Monday, December 30, 2013

Movies Are Long

"The Wolf of Wall Street" is *how* long?

Just for kicks, I put together the thirteen most popular films in North America last weekend and listed each film's running time, from longest to shortest.
  • The Wolf of Wall Street - 179 minutes
  • The Hobbit 2 - 161m
  • Hunger Games: Catching Fire - 146m
  • Mandela - 139m
  • American Hustle - 129m
  • 47 Ronin - 127m
  • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty -125m
  • Saving Mr. Banks - 120m
  • Anchorman 2 - 119m
  • Grudge Match - 113m
  • Frozen - 108m
  • Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas - 105m
  • Walking With Dinosaurs - 87m
The average running time of the top thirteen films at the box office is 128 minutes.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Comparing The "Man of Steel" Teaser and Film

The teaser for Zack Snyder's "Man of Steel" arrived in July 2012, nearly an entire year before the film would ultimately be released in theaters. Trailers are pieces of art unto themselves, and must tell a story in a much different way than the final film; sometimes artistic choices are made in service of the trailer, regardless of how it might affect the final product.

In many cases, the color timing for promotional material is handled by the trailer house, whose sole job is to serve the needs of the trailer; the context of the greater, final film is of little or no significance. In contrast, the final color timing of a finished film serves to underline and enhance the emotional beats of a film.

From a practical point of view, color grading smooths out inconsistencies from shot to shot (slight differences in color temperature, exposure, etc.). The process also enhances and underlines emotional beats of the story.  Just like the musical score and sound effects, color grading with a 'color script' of the film can accentuate the 'feeling' of a scene; for example, cold, emotionless scenes can have a cool tint, while passion-filled sequences could go golden if the director so chooses.

"The Matrix" (1999) movie bar code

"Pleasantville" (1998) movie bar code

The fascinating Movie Bar Code Tumblr illustrates a film's color script by compressing film frames into a single average color, then displaying all those frames in a giant bar code. Just look at the differences between films like "The Matrix" (which hops in and out of the green Matrix world and has deep, dark sequences) and "Pleasantville" (which starts in color, jarringly shifts to black and white, then slowly reintroduces color again).  A few curated, contrasting color scripts have been collected by Visual News.  

The "Man of Steel" teaser, containing footage released nearly a full year before the finished film allows audiences who are interested in visual effects and color timing to peek behind the curtain and witness some of the choices made by the filmmakers over the course of that year.

As you can see from the still frame comparison, a few changes were made from teaser to final film:

- snow - Falling snow was added to the final film with visual effects. The surrounding shots in the final film are significant time cuts, so the snow was not added for continuity reasons.
- color grading - The environment has been cooled off, draining any warm values away, skewing towards cyan (underlining the cold isolation Clark Kent is feeling at this moment). Clark's skin tones have been warmed up a touch, while it appears some blue was taken away from the sky, possibly in an effort to balance the shot. Without the sky tint, the shot could have appeared monochromatic and dull. The slight bit of yellow in the sky fights with the predominantly blue/cyan frame, giving it a counterbalanced palette.
- lens flare - The addition of a lens flare in the final film is what inspired me to investigate the shot in the first place, since I didn't remember seeing the flare in the teaser.  One could argue that the flare adds a bit of punch to the shot, but one could also argue that the shot doesn't need any additional punch. Conceptually, a lens flare adds visual excitement to a shot. Does this particular shot need it? The shot is about isolation; at this point in the film, Clark is on a solitary journey, hopping from job to job like a nomad, in an attempt to conceal his true power and identity. Does this shot require a visual exclamation point to convey these feelings? Also, from a practical point of view, the exterior scene is completely overcast, and the synthetic flare's source is the side of the truck's headlight housing, which makes the addition of the lens flare that much more curious. The camera is nowhere near the light cone of the bulb.

Another curiosity noticeable on the single frame comparison is the significant difference in clarity of Clark's eye. Even more strange: the final film frames before and after this particular frame do not have this 'touch up'. Why would this single frame be isolated for a paint job on Clark's eye?

the difference composite

When the shot is lined up both temporally and spatially and run through a difference filter, we can see the changes between the teaser and final film more clearly.  The warm/red tones of the difference composite indicate the areas that were cooled off. One can also notice the addition of the lens flare (which shows up as a bright glow in the difference composite).

The difference composite also solves the mystery of Clark's eye. His eye socket is actually being lifted (and warmed) due to a soft lens reflection, tied to the additional animated lens flare. Careful study of the difference composite reveals the lens reflection in his hair on the frame before, and against the sky in the frame after. The reflection element is effectively boosting Clark's eye on that single frame which clears up his sunken eyes, which gives the feeling of increased clarity. Watch the HD video for the complete analysis.

