Visual effects Oscar nominees on their top digital secrets
This year's visual-effects category displays so much expertise that each nominated film had at least one Oscar winner or nominee on its team.
John Nelson, who won for "Gladiator" and led the group behind Blade Runner 2049 says, "I was lucky that everybody wanted to work on this movie."
Nelson adds, "It's hard to live up to a classic, and in science fiction, visual effects rules are important because they define jeopardy. Jeopardy needs to be real or audiences won't care."
The movie depicts one possible future, Nelson notes, adding: "There were no traffic jams in the sky."
There were, however, 17 distinctive environments that extended Roger Deakins' cinematography by mixing models, miniatures and CG extensions. Nelson even used Google Earth to initially "fly through" locales that were later photographed.
His team also delivered tour-de-force compositing, merging two different actors to create an eerie third person -- including creating a CG doppleganger of one of the original film's actresses, Sean Young.
A virtually enhanced human also appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, supervised by Christopher Townsend (an Oscar nominee for Iron Man 3).
Townsend worked with Lola Visual Effects to erase 30 years from the face of actor Kurt Russell.
"They used a 'youth-ening' approach," Townsend says. "They're effectively just like digital plastic surgeons. [We wanted to] keep the nuances of Kurt's performance. In creating digital humans, the biggest challenge is to get single authorship of a character."
That goal has driven the motion capture technology advances that enabled the remarkable performances of Andy Serkis as the chimpanzee leader Caesar in War for the Planet of the Apes, and the evil Snoke in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. "Andy's having an amazing year," says supervisor Ben Morris. "He's died TWICE!!"
This year's nominated films illustrate both the successes and the limitations of MoCap, observes Townsend, who couldn't use it for the wisecracking raccoon Rocket in "Guardians." "How do you sell the voice of 6'3" Bradley Cooper coming out of a 2'9" raccoon? It will become more usable when we're better able to map actors' performances onto VERY different characters."
That was certainly what ILM Supervisor Jeff White encountered with the gigantic gorilla of Kong: Skull Island. While some motion capture was done, it served mainly as reference for the key frame animators and the muscle simulation team that made Kong move believably.
White, an Oscar nominee for "The Avengers," recalls how one facial capture performer helped ILM visualize the scene where Kong gnaws on the tentacles of a giant 'Octo-Squid.' "He chewed a huge pack of Twizzlers to show us the jaw motion!"
Key frame animation was still required for most of the remarkable creature work in this year's nominees, and ILM supervisor Morris also relied on old-fashioned puppetry for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Morris, who won an Oscar for The Golden Compass and once wrangled Harry Potter's Hippogriff, is proud that CG and practical work existed seamlessly side by side in Jedi.
All these filmmakers grappled with the enduring challenge of mixing and matching techniques on a scene-by-scene basis, or even on a shot-by-shot basis.
Sometimes there was no substitute for photographing something real: whether the 70,000 sq.-ft. prison in "Apes," or a "Jedi" hut hanging from a 450-foot cliff.
It's why Dan Lemmon used real horses for the digital War for the Planet of the Apes to ride, as well as all the practical explosions that added realism to the peril of his digital animals.
Lemmon, who won an Oscar for the apes in The Jungle Book admits to "a state of wonder that so much great work is being done in so many places. The great thing about visual effects is that you're never done learning."
Hair/make up nominees: sculpting their films' distinctive looks
Nominees can be both department heads and individuals; prosthetics and mechanical devices count just as much as old-school color, light and shading. And all three styles ended up represented in this year's selection of films: Victoria & Abdul, Darkest Hour and Wonder.
For Victoria & Abdul, hair and makeup artist Daniel Phillips and co-hair designer Loulia Sheppard traveled a traditional route, in showing how elderly Queen Victoria's friendship with servant Abdul Karim helped put colour literally, back in her life. They first emphasised facial creases and eye folds; Victoria's long life was meant to seem monochromatic and heavy. Even her wig was a cold, washed-out gray.
But as her personality warmed, her wig took on a softer tone, and gentle color was introduced again as she visually and emotionally warmed up. Meanwhile, key actors' beards were created or enhanced with a daily layered-on technique virtually a requirement for 4K images.
Darkest Hour took a man who didn't much resemble Winston Churchill, Gary Oldman, and transformed him with a full body suit, facial and neck prosthetics, all topped off by careful makeup application for those extended, extreme close-ups. Kazuhiro Tsuji was the only one Oldman would work with to create the transformation; David Malinowsky supervised the prosthetics while Lucy Sibbick served as prosthetic hair and makeup artist.
They worked like three sculptors. The facial prosthetics and makeup had to be both smooth and mobile: Churchill was a man in motion, with expressive facial gestures, glasses that sometimes needed to be torn from his face -- and there could not be a seam visible. Meanwhile, he wore a wig made of baby hair, but the piece was so fragile it had to be remade every 10 days.
Special makeup designer Arjen Tuiten was the only one to be nominated from Wonder, but it's easy to see why: During the 40-day shoot he also had to transform a 9-year-old boy (Jacob Tremblay) who had to reasonably look as if he had a rare facial disease without letting his strings show.
Tuiten created a complete silicone cover for Tremblay's head and neck, installed prosthetic teeth to make them crooked, and rigged a wire system on his eyes to be able to make them droop (or rise) as needed. The contraption was hidden under his wig, and was so seamless he'd received comments from doctors experienced with the condition who thought the actor actually did have the condition.
But he also had a different challenge in that Wonder is not a movie of atmosphere and shadow Tremblay's Auggie had to seem real alongside non-afflicted children, in full clear daylight while still appearing to wear no makeup at all.
All of which emphasises the truth of all of these nominees' art: if any of what they do calls attention to itself, they have not succeeded in their ambitions. At the same time, there's clearly more going on under the skin, the hair and the powder than any average viewer can possibly take in.