that a sign?
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
Another superhero clash, Captain America: Civil War pits former allies Captain America and Iron Man against each other. This calls for state-of-the-art effects, particularly those during a major showdown. People were indeed talking about the work in this film, and it did very well at the box office, from the CG characters to the environmental work and set extensions. Among the more impressive work was the airport battle sequence involving the various characters.
Yes, there have been a number of super-hero films in 2016, but one that is very different (along with Suicide Squad) is Deadpool, about an antihero mercenary. Directing the film was Tim Miller, cofounder of Blur Studio, known for its amazing visual effects work.
The film was a huge success, which will also help shine some light on the effects themselves this awards season. Not likely a major contender for visual effects, though.
In this late-year film release, Marvel is expecting another hit with its latest character, Doctor Strange, who learns the secrets of mysticism and alternate dimensions, acting as an intermediary between the real world and what lies on the other side. Early indications and a look at the amazing visual effects show that Marvel indeed will have another hit on its hands. And the digital work: very impressive.
FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM
Just the mere mention of anything as-sociated with Harry Potter, and you know it will be an instant hit. You also know it will be filled to the brim with amazing effects and stunning environments. And with a title like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, you know it will contain a wide range of fantastical CG creatures. Expect this film to be cinematic magic, and the effects worthy of every awards list.
This was perhaps one of the most anticipated VFX films of the summer. The list of top VFX studios working on the reboot was impressive. The storyline was a proven hit. But, expectations fell short from critics, though the movie did well at the box office. The effects supported the theme of the film – high tech but fitting within the genre. Artists re-created Time Square: a modern version and a 1970s version. Also, they created proton beings and ghosts, among other things. Interesting, only to a point.
INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE
Two decades ago, in a movie where aliens nearly destroyed Earth, moviegoers flocked to theaters to see the spectacular VFX-laden Independence Day. This past summer, the aliens tried to invade yet again, and once again, visual effects studios responded to the battle cry with even more spectacular visuals on this big-budget film. In fact, there are four times as many VFX shots as there are in the original movie, and the artists were no longer restricted in terms of showing the aliens due to limitations in technology. This time, the aliens play a bigger part in the film. And the invasion scene: spectacular.
SOLID VFX CONTENDERS ARE (TOP LEFT) DOCTOR STRANGE AND (TOP RIGHT) THE JUNGLE BOOK.
People may know Pete’s Dragon from a decades-old animated film by the same name. And like the star character in that movie, Elliot the dragon is always animated in this live-action movie. Making the dragon believable among the live cast was no small feat. Making the scenes intimate between the dragon and his little human friend was even more complicated. And making the dragon invisible to most humans took a great deal of ingenuity and technical brilliance. Like the dragon at times, the work became invisible to audiences and will not likely to garner full attention during awards season.
ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY
After a long-awaited hiatus, Star Wars began a new chapter to great fanfare last year. This year, audiences will be served another piece of the epic space opera, Rogue One. The film is the first stand-alone Star Wars Anthology film, set in the Star Wars universe some time after the events of Revenge of the Sith and before the original Star Wars. As of press time, fans were already fascinated by the trailers, trying to decipher story clues. What’s not in question are the amazing visual effects, a Star Wars staple. Get ready for the short lists!
STAR TREK BEYOND
With Justin Lin (Fast and Furious) directing, Star Trek Beyond had a grittier look than previous movies in the series. The film still is packed with the type of effects expected from Star Trek, from the Enterprise itself to warp-speed effects, the Yorktown base, unfamiliar planets, set extensions, and full-CG environments. The Yorktown space station alone was a massive environment comprising 1.3 trillion polygons. Indeed, the work was out of this world.
In a change of pace, Suicide Squad turns the classic superhero convention on its head, shining the spotlight on the bad guys. The effects in the film are on par with those in a superhero action film, and they are plentiful, including digital doubles, CG characters, destruction, set extensions, and CG environments. But, are they special enough to warrant award recognition? Probably not.
TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS
This past summer, the turtles returned to safeguard the world from multiple threats, including Shredder. For the sequel to the popular 2014 movie, ILM upped the ante in terms of visual effects, using its proprietary Muse performance-capture system, offering incredible nuances in the performances of the CG characters. The work is definitely noticeable and helped pull the film together. But, not likely awards worthy.
Who can doubt the success of a film with Steven Spielberg directing and a well-seasoned team at Weta Digital in charge of the visual effects? While the box office could have been more positive, that is no reflection on the digital effects work. The main character, BFG, is CG, created based on actor Mark Rylance’s performance and voice. There are other CG giants, too, who are much larger than BFG. And they have to act alongside the regular-sized human who plays Sophie. So, for this movie, size was a major issue. And of course, obtaining subtle, emotive performances from the CG characters. Not to mention the many CG environments. In sum, the effects are quite stunning and complex.