MAN OF STEEL Comparison on Vimeo
Stu Maschuwitz has written extensively about the emotional effects of color timing, so if you're interested in this kind of stuff, you should read Stu's work. I particularly like his comparison of deleted scenes telecine footage with the final color timed film. 

Friday, December 06, 2013

The List of 10, 86th Academy Awards

It's bake-off time! David S. Cohen of Variety has the scoop on the list of films that will be going to the visual effects bake-off for this year's 86th Academy Awards.
  • Elysium
  • Gravity
  • The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
  • Iron Man 3
  • The Lone Ranger
  • Oblivion
  • Star Trek Into Darkness
  • Thor: The Dark World
  • Pacific Rim
  • World War Z
The list of 10 films was determined by the Executive Committee of the Academy's visual effects branch (which, in the past, has been populated by 40 people).

The 10 films will each present a 10 minute reel of finished work at the bake-off in January to the full membership of the Academy visual effects branch, along with a quick introduction and post-reel Q&A. After the 10 films have presented, all members of the visual effects branch vote for the five Oscar nominees. Ultimately, the full Academy membership votes for the winners of the Academy Award in every category.

Like last year, the two-step process of an initial list of 15 films whittled down to 10 films was scrapped.  Although the branch used the 15-to-10 process for the 84th Academy Awards, which gives the Executive Committee a chance to catch up on all 15 films, the accelerated rate of the Academy schedule for the 85th and 86th awards meant that the final bake-off list needs to be available in the first week of December of each year.  The 15-to-10 process started for the 80th Academy Awards (for which "The Golden Compass" ultimately won the Oscar).

Congratulations to all of those participating in the bake-off.

Read Cohen's story here.  FXGuide also covered the announcement here.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Support Cinefex Classic on Kickstarter

I made this little personal video to illustrate how important Cinefex magazine is to me.

Cinefex magazine has played a very important role in my life. Without it, I probably wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today.  The foundation of my visual effects knowledge comes from Don Shay and the team at Cinefex. When I heard about the Cinefex Classic project, I was absolutely thrilled.  I hope it succeeds.  I'm not affiliated with the Kickstarter project in any way - I just want to see the project get funded, so I can have the entire back catalog of Cinefex, searchable, with restored photos, on my iPad.

Read Stu Maschwitz' Prolost blog post, "Cinefex Classic on Kickstarter" for another firsthand account of a visual effects professional's relationship with this important publication.

Here is the Cinefex Classic Kickstarter video.

Cinefex Classic on Kickstarter

If you like movies and special effects, please consider kicking in a few bucks to this project.

UPDATE: It's been funded!  Hooray!  Here's a special video for backers, and keep spreading the word and pledging to this project.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Aspect Ratios and Cinematographers of Steven Spielberg

Here is one of my many half-finished FXRant articles and graphics. I decided to just tidy it up and post it because, well, why not.  Plus, I wanted to publish it before Spielberg's next film was released.

I don't really have any grand, cogent conclusions to share, I just really wanted to visualize the aspect ratios, lens and film formats and cinematographers used by filmmaker Steven Spielberg over his 39 year film career. I've also indicated Oscar nominations and wins for cinematography on the graphic.

Notable notes:
  • Spielberg began his heralded career with no less than five anamorphic films in a row ("The Sugarland Express", "Jaws", "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", "1941" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark").
  • After "Raiders", 14 out of his next 18 films were shot in 1.85 aspect ratio with spherical lenses.
  • With 1993's "Schindler's List", Spielberg began his relationship with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Kaminski and Spielberg have now collaborated on 14 films in a row
  • All five of Spielberg's recent films have all been photographed in the 2.35 aspect ratio; all but one were shot with spherical lenses (Super35). The lone anamorphic film was "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull".

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The "Die Hard At The White House" Franchise

Ten years ago, "The Matrix" sequels "Reloaded" and "Revolutions" were released within 178 days of each other, and held the record for shortest time between blockbuster franchise sequels. This year, that record has been broken.

2013 marks the year a film and its sequel were released within the tightest timeframe.  In March, the Gerard Butler thriller "Die Hard At The White House" debuted in theaters.  A mere 98 days later its sequel "Die Hard At The White House 2", directed by Roland Emmerich, will be released.

Some audiences might be a bit confused since Channing Tatum has taken over the role of the heroic Secret Service Agent (from Gerard Butler), and apparently the President is now Jamie Foxx (perhaps original President Aaron Eckhart was impeached between films). Producers of "Die Hard At The White House 2" plan to excite audiences with even more high-octane machine gun fights, action sequences of helicopters shooting up Washington D.C. monuments, the White House exploding in giant fireballs and general, garden-variety-White-House-destruction-porn.

