Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Todd's Pre-Release "Rogue One" Thoughts

My experience with "Rogue One" began three years ago when John Knoll stopped me in the hallways of ILM and asked me, “Does this sound like a cool idea for a movie?” Two years ago I led a secret project that had a big impact on future "Star Wars" films including "Rogue One" (will remain secret for now). For almost a year, I’ve been leading a special unit on the film, as well as doing several shots myself.

"Rogue One" has been the most creatively rewarding film of my career. It’s also the film I’ve personally had the most impact upon.

Computers don’t make visual effects—people do. Here’s some of the ILM team moments after we wrapped. (Fun activity: find me!)

Just look at our faces reacting to your teaser reactions: this is who we are.

It has been a privilege to contribute to "Rogue One", along with the kindest, most talented people I've ever known. We hope you like it.

Finally, some stats. "Rogue One" is:
 • my 20th anamorphic film
 • my 8th film with a score from Michael Giacchino
 • my 4th "Star Wars" film

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Box Office vs. Critical Acclaim

The "Halloween" films, August 23, 2016 / larger

If you follow me on Twitter, you'll know that I sometimes tweet Box Office statistics, specifically charts that show franchise films, or films from a specific director or actor, inflation-adjusted and ranked.

Comparing the inflation-adjusted box office earnings films within a franchise is the closest we can get to an apples-to-apples comparison between multiple films, which is why I'm fascinated with these charts from Box Office Mojo.

The forever optimist in me, who strongly believes that Hollywood blockbusters are not fated to be awful pieces of garbage, still believes there is a correlation between making "good", critically-acclaimed movies that ultimately earn a lot of money at the box office. My go-to metric for this is the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer, which aggregates film critics' recommendations.

I will start charting franchises, directors and actors, cross-referencing their inflation-adjusted box office earnings from time to time. I started with the "Halloween" series, debuting in 1978, which spawned nine sequels and reboots.

The "Bourne" films, August 25, 2016 / larger

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The ILM crew of "Rogue One" Reacts to YouTube Reaction Videos of the "Rogue One" Teaser

As you may know, we have a new "Star Wars" film coming this December. We released our first teaser trailer.

Dozens upon dozens of fans posted reaction videos of themselves watching the trailer, and we absolutely loved watching the reactions in real time. John Knoll, our visual effects supervisor (and ILM Chief Creative Officer) cut together an eight minute montage of some of his favorite videos. He gathered all the supervisors and producers of "Rogue One" into our conference room, and showed us the video. Scroll through the Wakelet to see our reactions to the reaction videos! Here's the direct link to the Wakelet compilation of tweets.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Todd on Defocused, Talking about "Star Trek II"

It was my pleasure to be a guest on the Defocused podcast, hosted by Joe Rosensteel and Dan Sturm. We talked for over three hours about my favorite Star Trek film, "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan".

Defocused Episode #88, Old People Problems (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan)
We’re joined by special guest Todd Vaziri to discuss Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Todd is a compositing lead and supervisor at ILM and has worked on the Star Wars and Star Trek film franchises.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

"Ex Machina" Wins The Oscar

Congratulations to the entire visual effects team behind "Ex Machina", the winner of the visual effects Oscar at the 88th Academy Awards.

Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Mark Ardington, Sara Bennett

(Don't talk to me about The Predictinator right now.)

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Academy's Visual Effects Posters

Over at The Academy's Facebook page, the fine folks behind the Oscars have been creating posters for various nominees.

Here is a GIF of the five nominee posters for Best Visual Effects.

Interestingly, the poster for "The Revenant" that you see above was not the first version published. In early January, when the posters were originally published, the poster for "The Revenant" featured a frame of original photography in the upper right corner: a stunt performer clothed in a blue jumpsuit, wearing a bear head. All of the other shots on all the posters were final visual effects shots. A few weeks later, a new version of "The Revenant" poster was published, featuring a final frame of a landscape shot.

Most likely, the person in the blue bear costume was stuntman Glen Ennis, who "played" the bear during live-action shooting. The bear, as you may know, was ultimately realized entirely with computer graphics by Industrial Light & Magic.

An excerpt from the Ennis interview from Global News:

How does it feel to be involved in a movie that just won Best Picture at the Golden Globes, and is nominated for a Best Picture Oscar?

It feels cool. I’ve been in a lot of movies and had parts that I thought were going to be substantial; sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not. When I was doing it, I had no idea that the bear scene was going to be such an integral part of it. It was hard, sweaty work for me. And now that it’s turned into what it’s turned into, I’m incredibly proud of the work. I’m a small part — obviously the geniuses who made it look as good as they did with the CGI deserve credit — but it’s still pretty cool to be a part of it.

At first glance, one might suspect the reason for the poster change could be part of director Alejandro Innaritu's intention to keep the movie magic behind the visual effects of the bear a secret. I wrote extensively about this in my Predictinator article (jump to "Potential Spoilers"), and have also tweeted about it. Upon further reflection, however, it appears as though the 'blue bear' image was added by mistake, since every single image in each of the posters is a final visual effects shot. No other original photography, wireframes, or any other "before" photo appears. The newer "Revenant" poster merely fixes that mistake.

