The five nominees for the visual-effects Oscar fooled us into thinking imagined places existed, that actors were decades older or younger, and dearly departed performers could return to finish a beloved sci-fi saga.
Not teaching old icons new tricks
Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” moves back and forth over decades; surprising technological advances allowed septuagenarian acting greats Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino to play their characters throughout the years.
“We ended up rethinking the whole de-aging thing,” said VFX supervisor Pablo Helman. “We had to make sure we had a way to capture all the nuances without markers [the tracking dots applied all over actors, including their faces, for performance capture] because the actors did not want to go that way.”
With Industrial Light and Magic, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and the Arri Group, the filmmakers developed a new kind of rig — a “three-headed monster” that flanked the main camera with two infrared cameras.
“We capture every movement in the pores, in the skin. Every one of those pixels in the face becomes a marker. It’s very nuanced because now you can see all the movement around the mouth and the eyelids. You can see the reverberations of the consonants — Ts and Ps and Fs and things like that — through the face. We’re trying to get very, very subtle performances.
“The advancement is allowing the actors to say, ‘I don’t have to deal with all this technology; I can do what I was hired to do.’ ”
Star Wars: Return of the princess
The third “Star Wars” trilogy sought to return as much as possible to the practical, tangible effects of the first one, though “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” still ended up with close to 2,000 visual-effects shots, says VFX supervisor Roger Guyett.
One of the film’s most important tasks, though, required digital wizardry: assembling the late Carrie Fisher’s final screen appearance.
“Essentially, we took outtakes [from previous ‘Star Wars’ films], then we built a digital Carrie Fisher outside of her face,” Guyett said. “So what we see in the movie is really a digital character with a live-action face.
“It’s like a magic trick, that idea of distracting the audience. We’re using her face, and that’s where people are looking. We just changed everything else — hairstyle ... jewelry ... costume. We didn’t want it to look like we’d just taken outtakes from the previous movie.”
The screenwriters “took all the lines she’d spoken and built the script around those lines so we didn’t have to change what she said,” said Guyett. “There was an integrity to that performance.”
The invisible struggle of ‘1917’
Any technical slip-up in “1917" risked ruining the illusion that the film was captured in one continuous take. That, and being shot in Imax 4K resolution, meant digital creations had to withstand longer, harder scrutiny than in most films. It also meant, plane crashes and battles aside, much of what the effects team did was to uphold that perception as the scenes actually moved from location to location.
“Every transition is handcrafted and has its own, very precise solution to look absolutely seamless,” said VFX supervisor Guillaume Rocheron. “It used a very wide range of techniques. Some took two and a half months of work to get those few seconds — matching the lighting and the flow of the camera, the movement of everything.”
In perhaps the most extreme case, a soldier runs from a bombed-out town, jumps off a bridge into a river that turns into rapids, and emerges in a forest.
“The city was built [in one location] and the river was shot in an Olympic water park: a canoe training center, basically — a man-made structure with walls and things like that. All the environment around it is completely digital. We digitally created an actor jumping off the bridge and going into the river. Those two locations are probably 150 miles apart.”
‘King’ of the VR jungle
The all-digital “Lion King” featured photoreal characters and environments, with phenomenal detail in fur and water and animal eyes. With “ray tracing,” computers generate physically, mathematically accurate simulations of light that give filmmakers total control. “Lion King” showed just how far those technologies have come in just a couple of years, since VFX wizard Rob Legato won the VFX Oscar for his previous collaboration with director Jon Favreau, “The Jungle Book.” But those weren’t even the movie’s most amazing advancements.
Using virtual reality, the filmmakers can now move about, themselves, within the movie’s 3-D environments. They can location scout, block action and shoot live as they would in a live-action movie. Rather than pointing and clicking on a computer screen to direct photography, they move physical cameras in the studio linked to virtual ones and react in real time to what the animated characters do.
Legato says of the VR tools, “You put these things on, you say, ‘Oh, I’m on the set. There’s the rocks, there’s the trees, the sunlight.’ To me it felt like if I could provide that for [storied cinematographer Caleb Deschanel], he could be instantly comfortable by walking around and feeling, ‘Yeah, now I know where the dolly goes, where the crane goes, where they’re walking.’”
The end of ‘Infinity’
Then there was “Avengers: Endgame.” From the perhaps-you-missed-it tidbits of the heroes’ time-travel suits being digital to the transformations of Skinny Tony and Old Steve; from the nuanced, synthetic Thanos and Smart Hulk to one of the most colossal scenes of combat onscreen, the culmination of Marvel’s “Infinity Saga” ran the gantlet of VFX challenges.
"[Co-director] Joe Russo came to me and said, ‘The [first two] ‘Avengers’ movies had these long shots that connected different heroes during the battle ... we wanted to do it in this one. It has to be the oner [an extended shot] that ends all oners,’ ” said VFX supervisor Dan DeLeeuw.
“It took three months to work on the shot; 90 different artists worked on it.”
As in “The Irishman,” however, some of these VFX wizards’ proudest moments came in conveying the complexities of performances — such as through the extreme aging of Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans).
“It was about keeping enough of Chris in the performance so you could recognize the character you’d spent so many films with. ... We cast an old-age double so Chris performs the scene, then the old-age double performs the scene. Then we take the skin texture from the old-age double and remap it onto Chris, so you can keep Chris’ eyes and smile so you know you’re seeing Chris Evans in there.”
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Oscar’s big winner, ‘Parasite,’ and war tale ‘1917' show how interactive entertainment is shaping linear storytelling — often for the better.