The sequel also promises to have even bigger, flappier American flags triumphantly being raised, exciting visual effects shots of Air Force One completely blowing up mid-flight, and apparently much more comedy than the original.  Producers also promise to explain how the White House could be rebuilt so quickly after the events of the original film.

Also, U.S.A!  U.S.A.!!

Movie poster parodies of "Olympus Has Fallen" and "White House Down".

Monday, June 17, 2013

Leonardo DiCaprio Can't Stop Toasting

The latest toast is from Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street".  Previous toasts include "The Great Gatsby" (2013) and "Titanic" (1997).  Come on internet, someone make a YouTube supercut montage of DiCaprio toasting.

Friday, May 17, 2013

This Poster Does Not Exist

A poster with Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter and Jason Lee" headlining "The Incredibles" does not exist because Pixar casts voice talent based on voice talent, rather than celebrity and name recognition.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Sam Elliott, "Beef... It's What's For Dinner" Radio Spot

If you remember one of my earliest posts from 2007, I have an affinity for Sam Elliott.

I found an MP3 of a radio commercial narrated by Elliot around 2002, and have been obsessed with it ever since. I treasured this MP3. I'd play it for my co-workers, constantly.  I'd even play it over the old ILM intercom on Fridays after 5pm.  The commercial is hypnotic. And now I will share it with you, my friends.

It's a radio spot for Beef, narrated by the man himself, the voice of Beef, created by the Cattlemen's Beef Board and National Cattlemen's Beef Association, with Aaron Copland's "Hoe-down" (from Rodeo) underneath.

"Beef stroganoff. Beef Bourguignon. Irish Beef Stew. Beef Brisket. Chateau Brion. Saubraten. Roast Beef. Catalonian Beef Ragu. Mongolian Beef. Chicken Fried Steak. Steak Diane. Grilled Steaks Balsamico. Hamburgers. Sizzling Beef. Spicy Braised Beef. Barbecued Beef Ribs. Beef Wellington. Pepper Beef. Beef Jerky. Beef with Broccoli. Beef Burritos. Beef Fajitas. Beef Tacos. Do you see where I'm going with this? Beef. It's what's for dinner."

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Do Not Attempt

Here's proof that, perhaps, lawyers run the world.

This is the most bizarre disclaimer I've ever seen on a television commercial; far more peculiar than the standard "Do Not Attempt" disclaimer on most car commercials, even branding "Do Not Attempt" on commercials that are realized almost entirely with visual effects and cannot possibly be attempted in any way shape or form.

The actual disclaimer from the new BMW 5 Series commercial, "What You Love", underneath shots of a contented young boy sticking his hand out the window of a moving car:

"Sticking your hand out the window is dangerous. Caution children not to engage in this activity."

An activity as innocuous as sticking one's hand out a moving car's window to feel the breeze, as depicted in the commercial that I'm looking at right now with the sultry tones of Chris Pine's voice guaranteeing my son will be so satisfied with life if I drive a BMW he will ponder the poetry of the universe by feeling the wind against his hand, is considered to exceed a level of risk for the lawyers at BMW such that it forces such a dire warning. A hand. Out the window.

The commercial is saying "You see that thing you can do with our product? Yeah, don't do that. It's dangerous!"

In a few years, we will reach to volume of disclaimers seen in the "Happy Fun Ball" commercial.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Movie Marketing is Hard! "From The Director of TRAINING DAY"

UPDATE: This post has been updated with an additional film. Click here to read.

Since directing the magnificent "Training Day" twelve years ago, Antoine Fuqua has directed five more feature films. Every single film predominately featured the exact same card in its trailer: "From the director of TRAINING DAY". 

Showing my work-- feel free to click on these links: Tears of the Sun, King Arthur, Shooter, Brooklyn's Finest, Olympus Has Fallen.

Monday, March 18, 2013

John Parenteau's Thoughts on the VFX Industry


Last Friday, visual effects veteran John Parenteau wrote a long status update concerning the visual effects industry on his Facebook page.  With his permission, I've reprinted it here.

John Parenteau's Thoughts on the VFX Industry, March 15, 2013

I was unfortunately not able to attend the VFX Solidarity town hall meeting last night, but I wanted to share some thoughts about the current state of the visual effects industry, and propose some possible solutions for all our futures. This might also help some of my non-VFX friends understand what's going on. So here I go!

As we all know, the visual effects industry has faced some challenging times recently, though most of these challenges have existed for years, and only now have reached a boiling point, and thus become visible on a national stage. Though the times are tough for many facilities and artists, it's this boiling point that will help to create change, and that in the end will be a good thing.

I feel there are some significant issues that face the industry as a whole. No single solution will fix the problems we face. A long term and competent solution for the industry will require, in my opinion, all of these items to be addressed simultaneously. This would, of course, seem to be an insurmountable task, yet if we are to survive as a vital business it is imperative that we work together to achieve results. 

