In an era of outstanding visual quality, what counts as Oscar-worthy VFX? When the bar has arguably never been set higher in the history of visual arts, how do we identify and define best-in-class?
For anyone in search of an answer, the VFX powerhouse Rodeo FX is a great place to start. Across its 15-year history the independent studio has lent its creative hand to Blade Runner: 2049 (winner of the 2018 Best Visual Effects academy award) as well as VFX-heavy blockbusters including Star Wars, Fantastic Beasts, and Paddington.
Not content to rest there, the studio will also be tuning in to 2022’s Academy Awards ceremony with high hopes for Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which also benefited from Rodeo’s VFX expertise. Fresh off the back of a win at last year’s People’s Choice Awards, the Marvel film has picked up a nomination for this year’s visual effects Oscar.
Yet despite invariably being such an eye-catching category, visual effects are often shrouded in mystery and misconceptions. In order to shine a light on the world of Oscar-worthy visual effects, LBB sat down with VFX producer Annie Normandin, executive producer Cheryl Bainum, head of animation Yvon Jardel, head of art department Deak Ferrand and VFX supervisor Pier Lefebvre…
Above: From left to right: Annie Normandin, Yvon Jardel, Deak Ferrand, Cheryl Bainum, and Pier Lefebvre.
Cheryl> Start with a good script, and let the visuals compliment the storytelling. Also, it helps to have a director with a clear vision - someone who surrounds themselves with a great collaborative team of professionals.
Annie> For me, I really want to see if the visual effects exist to serve the plot and the whole movie. Do they really bring the scene to a new level? We always try to look beyond the effects and the images.
Yvon> I’d say that they need to be invisible. You shouldn’t be able to notice them, and they shouldn’t take you out of the moment. A planet should look just as real as ours, and a CG character should be indistinguishable from a real actor.
Pier> Simply the most complete, well-thought-out, and well-adjusted visual effects. Where VFX really serves the story, and not just massive explosions and robots.
Above: The Rodeo team could be set for further Oscars glory this year with Marvel’s Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings nominated for the Best Visual Effects category.
Annie> Of course, a ‘big scale’ movie will attract more attention and will have more visibility, it definitely helps, especially to get shortlisted.
But it doesn’t do everything, and movies with a smaller budget can also achieve incredible things in VFX. Ex-Machina for example was pretty small in Hollywood terms with only a $15M budget, but still managed to win the Oscar for this category.
Above: Ex-Machina picked up the Oscar for Best Visual Effects in 2016
Annie> It really depends on the movie, which makes the category even more interesting. I’d say that we pay close attention to photorealism and production design in general. People might not realise that environments are very common now in VFX. So the background you see in a scene, be it a room or an entire city, can be a green screen.
Even the Academy can sometimes get lost with all the submissions and the reels to watch! Additionally, the level of VFX knowledge varies a lot between Academy members. This is why it’s also very important to hear from other critics and VFX artists in the media, who can give us different perspectives.
Yvon> It can be easy to under estimate the amount of research and work that is required to bring a realistic, believable character to life. You need to imagine their backstories and how it would affect/nourish the way they move and behave. The thought process and subtext of the character will perspire through the tiniest inflections of the performance. It is this attention to detail that will, in my opinion craft award winning performance.
Pier> The innovation. You have to ask yourself, has this been done before? This is where you can see great VFX. If you take something like Matrix this year, you have that nostalgia effect with the bullet effects, but you also have that massive building jump that is just groundbreaking. It’s not all about quantity, but you also have to keep in mind that some movies just live through VFX. Spider Man, for example, is huge when you know that their costumes are digitally enhanced so pretty much every scene has VFX in it.
Annie> A whole bunch of tools like Nuke, Houdini, Maya, Katana. We also had to do a lot of layout and body match-move on our sequence.
And with the travel ban, an important part of our work was to use drone footage and maps of Macau to be able to recreate the layout, since we couldn’t physically go there and shoot on-site.
Deak> Yes - The first Star Wars! I saw it in the theatre when I was eight years old in Switzerland and thought “wow, you can actually work whilst having fun”. Then I started making my own Super 8 movies, building maquettes and animating little stop motion characters- to this day I still enjoy sculpting creatures/characters and building stop motion puppets! I have Star Wars to thank for that.
Above: The original Star Wars film broke ground in visual effects upon its release in 1977.
Deak> It is very humbling!
Yvon> VFX is part of a whole, so it’s hard to think how we can affect future generations. Movies in general, I’d say, do this. But when we were working on Stranger Things I got a sense that we were impacting our current generation. People in the streets were discussing the latest episodes, and it felt really weird to hear people talk about our work. I don’t know if we influence future generations, but it’s always fun to teach classes and see the light in students’ eyes when you showcase some scenes you worked on.
Pier> Reflecting on the Oscars, being nominated or winning is the ultimate validation and winners are often remembered in the retelling of our shared history.