UPDATE: 2/23/2016: On Twitter, Gavin Graham points out that the "Ex Machina" poster contains concept art.

Visual Effects, Oscars and the Box Office in 2015

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" was the top earner of this year's visual effects Oscar nominees, at $1.98B global box office (as of 2/3/2016). 

Just as I did for 2014 films2013 films2012 films and 2011 films, I thought it would be interesting to track the average global box office grosses from this year's Academy Award nominees, per category.

The five nominees for this year's visual effects earned a total global box office gross of about $3.3B. The monster earner was "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" at nearly $2B; rounding out the Visual Effects nominees were "The Martian" at $600M, "Mad Max: Fury Road" at $376M, "The Revenant" at $288M and "Ex Machina" at $36M.

The 2015 chart doesn't look like any of the other years' charts, since "The Force Awakens", a $2B earner, was nominated for five Oscars, which exploded the average earning for all five of those categories. In every other year, Visual Effects towers over all the other Oscar categories.

In fact, for the first time since I've been charting average box office earnings per Academy Awards categories, visual effects is not the top earning category. This year, Best Sound edged out visual effects with an average of $682M per nominee (as opposed to Visual Effects' $657M per nominee).

The reason Sound eclipsed Visual Effects? The two categories share four out of five nominees. The fifth nominee in Sound was "Bridge of Spies" ($162M), while the fifth nominee in Visual Effects was "Ex Machina" ($36M).

The last five years at a glance:

Average global box office of Best Visual Effects films:
2015 (88th Academy Awards) - $657M
Top Grosser: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, $2B

2014 (87th Academy Awards) - $723M
Top Grosser: Guardians of the Galaxy, $774M

2013 (86th Academy Awards) - $698M
Top Grosser: Iron Man 3, $1.2B

2012 (85th Academy Awards) - $763M
Top Grosser: The Avengers, $1.5B

2011 (84th Academy Awards) - $662M
Top Grosser: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, 1.35B

I wrote this concerning the 2011 box office when I charted the box office averages for the 84th Academy Awards, and unfortunately, this still is true.

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.

All data from .

Oscar Pool Ballot, 88th 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 a typical Academy Awards 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 of the pool, the winner most likely would not be determined by the non-mainstream films (in other words, blind guesses).  This year, I started with a ballot from Fandango, since didn't make a pretty, printable ballot this year. Again.

Download the ballot here for the 88th 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.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

"The Force Awakens" Wins Big at the 14th VES Awards

On February 2, the winners of the 14th VES Awards were announced. The nominees were determined by VES members who participated in the nomination judging process.

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" was the big winner with four awards, including Outstanding Visual Effects. "The Revenant" was next with three awards, including Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects and Outstanding Animated Performance. Finally, "Mad Max: Fury Road" took home one award for Outstanding Effects Simulations.

With "Star Wars" and "The Revenant", Industrial Light & Magic took home seven out of the eight live-action feature film awards tonight. Listed below are all the live-action feature film category winners. To see all the winners, visit FXGuide. To see all the nominees, click here.

The Winners of the 14th VES Awards (Live-Action Feature Film Categories)

Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature
Roger Guyett, Luke O'Byrne, Patrick Tubach, Paul Kavanagh, Chris Corbould

Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature

Rich McBride, Ivy Agregan, Jason Smith, Nicolas Chevallier, Cameron Waldbauer

Outstanding Created Environment in a Photoreal Feature
--STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS — Falcon Chase/Graveyard
Yanick Dusseault, Mike Wood, Justin van der Lek, Quentin Marmier

Outstanding Animated Performance in a Photoreal Feature
Matt Shumway, Gaelle Morand, Karin Cooper, Leandro Estebecorena

Outstanding Compositing in a Photoreal Feature
--THE REVENANT  — Bear Attack
Donny Rausch, Alan Travis, Charles Lai, TC Harrison

Outstanding Models in a Photoreal or Animated Project
Joshua Lee, Matthew Denton, Landis Fields, Cyrus Jam

Outstanding Effects Simulations in a Photoreal Feature

--MAD MAX: FURY ROAD — Toxic Storm
Dan Bethell, Clinton Downs, Chris Young

Outstanding Virtual Cinematography in a Photoreal Project
--STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS — Falcon Chase/Graveyard
Paul Kavanagh, Colin Benoit, Susumu Yukuhiro, Greg Salter

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The VFX Predictinator, 88th Academy Awards Edition

What is The VFX Predictinator? Start here.