This is, of course, my opinion, but it is based on experience since the beginning of desktop technology, when visual effects unfortunately became a tangible commodity instead of an art form, where it should be. From about 1992 on, a large part of the business was comprised of eager artists who were simply excited to be part of the movie industry. Many of these artists went on to form companies, and though it was well intentioned, the problem was that none of these people (and I include myself in this) had any experience or training in running a business. Beyond our lack of ability to manage employees or create budgets, we lacked the backbone to form a real business model, and to enforce this with our clients. Instead, we fell in to a bizarre and truly ineffective (from a business perspective) method of operating that is the source of our problems today. 

I will say here that though I feel outsourcing is a major problem, I also believe strongly that we cannot make our fight about that alone. The world will continue to expand, the artists in other countries will continue to learn, and it is only a question of time when those same artists have the skill set to produce visual effects on level with the best in our industry here. Even if we manage to force countries to remove incentives, which is highly unlikely, we are still faced with the fact that many other countries have lower cost of living, and thus will always be able to offer visual effects at an aggressive price. 

What is important is to be leaders. Visual effects started here, and will continue to be here, if we are smart about how we approach the next phase of our existence. If we productively yet firmly work to create a solution between artists, facility owners and studios, we will continue to lead the industry worldwide, and thus ensure our jobs for a very long time.

Red Tails

So here are my suggestions to help solve our current problems:

1) Formation of a trade organization - The only thing that speaks in this industry is strength in numbers. The fact that every VFX studio works independently, with no standard of practices between them, no common bidding techniques, and NO ability to push back with the studios, makes us completely helpless to their needs. The heads of the VFX houses insist that they can stand alone, but they do so as their compatriots fall around them. At the same time, every facility bids viscously against each other, cutting our rates lower and lower simply to win an award. But many of these aggressive bids simply serve to keep the doors open, not to help build, and thus can be very damaging to the facility's future. Every visual effects company needs to realize that there is strength behind an organization, that working on common bidding practices based not on how aggressive you're willing to be, but rather a proper cost-plus model, will greatly strengthen each company. A trade organization will also give the group political strength to fight illegal incentives around the world, something any single house lacks the clout to tackle. But it is imperative that every company be a part of this organization. It will be impossible to show strength unless every company, large and small, works together in this.

2) Formation of an artist union - When I first started in the visual effects industry, I was working for Universal and Amblin Entertainment, both of which are located on a union lot. Because of this, the IATSE tried to unionize us. Unfortunately the attempt failed, and I believe that failure has led to some of our difficulties today. The combination of a trade association AND an artist union would provide the industry a strong voice in all visual effects matters, while ensuring both facility and artist are protected now and in the future. The big problem is that the cost of going union is too big for VFX houses to bear right now. At current rough estimates, an additional $8 an hour would be added to each artists' rate (not counting current facility contributions for health and pension, which would be replaced by the union). I have strongly encouraged the union to look carefully at this, and develop a plan to reduce this cost initially, and thus diminish the impact to facilities in a grander effort to achieve the union goal. Margins for facilities are essentially non-existent today, and there are no owners walking away with large profits, regardless of rumors you might hear. The largest argument against unionization has been the cost, and that is simply because there isn't the added money available. If the union works closely with large and small facilities to create a new paradigm, allowing artists to unionize for a small fraction of the current costs (perhaps with limited benefits at first), and then create a plan with those same facilities to slowly and carefully increase rates over a few years, it will allow the costs to be slowly incorporated in to future budgets. This is the only way that unionization will be embraced by facilities.

3) Create a new bidding model - From the beginning, VFX has been treated as a mechanical process, using computers and engineering as if we were creating widgets or tangible goods. But the truth is, what we create is art. I have bid extensively over the past years, often directly against some of the major facilities and teams in the business. I have realized that bidding is in no way an accurate process. Nearly every shot that is produced is a unique entity, never before created. It is next to impossible to accurately estimate the cost of producing a completely unknown effect before you actually create it. Imagine you are asked to create a shot of a giant alien creature rising out of the water. You are shown a single piece of artwork as reference. Sitting in front of an excel document, you have to guess how many days it will take you to create it, using a wide variety of disciplines. And you will be held to that number regardless of any complexity, known or unknown at that point. How does any artist know how much his or her art is going to take to produce, before they produce it? Has that exact shot ever been done? Most likely not, since every filmmaker and studio wants something unique and spectacular. So when we bid, we are totally guessing. Perhaps it's an informed guess, but it's still a guess. Combine that with the fact that most production-based VFX supervisors are looking not at the complexity of the shot in detail, but rather at an "average" cost per shot, based on their own "guestimate" in an effort to meet an overall budget mandated, often, by a producer who has to accommodate all the other aspects of producing that film. But because we are treated as if VFX is a mechanical process, we are being forced in to numbers that are often incredibly unrealistic. There needs to be a better way to bid that doesn't require us guessing long before any part of the show is created. 