THE JUNGLE BOOK
The Jungle Book has undergone much iteration in style over the past decades, but none come close to the visual intensity of the 2016 release. For this version, filmmakers created a complex CG world for a human boy raised by wolves in India. This reimagining captures the magic of the animated feature while embracing state-of-the-art technology available today. MPC created all the CG animals and environments for most of the film, while Weta handled a sequence with King Louie. Adding the environments and characters to live-action plates filmed with the only human character (Mowgli) was a mega production. Well done.
THE LEGEND OF TARZAN
In this storyline, John Clayton (Tarzan) returns to England and the so-called civilized world where he marries Jane. But he is asked to return to Africa, and when he does, he and Jane are double-crossed and captured. Tarzan escapes and sets off to locate and rescue his love. There is quite a bit of green-screen work, set extensions, and more, but especially captivating are the CG animals, from the apes to the hippos and more.
WARCRAFT: THE BEGINNING
The popularity of the video game Warcraft is undisputed. But, the question was whether the CG characters could provide an emotive performance – one that makes audiences care for the beastly humanoid Orcs acting alongside human characters. Thanks to the digital work from ILM, they do. In addition, CG artists had to conjure up fantastical beasts and set extensions to create environments reminiscent of the video games. The visuals all around are stunning.
Marvel’s popular X-Men returned this summer to fight the powerful Apocalypse. Besides the various mutant powers requiring VFX support, some of the more impressive digital work involved the destruction of Cairo. The film did well at the box office, and the effects were good, but it’s doubtful it will strike gold.
A super-successful mobile game property, Angry Birds was transformed into an animated feature film this year, thanks to the watchful eyes of executives and artists at Rovio and Sony, respectfully. Transforming simplistic cartoon characters into complex film leads required a great deal of ingenuity and technology, yet the digital artists carried out the task brilliantly. Not likely to hold water against Dory or Kubo, however.
ANIMATED FEATURES WERE POPULAR THIS YEAR, INCLUDING (TOP LEFT) THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS AND (TOP RIGHT) ANGRY BIRDS.
In 2003’s popular Finding Nemo, audiences fell in love with the forgetful blue tang named Dory. It took a number of years, but Pixar and Disney finally went back to the sea and gave Dory her own movie. Audiences appreciated the effort, making Finding Dory the top film for the year as of this writing. Effects artists know how challenging it is to generate CG water, and the crew on the film had to create an ocean full of it. The technology needed for this feat is outstanding, just like the lovable fish herself. Expect Finding Dory to be one of the top films to beat in the Animated Feature category.
KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS
Laika has been charming theater-goers for a decade now with its amazing stop-motion animated films. None, though, have been as ambitious as Kubo, a stop-motion epic rooted in Japanese culture. Achieving the hard-edged designs for a few of the film’s characters required new techniques in 3D printing, and the effort indeed paid off. From the designs to the final animation, the movie is a showcase of animation talent and technique. Expect this movie to be on all the short lists.
KUNG FU PANDA 3
The beautifully animated Kung Fu Panda series stands out for its unique graphic visual language, colorful animated action, humor, and one of the most improbable heroes to star in a major movie. In this third installment, eight years since the first film, the artists took the visual language and animation style that made the first two movies successful, and added advances in technology while keeping the imagery in the same world that audiences have loved.
Disney princesses have been getting a whole new look lately. The most recent is Moana, from Motunui Island. A born navigator, she sets sail in search of a fabled island with mysterious secrets. On the journey, she teams up with her hero and legendary demigod Maui. For months prior to the film’s release, it was generating buzz for its amazing imagery and the tremendous effects, especially hair and water. This one should be a contender.
The movie has been described as the unlikely love child of Chuck Jones and Terrence Malick, fusing the legendary animator’s loose-cannon style with the ethereal yet tangible reality of the famed director. Throughout the production, animators adhered to the structured exaggerated style, resulting in a film that is wildly wonderful and entertaining.
THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS
What happens when humans leave their pets at home for the day? More than you think! In this highly rated film, the quiet life of a terrier named Max is upended when his owner takes in Duke, a stray that Max instantly does not like. Illumination has proven its talent before with the popular Despicable Me franchise. Here, the aesthetic again is cute and the characters uniquely designed. But, it’s not a top dog.
Music makes the world go ’round. Add to that a bright, colorful world inhabited by bright, colorful trolls, and you have Trolls, about a young, optimistic leader of the troll village who sets out to rescue trolls captured by Bergen monsters who eat them. This animated musical comedy is charming and addicting. A bright spot in terms of animation.
Who can resist an entire movie populated by anthropomorphic animals? Not many, according to the film’s box-office numbers. In the movie, the city of Zootopia is filled with animals acting like humans. Here, a rookie bunny cop and a cynical con-artist fox work together to uncover a conspiracy. There are many funny, diverse animated characters in the movie, making it comical and visually interesting. The animators really pushed the limits with the wide variety of characters. A contender, for sure.
Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.