Oscars 2021: Best Visual Effects Predictions

 IndieWire The Craft Top of the Line
IndieWire The Craft Top of the Line

Thanks to the pandemic and the absence of VFX-intensive MCU or DCEU contenders, this season offers the most wide open race in recent memory: George Clooney’s sci-fi “The Midnight Sky,” Christopher Nolan’s time-inverted “Tenet,” Disney’s “The One and Only Ivan” hybrid zoo drama along with the live-action “Mulan” remake, and upstart monster mashup, “Love and Monsters.”

After winning the VES top prize, “The Midnight Sky” is now the favorite. The Framestore team created high-level CG facial replacements, built the Aether ship and interior. To emulate zero-G and help to sell a pregnant astronaut floating in space (Felicity Jones was actually pregnant at the time of shooting), digital face replacements were required for the wide, full CG shots required for the walk in space. For the Arctic observatory exteriors, Industrial Light & Magic provided a pop-up version of StageCraft, its LED volume stage used on “The Mandalorian.” The highlight, though, was the “Dance of Blood” airlock death sequence, requiring a combination of face replacement and intricate fluid dynamics.

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While “Tenet” (which won the BAFTA VFX award) only required 300 shots, the work was highly experimental for Double Negative. It needed to fit the framework of the inverted world, and required Double Negative to figure out how to execute the timing of moving forward and backward so it fit together smoothly during fights and car chases. They utilized previs for the blocking of action, and were also on set to observe rehearsals with the stunt team. The highlight occurred during the inverted car heist, when they made the dust suck into the wheels instead of spitting it out, and, for an exploding car, they pushed back with great force and sucked it back into the car.

“The One and Only Ivan” leveraged MPC Film’s Genesis virtual production toolkit for combining the live action and CG elements for the zoo and animals (including the titular gorilla, which was motion captured). As with “The Lion King,” they used Virtual Reality to capture the data through the eyes of a virtual set of camera tools. Using dolly’s, camera heads, cranes, and steady-cam, the team was able to shoot the master scenes on a stage and view the pre-recorded animation clips from any chosen perspective.

For Niki Caro’s “Mulan,” Weta Digital created the massive environment of the principal Imperial City (based on one of the largest cities of the 6th century, Chang’an). They researched historical maps for the layout of the nine districts and the architecture of the buildings and how they they were divided by class. They were able to build it all procedurally using Houdini software and upgraded their real-time raytracing ability. Also important was the large crowd scenes, which required refinements to the creation of more realistic-looking digital extras.

“Love and Monsters,” the post-apocalyptic, sci-fi comedy about giant mutants, has become the surprise dark horse in the race. It evokes the spirit of legendary Ray Harryhausen in the design of the creatures (created by Mr. X Adelaide and Bangalore, with practical work from MillFilm). Working with production designer Dan Hennah, the VFX and animation teams grounded the creatures in the reality of how each insect, amphibian, and crustacean looks and behaves, and then made exaggerated mutant versions of each. Additionally, they created backstories that influenced the way the creatures interact with their environments.

The Academy’s visual effects branch currently has 630 members, of which 588 are active and 42 are retired. The Visual Effects Society, which has more than 4,000 global members, often diverges from the Academy in its top award. Last year, for instance, “The Lion King” won, whereas the Academy at large voted for Best Picture contender “1917.”

Key Dates

Monday, March 15, 2021
Oscar nominations announced; VES online viewing and voting (members only) begins and runs through Monday, March 29.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021
19th annual VES Awards (date subject to change)

Thursday, April 15, 2021
Oscar Nominees Luncheon
Final Oscar voting begins

Tuesday, April 20, 2021
Final Oscar voting ends

Sunday, April 25, 2021
Winners announced at the 93rd Academy Awards (Oscars)

“The Midnight Sky”

“The One and Only Ivan”
“Love and Monsters”

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