Red Tails

I believe, utilizing the trade organization mentioned above, that we can create a new paradigm in costing projects. In production, a producer hires a production designer who has a base level of staff they typically bring along; art director, concept artists, construction, designers, storyboard artists, etc, based on the type of project they are producing. When the scope of the work grows, and there is a need for another concept artist, for example, the production designer simply asks the producer for the added budget, and it is approved, or not based on the available budget. There is no reason visual effects cannot be treated the same. Any project, as it begins, can book a base staff at a chosen facility. This staff might include a visual effects supervisor, producer, CG supervisor/lead, comp supervisor, and perhaps a base level of additional artistry. A certain number of shots for the project can be produced with that team, and any additional shots, much like the production designer's dilemma, would require added crew. A percentage of this total budget would be added on for overhead and profit at that facility, but this would be above the actual costs of the artistry. Much like a production crew, the visual effects crew would be billed based on number of people, not on the estimated cost of a shot. 

This may not be the perfect solution, but it is a way to ensure that the right amount of crew is hired, their costs are covered, and visual effects facilities are actually allowed a small amount of profit, while still covering their overhead. The important, and painful part, will be the negotiations between the trade organization and the studios (with an artist representative at the table), to establish what a base crew is, a standardized cost for said crew, and how much work this crew could create without adding additional team members. This base level might cover simple projects under 200 shots, for example, or simply be a negotiated starting point to build a crew that is capable of producing larger amounts of VFX for a blockbuster film. The process would be transparent between studio and facility, just as hiring a camera crew is transparent to production. But, with careful negotiations, and after some time, a new standard will be set, and the pain will subside. If this sounds like an unusual way to produce visual effects, just consider how the actual film production crew is hired and paid. This would be similar, with only the added component of adding cost for profit and overhead for the facility. 

As I said above, this may not be THE solution, but it is a starting point toward A solution. We, as a community, both artist and facility owner, must solve this dilemma to avoid the continuing "race to the bottom" visual effects has become. Note that the studios have no interest in a trade organization, or to unionize artists. The current disarray of the business only serves to help them produce content as inexpensively as possible. And they cannot be blamed for this. We live in a capitalist society, and the studios have shareholders to appease as well. Their job, because it is show BUSINESS, is to make money. But many years ago, the unions faced similar challenges when it came to unionizing studio lots or film productions, and in the end the studios learned that they could still profit under what is now most likely perceived as the "reasonable conditions" the unions have set for crews. VFX is no different. There will be pain through the process, and there will be more challenges, but in the end these solutions will serve to revamp the industry in a way that is palatable to all parties, and we can return to the craft we all chose, namely telling stories.

Thank you for reading.

John Parenteau

John Parenteau is an Emmy-award winning visual effects professional whose credits include "Star Trek: Voyager", "The X-Files" and "seaQuest DSV", and was general manager of Pixomondo Los Angeles.  He now runs Silverdraft, a supercomputer technology company.  Read more at

Sunday, March 17, 2013

We've Been Busy

... finishing up this one film.
Oh, look, here's a new teaser for a film that has some pretty nifty visual effects.
direct YouTube link

Monday, February 25, 2013

The VFX Predictinator and The 85th Academy Awards

The visual effects team behind "Life of Pi" took home the Oscar for visual effects at the 85th Academy Awards.  Congratulations to Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer and Donald R. Elliott and everyone involved with the visual and special effects of the amazing film.

This also marks another victory for The VFX Predictinator, our formula for predicting the winner of the visual effects Academy Award.  We created a unified formula that correctly predicts the outcome of the visual effects winner from 1989-2008; we used that same formula to correctly predict "Avatar" in 2009, "Inception" in 2010 and "Hugo" in 2011.  Well, we got it right again for "Life of Pi" in 2012.

Before the awards ceremony, hundreds of visual effects professionals rallied for a VFX protest, complete with a plane flying a banner overhead that read "BOXOFFICE + BANKRUPT = VISUAL EFFECTS VFXUNION.COM".  Read FXGuide's coverage here.

The awards ceremony itself was a debacle for the visual effects community.  First, presenters of the visual effects Oscar Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo and Samuel L. Jackson, all of whom have benefitted greatly from partnering with visual effects throughout their careers, joked around awkwardly with some poorly rehearsed schtick about respecting the artistry of visual effects.  The winners were read, and midway through Bill Westenhofer's speech, the 'play-off' music began to rumble (John Williams' "Jaws"). Before Westenhofer could finish his statement, his mic was cut off and the director cut away to Nicole Kidman and her husband.  Then, accepting the Best Director Oscar, Ang Lee failed to thank any visual effects members of his team.  In addition, Oscar winner Claudio Miranda (for "Life of Pi"'s cinematography) also failed to thank any members of the visual effects team; strange for a film whose cinematography was extensively created by visual effects artists.  Read The Hollywood Reporter's coverage here, and read Stu Maschwitz' article here for a classy recap. 