Okay, enough small talk. Let’s dispense with the pleasantries and fire up The VFX Predicinator 2.0! We plugged the numbers into our wondrous formula, and here are our results!
  • 7.33 points for “The Revenant”
  • 6.56 points for “Mad Max: Fury Road”
  • 5.85 points for “The Martian”
  • 4.33 points for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
  • 3.01 points for “Ex Machina”
The VFX Predictinator predicts “The Revenant” will win the Oscar for visual effects in the 88th Academy Awards. Here’s the full breakdown of the how the competition played out:

“The Revenant” is riding a wave of critical acclaim and surprising box office success--surprising for a 2 ½ hour art house film. The film just won Golden Globes for Picture, Actor and Director, and was nominated for more Oscars than any other movie. In a little over two weeks, the movie has earned over $119M in North America and, in its third weekend of released, clawed to the top spot at the weekend box office. At the time of this writing, it has earned $223M globally.

The epicenter of the visual effects of “The Revenant” is The Scene. And if you’ve seen the film, you know exactly what The Scene is.

The bear attack in “The Revenant” is one of the most extraordinary scenes in motion picture history. The sequence is making audiences jump out of their seats and gasp with horror. Similar to the shocking shower scene from “Psycho”, the bear attack is the film’s pivotal event that moves our protagonists and antagonists into action. The attack is visceral, animalistic, honest and immediate, and could only be realized on film with the extraordinary coordination of performance, stunts, makeup, sound effects, and visual effects. It’s the show-stopping scene that everyone who has seen the film is talking about.

None of the other nominees have such a single, defining “oh, wow!” visual moment. The other four films nominated for visual effects have consistent, beautiful visual effects throughout the entirety of the films. While “The Revenant” has far more visual effects than audiences suspect (like creating and extending the film’s wilderness environment with set extensions, bluescreen work, and stitching multiple shots together into a single shot), the bear attack is the cornerstone of the film’s effects. Audiences may logically understand that the bear was created entirely out of pixels, but the extraordinary execution of the sequence allows the magic to take over. The attack feels spectacularly real.


“The Revenant” earned a boatload of Predictinator points from its Academy Score; the film earned a monstrous 12 Academy Award nominations (more than any other VFX nominee since “Benjamin Button” in 2008). It also earned a key point for its primary visual effects being organic creatures (the bear attack), but didn’t earn that second point for facial animation, because the bear didn’t talk. It also earned a full point for being a December release.

Interestingly, the top point-earner has the lowest Tomatometer score (81%) of the five nominees--this happened last year, too, when “Interstellar” won the Oscar with the lowest Tomatometer score among VFX nominees. But, like last year, it’s anomalous that the five visual effects films are so highly regarded with critics. Usually, there’s one big critical turd in the bunch (“The Lone Ranger” at 31%, “Transformers 3” at 35%, “The Golden Compass” at 42%, for example).


Closely behind, in second place, is the other strong contender for the visual effects Oscar, “Mad Max: Fury Road”. For most of the year, I thought “Mad Max” would certainly win the Oscar, and its strong score illustrates why it might upset “The Revenant”. George Miller’s fourth entry in the "Max Max" series shocked the world with its energy-bursting, nearly feature-length chase sequence. Stunningly elaborate and beautiful stunt and physical effects work were augmented and extended by computer graphics across the entirety of the film. The car chases simply could not exist without the tight cooperation between the digital and physical effects teams, and the results speak for themselves.

"Mad Max" had the highest Tomatometer score: an astonishing 97%, the highest critical acclaim of a visual effects nominee since “Gravity” (97%) and “Babe” (98%). “Mad Max” earned a boatload of Oscar nominations (10), and also earned a key point for Actor Prestige; Charlize Theron, a lead in the film, has previously earned an Oscar for acting (“Monster”). “Mad Max” was the only film this year to earn an Actor Prestige point. [update: Yes, "The Martian" star Matt Damon has an Oscar, for writing. When designing the formula, we specifically stated the criteria as "has the lead actor won an acting Oscar." So, no points for "The Martian".] However, the action-packed spectacle was penalized for being a sequel, and didn’t earn any points for organic creature animation, since its visual effects were environmental in nature and not character-based.

In third is “The Martian”, which was the #2 box office earner of the bunch, and was tied for second for critical acclaim. Ridley Scott’s crowd-pleasing space drama featured hundreds of effects shots transforming the Jordan location set into the Martian landscape, Martian storms, spacecraft liftoffs, and a dramatic space rescue. The Matt Damon film earned a lot of Oscar nominations (7), and was released late in the year, which helps its chances. Like “Mad Max”, however, the film didn’t earn any crucial creature points, since it didn’t have organic creatures.


In fourth is the phenomenon “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”. The film contains over 2100 visual effects shots, and required the tight collaboration between digital effects, the brilliant makeup & creature team and the physical effects team. Equal parts spectacle (planets being destroyed by a giant laser beam, the Millennium Falcon flying inside a crashed Star Destroyer) and solemn, understated moments (Rey resting outside her home, a downed AT-AT, the expressive animation of a rolling volleyball robot), the film's visual style has been praised for its aesthetic fidelity and consistency.