My emotions are all tied up in strange knots; I'm thrilled and inspired by the current state of artistic achievement of our industry, and also saddened by our relative powerlessness in Hollywood.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

With and Without Rhythm & Hues

A protest at this year's Academy Awards is taking place today to draw attention to the current state of the visual effects industry. While visual effects films are making billions of dollars at the box office, visual effects facilities are declaring bankruptcy and going out of business. The situation has never been more bizarre and ironic than the recent bankruptcy announcement of Rhythm & Hues, the visual effects shop that created the creatures of "Life of Pi", a film that has earned $580M worldwide, and, which many believe is the frontrunner to win the Oscar for visual effects at today's awards show.

"Piece of the Pi" Protest at the Academy Awards

I created these two graphics to illustrate the importance of visual effects to a film like "Life of Pi", and I'm thrilled that they've been passed around the internet to help with awareness of the current crisis state of the visual effects community.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Visual Effects, Oscars and Box Office

Just like last year, I thought it would be interesting to see a breakdown of the average box office earnings of each of this year's 85th Academy Award nominees, per category.

And, just like last year, it is completely lopsided.  Here is this year's chart, indicating the average domestic and international box office take of the nominees for each category, as of February 5, 2013.  Click here for a larger version of the chart.

The average Oscar nominee for visual effects earned $763M (up from $662M last year).  By comparison, the average nominee for Best Picture this year earned $202M, which is a particularly strong box office year for Best Picture nominees.  Leading the pack in the visual effects race was "The Avengers" (which earned $1.5B), "The Hobbit 1" ($956) and "Life of Pi" ($548M).

The second highest grossing category is Best Music (Song) with an average of $503M box office earnings per nominee; the category was buoyed by hits like "Skyfall" ($1.1B),  "Life of Pi" ($548M) and "Ted" ($529M).

Again, this should surprise virtually no one.  I wrote all my caveats and explanations last year, so I won't rehash them here.  This only proves that in each major cinema discipline that the Academy chooses to reward with a statuette, the average box office take of 'the best' visual effects films far exceeds any other discipline's 'best' work.

I wrote this last year when I charted the box office averages for the 84th Academy Awards:
It also illustrates the sad state of the visual effects community. The average Oscar nominee for visual effects made over $662 million globally, and yet our industry has relatively little power in Hollywood.

This is still true, of course.

Showing my work; a CSV of the data is here.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Oscar Pool Ballot, 85th Academy Awards

It's time for the Awesomest Oscar Pool Ballot In The History Of Oscar Pool Ballots.

Every year I create a special ballot based on the printable ballot -- but on my ballot, each category has a different point value. The highest valued category is "Best Picture," while the mainstream films' categories are valued at two points. The non-mainstream categories (like the documentary and short film categories) are valued at one point.

This way, in a tight race for the winner, the winner most likely would not be determined by the non-mainstream films (i.e., blind guesses).

Download the ballot here for the 85th Academy Awards and use it at your Oscar party.

And if you're wondering why Tom Cruise is on my ballot... he's been on every one of my Oscar ballots. Because he's soooooooooo cool.

The VFX Show Oscar Preview Podcast

Mike Seymour, Matt Wallin and I talk about the 85th Academy Award nominees for Best Visual Effects in FXGuide's The VFX Show #162.  I had a great time chatting about all things visual effects.

Of course, we go into detail about this years' VFX Predictinator results and what it all means.

Mike Seymour, Todd Vaziri and Matt Wallin discuss the five Academy Award nominated films in the VFX category and Todd Vaziri’s VFX Predictinator!
Show notes and link:

iTunes link

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"Life of Pi" Wins at VES Awards

The 11th Annual VES Awards took place on February 5 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, and "Life of Pi" won four awards (out of its six nominations), including Outstanding Visual Effects in a Visual Effects-Driven Feature Motion Picture.

"The Avengers" took home two awards, while "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" won one award; "The Impossible" won the award for Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects.

The following are winners for live-action feature film categories.  To see all the nominees from feature film categories, click here; and to see all the winners visit FXGuide's coverage.  For more information on Visual Effects Society, visit their website.