"The Force Awakens" has earned 3.5x as much money at the domestic box office as the next nearest film (a whopping $879M when we ran the numbers), giving it 1.04 points in Box Office score. And since we calculate Box Office as a relative value, its nearest competitor (“The Martian”) only earned .27 points. A strong Tomatometer score and 5 Oscar nominations certainly helped the “Star Wars” cause; however, very little else helped the film. It took a double hit on the sequel criteria (being a sequel, and being a sequel to a previous VFX Oscar winner), and didn’t earn any points for organic creatures (Maz and Snoke are not considered the ‘primary’ visual effects of the film), nor did the film earn any Oscar Prestige points (Harrison Ford has been nominated for an Oscar, but has never won). Of course, for pure nostalgia reasons, Academy voters might feel like awarding the film a visual effects Oscar as a token gesture, since the film may not win any other awards. Perhaps voters might want to acknowledge the visual effects behind the behemoth that has earned nearly $2 billion at the box office with a trophy.


Finally, the haunting and beautiful film “Ex Machina” rounds out the scores. With its relatively paltry box office take ($25M), it garnered only .03 points in that criteria. With only 2 total Oscar nominations, it didn’t earn any points in Academy Score (we only award Predictinator points to films with 4 nominations or more), and earned the lowest Month of Release score, as it was released in April. The film features flawless and exquisite visual effects design and execution. The work in "Ex Machina" revolves around a humanoid robot (played by Alicia Vikander), featuring a patchwork of human parts and exposed robotic mechanics. Many were surprised that the film made it past the bake-off, considering its modest, non-spectacle-based imagery, but no one should be surprised at its meager Predictinator score.

This is the first time in modern history that three nominees for visual effects are also nominated for Best Picture. We’ve been tracking the Predictinator since 1989, and only three years had two nominees for Best Picture in the visual effects category (1995, 2003, 2009). By the way, six out of the last seven VFX winners were also nominated for Best Picture.

Ironically, after we added the Comic Book criteria to The Predictinator 2.0, the alteration to the formula doesn’t make any difference in this, its first year of use. “Ant-Man” and “Avengers 2” would have been the films that would been affected by the minus one point if based on a comic book criteria, but they aren’t nominated for the Oscar.

The resulting point values for each of the films pretty much matches our gut instincts. Before running the numbers, my wife and I agreed that “The Revenant” has clearly earned the most awards-season momentum of any film this year. We think that Academy voters will be swept up in the momentum of “The Revenant”’s Oscar campaign. The movie is still making a lot of money at the box office, and will probably win award after award in the lead up to the Oscars.

This is a potentially tricky year for our visual effects prediction; “Mad Max”, “The Martian” and “The Revenant” are all certainly strong competitors in this year’s contest. All three are nominated for Best Picture, so there’s a ton of ‘prestige’ in the visual effects category, which is unusual. Also, “The Revenant” might be dismissed with the reductive thought: “well, that one scene was brilliant, but it was just one scene.”

Ironically, the single biggest stumbling block for “The Revenant” winning a visual effects Oscar might be the filmmakers themselves. While director Alejandro Innaritu and Twentieth Century Fox have been loudly trumpeting the challenges of shooting the film, there has been near-complete radio silence on promoting the visual effects of the film. Dozens upon dozens of articles have been written in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety on Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in the film, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s difficulty of shooting the film with natural light only. Fox even has an entire YouTube playlist of ‘behind the scenes’ videos they’ve produced. Where are the articles and videos about the challenges of creating the visual effects for bear attack in “The Revenant”?

The director is apparently actively blocking any details about the process of creating The Scene, ostensibly to protect the magic tricks that went into creating The Scene. At the time of this writing, only a scant few articles have actually exposed how the bear attack was created with any kind of detail. In December, DiCaprio has said he was "not at liberty" to talk about how the bear scene was accomplished. Soon, a Cinefex article will be published. But will it be too late for Academy voters to understand the scope of the visual effects work? Do Academy members even realize the extent of the visual effects in the film?

Even as late as the Golden Globes awards ceremony, the filmmakers were still actively suppressing information about the film’s visual effects work:
If this active suppression of the film's visual effects techniques continues through the Academy voting period (February 12-23), “The Revenant”’s chances of winning the visual effects Academy Award become severely diminished. But if information about the creation of the bear attack makes its way to Academy voters, we feel the film has a solid chance of taking home the gold.

This is a tricky year; no film is a slam-dunk, or has the 'totally gonna win' vibe of films like "Inception", "Gravity", or "Avatar". While not as wild as the "Hugo" year, this year's competition will once again test the foundations of The Predictinator; it will hopefully confirm our main thesis, that Academy voters typically get swept up in awards-season momentum, and want to reward films that have a (perceived) 'prestigious' reputation.

The Academy Awards ceremony takes place on February 28, 2016.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

88th Academy Award Nominees for Visual Effects

The nominees for the 88th Academy Awards have been announced. As always, the nominees were determined by the visual effects branch of the Academy after attending a bake-off of 10 films.  The full Academy membership will vote on the winners of each category.  The awards ceremony will take place on February 28, 2016.

Here are the nominees for Achievement in Visual Effects for the 88th Academy Awards. Congratulations to all who helped bring these images to the screen.  Of course, we will run the numbers of The VFX Predictinator 2.0 soon... stay tuned!

Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Mark Ardington, Sara Bennett

Andrew Jackson, Tom Wood, Dan Oliver, Andy Williams

Richard Stammers, Anders Langlands, Chris Lawrence, Steven Warner

Rich McBride, Matthew Shumway, Jason Smith, Cameron Waldbauer

Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Neal Scanlan, Chris Corbould

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Making The Predictinator Right

What is The VFX Predictinator? Start here.

In the last article, we discussed how The Predictinator got it wrong. Before deciding if we should continue predicting the Oscar winning visual effects film with our current formula, alter it, or (gasp!) abandon it, we examined two questions that might help us make a decision:

• Has there been a slow change in how visual effects films are perceived by the Academy, causing members to vote differently?
• Are we missing something that has been in front of our eyes the whole time?

First, let’s take a look at the potential changes that have occurred over the last decade.

In the early days of digital visual effects, only a few filmmakers were confident and comfortable in helming multi-million dollar visual effects blockbusters. Oscar winning visual effects films were dominated by directors like Robert Zemeckis, Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and the Wachowski siblings, largely making wondrous, successful crowd-pleasing blockbuster visual effects films.

But as time went on, complicated visual effects became more accessible to a larger pool of filmmakers at greatly reduced costs. In the modern era, visual effects became a tool of art-house, ‘important’ and ‘prestigious’ filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Ang Lee, and Alfonso Cuaron, filmmakers who regularly make Oscar-caliber films.

Incidentally, all three of those directors have directed Oscar-winning visual effects films within the last decade. And six out of the last seven visual effects Oscar winners were also nominated for Best Picture.

With breakthroughs created for films like “The Abyss”, “Terminator 2” and “Jurassic Park”, audiences (and Academy voters) were amazed by the fidelity of digital creatures, something audiences had literally never seen before.  In fact, the reason The Predictinator’s data set begins in 1989 is because that was the year “The Abyss” was released, which ushered in the new era of digital effects.

The next two decades saw films that had a heavy presence of digital creatures win Oscars. Year after year, films featuring Gollum, Davy Jones, King Kong, a talking pig, and talking polar bears were winning Academy Awards. This is why our formula gives so much weight to two criteria: organic creatures and organic creatures that talk. However, the full Academy seems to be valuing these breakthrough digital creatures less each year, particularly noticeable in the disregard of the two recent “Planet of the Apes” films featuring astoundingly realistic all-digital apes. While audiences still make blockbusters out of films with digital creatures, the Academy seems less likely to award a visual effects Oscar to a film solely for the presence of its quality digital characters.

Audiences now expect Gollum-quality digital characters in their films, and the Academy may no longer reward a film solely for hitting this quality standard. The bar for the “wow” factor has been raised. In fact, four out of the last five Oscar winning visual effects films had no significant digital characters.

Our formula couldn’t differentiate between “Interstellar” (a prestige-leaning ‘classy’ Oscar film) and the well-reviewed, popular crowd-pleasing comic book film “Guardians”. Were there characteristics of “Interstellar” that could be quantified to boost its point value? Were there essential characteristics of a film like “Guardians” that could be quantified to reduce its point value? And would these be universal truths, correctly impacting past and future contests?

Like we mentioned in the previous article, “Interstellar” had a respected, auteur director (could we quantify that, somehow?). The film was touted as a heavy ‘practical effects’ film (is there a way to quantify miniatures and physical sets?). Are we hurting ourselves by using the Tomatometer as a gauge for critical acclaim, since crowd-pleasing popcorn films can garner higher Tomatometer scores than prestige pictures like “Interstellar”?

As for “Guardians”, it had a strong comedic bent (how on earth does one assign a point value to humor? I mean, even the esteemed Golden Globes doesn’t have any idea how to classify a comedy. Oh, look, “The Martian” just won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy!). “Guardians” is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but isn’t a sequel (so do we just ding it for being a Marvel film? That seems too specific).

We were stuck.

We were not comfortable with abandoning our little formula, just because it broke once. We would not let it die; we’re too proud of it. And we were not ready to accept that it would occasionally be wrong. That’s no fun at all.

We could have fractured the Predictinator into two distinct time periods, breaking it up into two separate formulas, to account for our perceived changes to the industry we outlined above. That option seemed inelegant; our goal was a single, polished formula to rule them all. We could have tinkered with the criteria and how each piece of data is weighted against one another, but, even with the slightest tweak, we quickly realized the entire formula would fall down like a house of cards. This thing is pretty well-calibrated, and can’t withstand much tinkering without destroying itself.

The only option remaining, we thought, was to add a new magic piece of criteria that would solve our problem, without breaking the rest of the formula. And we wanted to add something that had a universal truth, not a statistical hack. For example, we weren’t going to add the criteria “Does the title of the film include the word ‘Guardians’? Minus one point!”

So we thought about it. For nine months. (Hey, we were busy!)

One day, my wife was in the kitchen, I was in the living room. She just blurted out, “I’ve got it.”

And it was staring us in the face every time we looked at the full spreadsheet of films from 1989-2014. She had figured out a new piece of easily quantifiable criteria that would simultaneously de-emphasize digital characters as well as bolster the power of a ‘prestige’ film.

“Is the film based on a comic book? Minus one point.”

Duh. It seems so obvious now. Historically, and for the foreseeable future, Academy members simply do not give Oscars to films based on comic books. Peering into their headspace, I suspect they consider these films to be pure popcorn and not worthy of the honor of receiving an Academy Award. We posit that subtracting a Predictinator point for films “based on a comic book” will not only slightly de-emphasize digital characters, but will strengthen point values of prestigious films that frequently win visual effects Academy Awards.

My wife executed a simple masterstroke that not only fixed the “Interstellar” year, but also bolstered the historical data. Since 1989, only one film based on a comic book has won the Oscar. “Spider-Man 2” is the lone victor, with 12 comic book films going home empty handed. Even our most difficult year, 1992, was made easier with this tweak. Instead of “Death Becomes Her” squeaking past “Batman Returns” by a narrow margin, it now crushes the caped crusader with the new criteria. (By the way, the single comic book winner, “Spider-Man 2”, still commands its victory over its next contender, “Harry Potter 3”.)

Here is what the data looks like. Again, the only thing that we changed to the formula is a single line item, “Is the film based on a comic book?” If so, one point gets deducted. No other criteria values were changed. “Interstellar” now wins the Academy Award for visual effects. Presenting The VFX Predictinator 2.0.

(((RT Score/ Sum of all noms' RT Score) X 5)^2) + (BO (millions)/ BO Total of all noms) + (Academy Noms (only if 4 or more) X .25) + (((Month of Release / Total Month of Release) X 2.5)^2)* + (Sequel = -.5) + (Prior Sequel won Oscar = -1) + (Primary FX organic creatures = 1) + (Primary organic creatures include facial acting = .75) + (Lead Actor an Academy Award Winner = 1) + (Film based on comic book = x(-1)) = Final VFX Predictinator Score

*value has an upper limit of 1

Looking toward the future, the frequency of comic book films is increasing. Marvel films are a cinematic juggernaut- the twelve Marvel movies have grossed over $9 billion worldwide, and every movie studio is building their own universes, flooding the future movie market. The vast majority of these films are aimed at young audiences, consistently hitting explosive levels of risk-averse, family-friendly PG-13 mayhem. These films will continue to earn visual effects Academy Award nominations, because the best visual effects facilities in the world are creating outrageous, spectacles and otherworldly characters for them. The films will continue to perform well at the visual effects bake-offs, and will continue to earn Oscar nominations.

Prestige pictures, however, they are not, and I think the Academy will continue to resist rewarding comic book films.

We’re going to stick with this, The Predictinator 2.0, for a while. Well, at least for this year.

The nominations for the 88th Academy Awards will be announced Thursday, January 14, 2016. We will run the numbers through The VFX Predictinator 2.0 sometime after.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Predictinator Got It Wrong

What is The VFX Predictinator? Start here.

Last year, we were wrong.

For the first time since we created The VFX Predictinator, a single formula my wife and I created that correctly predicted the winner of the visual effects Academy Award from 1989 to 2013, our formula got it wrong. The algorithm predicted that “Guardians of the Galaxy” would take home the Oscar for visual effects, based on a number of quantifiable data points including its strong box office, overwhelming critical acclaim, and its inclusion of talking creatures as its primary visual effects. Sadly (at least for our formula as well as our egos), “Interstellar” took home last year’s visual effects Oscar.

As I wrote before last year’s Oscars, I was deeply concerned about the accuracy of the Predictinator’s prediction.  One could hear the anxiety in my voice, as I appeared on The VFX Show podcast to talk about our Oscar guesses.  Leading up to the actual ‘running of the numbers’, my gut said that “Interstellar” would be the front runner. My wife even said, just moments after she entered the numbers into the spreadsheet, “Well, I guess this time The Predictinator will be wrong.” She was right about that.

Last year's Predictinator results. Full article.

In the months since the Oscar telecast, we’ve recovered from the initial disappointment of getting it wrong, then looked back at the two films and tried to break down exactly why the Academy membership voted the way it did.

We built the formula to demystify the core values of the Academy voter. We realized a predominant and consistent value is what we define as the “prestige” factor. Academy members tend to vote for films directed by experienced filmmakers; inventive, beautiful movies that are regarded as “important”. Academy voters want to feel smart and forward-thinking, not just simply rewarding popular, popcorn films.

Critics saw “Interstellar” as flawed but beautiful.  It featured the much-loved Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway (both Oscar winners) and a respected director, Christopher Nolan.  The visual effects were (arguably) not necessarily groundbreaking, but the gorgeous imagery visual effects created by the effects team was one of the reasons the film was highly regarded.  In the abstract, the visual effects in Nolan’s film also had a heavy ‘practical’ emphasis, pushed by the film’s marketing, which ingratiates itself to the Academy’s largely older voter base. The film was certainly considered the most prestigious movie nominated for the Visual Effects Oscar in 2014.