Outstanding Visual Effects in a Visual Effects-Driven Feature Motion Picture
Life of Pi
Thomas Fisher, Susan Macleod, Guillaume Rocheron, Bill Westenhofer

Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Feature Motion Picture
The Impossible
Felix Berg├ęs, Sandra Hermida, Pau Costa Moeller

Outstanding Animated Character in a Live Action Feature Motion Picture
Life of Pi: Richard Parker
Erik De Boer, Sean Comer, Betsy Asher Hall, Kai-Hua Lan

Outstanding Created Environment in a Live Action Feature Motion Picture
The Avengers: Midtown Manhattan
Richard Bluff, Giles Hancock, David Meny, Andy Proctor

Outstanding Virtual Cinematography in a Live Action Feature Motion Picture
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Matt Aitken, Victor Huang, Christian Rivers, R. Christopher White

Outstanding Models in a Feature Motion Picture
The Avengers: Helicarrier
Rene Garcia, Bruce Holcomb, Polly Ing, Aaron Wilson

Outstanding FX and Simulation Animation in a Live Action Feature Motion Picture
Life of Pi: Storm of God
Harry Mukhopadhyay, David Stopford, Mark Williams, Derek Wolfe

Outstanding Compositing in a Feature Motion Picture
Life of Pi : Storm of God
Ryan Clarke, Jose Fernandez, Sean Oharas, Hamish Schumacher

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The VFX Predictinator, 85th Academy Awards Edition

It’s time to fire up The VFX Predictinator!

Let’s summarize the history of The Predictinator in a few delightful bullet points:

  • We created The VFX Predictinator in early 2010, before the 82nd Academy Awards. It’s a formula that accurately predicts the winner of the visual effects Oscar based on 20 years of data (1989-2008), using quantifiable criteria. [Part 1 of the series.]
  • In 2010, we used the same formula to accurately predict “Avatar” as the winner of the visual effects Oscar.  In 2011, the formula accurately predicted “Inception” to take home the gold. And in 2012, the same formula correctly predicted “Hugo” to win the Oscar.
  • The VFX Predictinator is about predicting the Oscar winner using statistical methods of quantifiable data, summarizing Academy voters’ tastes with a formula; this is not a discussion about the artistic and technical achievements of each of the films, nor about who ‘deserves’ to win.

Since creating the formula, we’re three for three. In essence, we have a formula that has correctly predicted the visual effects Oscar winner for 23 years in a row.

Let’s see what The VFX Predictinator says about the nominees this year, the 85th Academy Awards nominees for Best Visual Effects:

Is The Predictinator’s choice of “Life of Pi” surprising to you?  When it comes to popularity, “The Avengers” and “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”, both gigantic blockbusters, are far more exposed than “Life of Pi”, a relatively small art house film directed by the celebrated filmmaker, Ang Lee. Before the nominations even were announced, I wasn’t shy with my early prediction that “Hobbit” would take home the gold.  The staggering volume of quality work in both “Hobbit” and “Avengers”, along with the fact they’re both part of beloved franchises, I thought, might be enough to take either film to Oscar victory.

By the time the nominations were announced, however, the filmmaking community became much more aware of the astounding visual effects work in “Life of Pi”, and the film’s momentum really picked up.

“Life of Pi”’s Predictinator margin of victory over “Avengers” and "Hobbit", the films that earned the second and third highest scores, is similar to “King Kong”’s edge over “Lion Witch and the Wardrobe” from 2005, and also similar to last year’s “Hugo” victory over “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”.  It’s not a decisive, overwhelming marginal victory (like 2001’s “Fellowship of the Ring” or 1997’s “Titanic”), but a solid victory nonetheless.

The whole point of The VFX Predictinator is to get into the head of the typical Academy voter, so let’s dive into the formula’s mechanics and see how each film scored its points, and how each films’ chances were strengthened or penalized by each piece of criteria as defined by The Predictinator.

Let’s start with the two films with the lowest scores, “Prometheus” (3.3 points) and “Snow White and the Huntsman” (3.78).  These films had relatively modest box office tallies and were both released in June, and aren’t really on the Academy’s radar, only earning 1 and 2 Academy Award nominations, respectively.  The primary effects for “Prometheus” did not consist of organic character animation, which hurts its chances, since Academy voters generally lean toward voting for films with prominent CG characters. “Snow White” certainly had its fair bit of character work, but doesn’t qualify for ‘main character CG facial acting’, since none of the CG characters had a significant ‘performance’ role in the film.  We also gave this type of scoring to “Harry Potter 3” back in 2004, which also had a great deal of organic character animation, but no ‘main’ characters with facial acting performances.  “Snow White” was the only film to have an Academy Award winning actor in a lead role (Charlize Theron), which earned it a point.

“Hobbit” and “Avengers” both had strengths and weakness, almost at opposites to one another.  “Hobbit” had a modest Tomatometer rating (65%), while “Avengers” had the highest of the nominees (92%), and also doubled “Hobbit”’s box office take.  “Avengers” was a box office behemoth, earning over $1.5 billion around the world, which earned it the most Box Office points (.82, versus “Hobbit”’s .35).

 “Avengers” was a May release, which hurts its chances of winning the Oscar, as opposed to “Hobbit”’s December release date.  And although Hulk is an important character in “Avengers”, the primary effects for the film revolve around the superheroes’ amazing abilities, fantastic environments (New York City, Helicarrier) and destruction effects, while “Hobbit”’s giant cast of animated characters qualify it for both animation categories.   The two films earned almost the same Predictinator scores, as a result.

What gives “Life of Pi” its decisive edge?  It had a very strong Tomatometer rating (89, right behind “Avengers”’ 92), and its release date was late in the year unlike most of its competition, which also helped its chances of winning the Oscar.

But the single most decisive criteria for “Life of Pi” is its Oscar acclaim.  The film earned a total of 11 Academy Award nominations, far greater than any of its visual effects competition, and is generally regarded as one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, along with “Lincoln”, “Django Unchained”, “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Argo”.  “Hobbit” earned only three nominations, “Snow White” earned two, and “Prometheus” and “Avengers” only earned its visual effects nomination.  With “Life of Pi”’s eleven nominations (second only to “Lincoln” with 12), it garnered a whopping 2.75 Predictinator points, while none of the other films earned the minimum threshold of nominations to receive any points in this criteria (four nominations are the minimum required to begin earning points in this criteria).

How important is Oscar acclaim? Over the last 23 years, the film that earned the most Oscar nominations among the nominees won the visual effects award 19 times.  “Life of Pi” is absolutely on the radar of Academy voters.

An interesting observation about this year’s crop of nominees: we aren’t considering any of the five nominees sequels. “Hobbit” and “Prometheus” are prequels and “Avengers” has a gathering of existing characters from other film series, and was not a continuation of a specific film series.  This is only the third time in 11 years where none of the nominees are considered sequels.  (If a nominee is a sequel, the Predictinator formula takes away points, since the Academy historically doesn’t like awarding sequels.)

For a moment, forget about the statistical analysis and let’s think about the typical Academy voter.  As The Los Angeles Times has shown in their “Who’s Who in the Academy” series, we know that the vast majority of Academy voters are white males over 60 years old.  Historically, Academy voters prefer to reward safe, acclaimed films.

The typical Academy voter will feel good about voting for “Life of Pi”, a film created by a celebrated director, a film that is well-loved by the establishment, and also earned 11 total nominations. Voters will be much more hesitant to vote for “Avengers”.  Although voters may have liked the film and appreciated the amazing character work of Hulk, “Avengers” is still another superhero movie that earned a billion and a half dollars at the box office.  The story is similar with “Hobbit”; a voter will ask himself, ‘wait, didn’t we already give three visual effects Oscars to ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies?  And they’re making three more? Voters are less likely to want to reward these films.

The visual effects of “Life of Pi” are also unique in another way; the world of the film is bathed in stylistic beauty unseen in recent films. The movie is dripping with aesthetic eye candy, particularly with its environment work.  The dreamlike, surreal atmosphere of the world of “Life of Pi” is experimental and unlike typical visual effects films, and not dissimilar from another Oscar winner, “What Dreams May Come” from 1998.  Both films took their abstract imagery to new heights, and Academy voters are keen to reward these kinds of films.  As a reminder, “What Dreams May Come” took home the visual effects Oscar over another colossal blockbuster, “Armageddon”.

Also worth mentioning is the elephant in the room, which in this case is actually a fully photorealistic tiger.  The computer generated Richard Parker in “Life of Pi” is regarded by nearly everyone who has seen the film as an extraordinary work of art.  The realization of the tiger is a tremendous triumph of artistic visual effects creation, not dissimilar to the giant achievements in CG characters from “Terminator 2”, “Jurassic Park”, Gollum from “The Two Towers”, and Davy Jones from “Pirates 2”, all of which are Oscar winners for visual effects.  The ultra-photorealistically animated and rendered tiger (and zebra, orangutan and hyena) in the lifeboat literally sitting in stylized, abstract environments invites discussions about the very nature of visual storytelling, combining realistic elements with fanciful worlds, and gets to the heart of the metaphors and narratives of the richly textured film.  It’s a different type of visual effects film, and voters will want to reward it.

After creating The VFX Predictinator, some say that its predictions of “Avatar” and “Inception” victories were fairly, ahem, predictable.  Its correct prediction of “Hugo”, however, showed that the formula can be thrown a serious curve ball and still hit a home run.  I consider this another ‘curve ball’ year; both “Hobbit” and “Avengers” are well-exposed blockbusters, and “Life of Pi”, even with its tremendous visual effects, does not have an inevitable victory.  We’ll see what happens when the Oscar winners are announced on February 24.