We represent this “prestige” factor in a few ways in The Predictinator: the Rotten Tomatoes score which measures critical acclaim, total number of Academy Award nominations, and Actor Prestige (if the lead actor has previously won an Oscar). By our numbers, “Interstellar” had a lot going for it, but didn’t earn it enough points to beat “Guardians"’s final score. Its Tomatometer value, while a respectable 72%, was the lowest in the category with crowd-pleasing superhits scoring higher. The film earned five Oscar nominations, which are hugely important to the Predictinator score. Even its star, McConaughey, had an Oscar under his belt (Actor Prestige).

The Academy has also historically favored movies with creatures--especially creatures that talk--in the visual effects category.  The Predictinator accounts for that, and in this area Nolan’s film suffered.  On the other hand, the Academy rarely looks kindly on any sort of sequel; a sequel is almost directly at odds with "prestige", since they are routinely looked upon as derivative, unoriginal, and cash-grabby.  In this case, “Interstellar” benefited. 

As you can see, “Interstellar” had the qualities the Academy wants in a winner, but our formula didn’t give it enough points to win.

We talked about everything on “Interstellar”s side; now let’s discuss why “Guardians” could not win the Oscar, even though The Predictinator gave it a higher score.

At its core, “Guardians” is a crowd pleasing, funny film. The Academy historically ignores comedies. Very rarely do comedies earn Oscars nominations, and even more rare is a comedy win (modern exceptions include Kevin Kline’s Best Supporting Actor win for “A Fish Called Wanda”, and Marisa Tomei's Best Supporting Actress win for "My Cousin Vinny"). The only comedy to win a visual effects Oscar is “Death Becomes Her” which, if you remember, was extremely difficult for the Predictinator to correctly predict. “Guardians” was tied for the highest Tomatometer rating of the year, but that score indicates overwhelming, general positive enthusiasm for the film, not “prestige”. To that point, “Guardians” only had one other Oscar nomination (for makeup), which hurt its Predictinator score.

“Guardians” is also part of a film series, a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Although it’s not strictly a sequel, the film operates thematically and structurally within the confines of an overwhelmingly popular film franchise, and is branded as such. The Marvel name is as prominent as a “2” in the marketing of the film. As we’ve seen, Academy voters regularly avoid rewarding sequels with Oscars; we did not score the film as a sequel, but had we, it would have been dinged ½ point, giving “Interstellar” more of an advantage.

Finally, “Guardians” is regarded as another superhero movie (we will not quibble about the superhero powers--or lack thereof--of the protagonists of the film), which the Academy is also shy of rewarding. The Academy, largely made up of folks older than 60 years old (hey, look, the visual effects branch is the youngest branch, by far!), regards superhero films as childish fare, quite the opposite of important films that deserve to be lauded. Rarely do superhero films like “Batman”, “Superman” or “Iron Man” win Oscars (the lone exception since 1989 is “Spider-Man 2”). Academy voters are less likely reward a genre of film that regularly reboots and restarts itself (for example, Keaton, Kilmer, Clooney, Bale, Affleck... that’s an average of a new Batman every 5.5 years).

All this said, the Predictinator latched onto some key data points: “Guardians”’ extravagant box office haul ($333M), super high Tomatometer score (91%), and, most importantly, got 1.75 points because its primary visual effects consisted of organic creatures that talked. Groot and Rocket Raccoon were extremely impressive and main characters in the film, which usually is a big plus to Academy voters. But in this case “Guardians” was simply not prestigious enough to have this work get noticed.  

There was simply no way that the Academy would award such a film in the Oscars, but our Predictinator had no way to account for the factors mentioned above.

Understanding why “Interstellar” was always going to win, that “Guardians” was always going to go home empty handed, and with all of the potential changes occurring within the visual effects industry, my wife and I asked ourselves the fundamental questions:

Were we missing some key part of the formula all along? Should we alter the formula in some way? Has a changed occurred in the way the Academy votes for visual effects films? Should we just leave the formula as-is, and accept that it could be wrong in certain years? Or just give up and retire the whole stupid thing?

Stay tuned. Here is Part II, "Making The Predicinator Right"

VES Announces Nominations for 14th VES Awards

The Visual Effects Society has announced the nominees for the 14th VES Awards. The nominees were determined by VES members who participated in the nomination judging process.

The leading nomination earner was "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" with seven nominations. Next up with four nominations was "San Andreas" and "The Revenant". Earning three was "Mad Max: Fury Road", "The Walk" and "Avengers: Age of Ultron".

Two nominations went to "Everest", "Ant-Man", "Jurassic World" and "Tomorrowland".  Earning one nomination each was "Chappie", "Furious 7", "The Martian", "Bridge of Spies", "In the Heart of the Sea" and "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation".

Nine of the ten films invited to the Academy bake-off earned VES nominations, the exception was "Ex Machina" which did not earn any VES nominations. Films that were not invited to the bake-off that got VES Nominations are "San Andreas", "Everest", "Chappie", "Furious 7", "Bridge of Spies", "In the Heart of the Sea" and "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation".

Listed below are all of the live-action feature film categories. To see all of the nominees, visit Variety's coverage. The entire VES membership votes for the winners of the awards, which will be announced at a banquet on February 2, 2016.  To learn more about the Visual Effects Society, visit their web site.

Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature
Mike Wassel, Karen Murphy, Martin Hill, Kevin McIlwain, Dan Sudick
Andrew Jackson, Holly Radcliffe, Tom Wood, Dan Oliver, Andy Williams
Richard Stammers, Barrie Hemsley, Matt Sloan, Chris Lawrence, Steven Warner
Colin Strause, Randall Starr, Bryan Grill, Nordin Rahhali, Brian Cox
Roger Guyett, Luke O'Byrne, Patrick Tubach, Paul Kavanagh, Chris Corbould

Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature

Sven Martin, Jennifer Meislohn, Charlie Noble, Sean Stranks, Gerd Nefzer
Dadi Einarsson, Roma O-Connor, Matthias Bjarnasson, Glen Pratt, Richard Van Den Bergh
Jody Johnson, Leslie Lerman, Sean Stranks, Bryan Hirota, Mark Holt
Rich McBride, Ivy Agregan, Jason Smith, Nicolas Chevallier, Cameron Waldbauer
Kevin Baillie, Camille Cellucci, Viktor Muller, Sebastien Moreau

Outstanding Created Environment in a Photoreal Feature

--ANT-MAN — The Microverse
Florian Witzel, Taylor Shaw, Alexis Hall, Heath Kraynak
--JURASSIC WORLD — Jungle Chase
Martyn Culpitt, Joao Sita, Yuta Shimizu, Michael Billette
--STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS — Falcon Chase/Graveyard
Yanick Dusseault, Mike Wood, Justin van der Lek, Quentin Marmier
--TOMORROWLAND — Tomorrowland Center
Barry Williams, Greg Kegel, Quentin Marmier, Thang Le
--THE WALK — World Trade Center
Jim Gibbs, Brian Flora, Laurent Taillefer, Pavel Kolar

Outstanding Animated Performance in a Photoreal Feature
Jakub Pistecky, Lana Lan, John Walker, Sean Comer
--CHAPPIE — Chappie
Earl Fast, Chris Harvey, Mark Wendell, Robert Bourgeault
Matt Shumway, Gaelle Morand, Karin Cooper, Leandro Estebecorena
Joel Bodin, Arslan Elver, Ian Comley, Stephen Cullingford

Outstanding Compositing in a Photoreal Feature
Lindsay Adams, Matthew Wynne, Chris Davies, Phil Outen
--THE REVENANT  — Bear Attack
Donny Rausch, Alan Travis, Charles Lai, TC Harrison
--SAN ANDREAS — Los Angeles Destruction
Sandro Blattner, Hamish Schumacher, Nicholas Kim, Mario Rokicki
Jay Cooper,  Marian Mavrovic, Jean Lapointe, Alex Prichard
Francois Lambert,  Jean Lapointe, Peter Demarest, Conny Fauser

Outstanding Models in a Photoreal or Animated Project
Howie Weed, Robert Marinic, Daniel Gonzalez, Myriam Catrin
--EVEREST — Mt. Everest
Matthias Bjarnasson,  Olafur Haraldsson, Kjartan Hardarson, Petur Arnorsson
--JURASSIC WORLD — Indominus Rex
Steve Jubinville, Martin Murphy, Aaron Grey, Kevin Reuter
Joshua Lee, Matthew Denton, Landis Fields, Cyrus Jam

Outstanding Effects Simulations in a Photoreal Feature

--AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON — Hulk vs. Hulkbuster
Michael Balog, Jim Van Allen, Florent Andorra, Georg Kaltenbrunner
--MAD MAX: FURY ROAD — Toxic Storm
Dan Bethell, Clinton Downs, Chris Young
--SAN ANDREAS — Hoover Dam/San Francisco Tsunami
Joe Scarr, Lukas Lepicovsky, Yves D-Incau, Marcel Kern
--SAN ANDREAS — Los Angeles Destruction
Remy Torre,  Marc Horsfield, Niall Flinn, Victor Grant
Rick Hankins, Dan Bornstein, John Doublestein, Gary Wu

Outstanding Virtual Cinematography in a Photoreal Project
--ANT-MAN — Macro Action
James Baker, Alex Kahn, Thomas Luff, Rebecca Baehler
--MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - ROGUE NATION — Underwater Torus Chamber
Vincent Aupetit,  Margaux Durand-Rival, Christopher Anciaume, Robert Elswit
--STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS — Falcon Chase/Graveyard
Paul Kavanagh, Colin Benoit, Susumu Yukuhiro, Greg Salter
--THE WALK — Towers Walk
Shawn Hull, Suzanne Cipolletti, Laurent Taillefer, Dariusz Wolski