Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Dar Robinson's "Stick" Stunt

On Twitter, I looked at an amazing stunt from 1985, and pondered how we would execute the same shot design today.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Analyzing a Shot from "Superman"

This was a fun one. On Twitter, I talked about this trick shot from "Superman". I hope you like it.

Analyzing a Shot from "Superman"

Saturday, May 06, 2017

I Talked About "Inglourious Basterds" on Defocused Podcast With Some Friends

I was thrilled to be a guest on the Defocused podcast, episode #146. Our main topic was the Quentin Tarantino film "Inglourious Basterds", and it was an honor to share the stage with Joe Rosensteel, Dan Sturm, and Merlin Mann.

Last year, I was on Defocused to talk about "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan", which ran for three fun-filled hours.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

I Was a Guest on the Auralnauts Podcast

I was thrilled to be a guest on the Auralnauts podcast. I'm a huge fan of their work, and we had a terrific discussion about film, how I got started in visual effects, ROGUE ONE, and much more.

Auralnauts link:
Overcast link:

Monday, March 13, 2017

Box Office Breakdown of MPAA Ratings, 1980-2015

For years I've discussed the slow death of the PG-rated live-action film, and the ascendancy of the PG-13 rated live-action film, but never really had numbers to back up my assumptions. It took much longer than I was expecting, but I finally finished my box office analysis.

I took each year's top ten films at the box office (starting in 1980), and calculated the percentage of the year's box office per MPAA rating, and even broke out PG and G between live-action and animated films. The data shows my assumptions were accurate--PG-rated live-action films dominate the box office in the early 1980's until PG-13 films began to take over. Today, PG-rated live-action films barely make a blip on the radar.

Many thoughtful articles have been written about the ascendancy of PG-13 at the expense of live-action PG films. Here are just a few:

Monday, February 27, 2017

"The Jungle Book" Wins the Oscar

Congratulations to the entire visual effects team behind "The Jungle Book" for their Academy Award win for Best Visual Effects! (And, yep, The VFX Predictinator got it right.)

Robert Legato, Adam Valdez, Andrew R. Jones and Dan Lemmon
This is the third Oscar win for Legato ("Hugo" and "Titanic"), the second for Jones ("Avatar"), and the first for Lemmon and Valdez.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Visual Effects, Oscars and the Box Office in 2016

"Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" was the top earner of this year's visual effects Oscar nominees, at $1.0B global box office (as of 2/15/2017). 

Just as I did for 2015 films, 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 $2.8B. The monster earner was "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" at a little over $1B; rounding out the Visual Effects nominees were "The Jungle Book" at $976M, "Doctor Strange" at $673M, "Deepwater Horizon" at $119M, and "Kubo" at $70M.

The last five years at a glance:

Average global box office of Best Visual Effects films:
2016 (89th Academy Awards) - $575M
Top Grosser: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, 1.0B

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 .

Monday, February 13, 2017

Oscar Pool Ballot, 89th 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 89th 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.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The VFX Predictinator, 89th Academy Awards Edition

What is The VFX Predictinator? Start here.

After bloviating in two giant posts about the reasons we might have incorrectly predicted the Visual Effects Oscar winner last year, we have decided to run the numbers for the 89th Academy Awards, perhaps for the last time:

  • 5.48 points for “The Jungle Book”
  • 4.19 points for “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”
  • 3.87 points for “Kubo and the Two Strings”
  • 3.17 points for “Deepwater Horizon”
  • 3.09 points for “Doctor Strange”

The charred, withered, barely-breathing remains of The VFX Predictinator predicts that “The Jungle Book” will with the visual effects Oscar in the 89th Academy Awards. Here’s the full set of scores:

Directed by Jon Favreau, “Jungle Book” is a photorealistic live-action film that is nearly fully computer generated. The live-action portions of the film featuring young actor Neel Sethi were filmed on soundstages in Los Angeles. Computer graphics dominate each “Jungle Book” frame in, arguably, the most photoreal, most extensive, and most immersive use of CG environments and characters in a single film. “Jungle Book” advances upon the success of Oscar-winning “Life of Pi” (2012) to a staggering degree. Oh, and all the animals in the film talk, too. (Some even sing.)

“Jungle Book” took the most points in a competitive field this year; only 1.29 points separate “Jungle Book” from its closest competitor, “Rogue One”. Let’s take a look at the Predictinator criteria and how the race worked out for the five films.

On a number of fronts, the five Oscar nominated visual effects films are quite competitive. Most significantly, the five films all scored similar Tomatometer ratings from critics. In fact, these five films were the highest rated movies for critical acclaim for the 27 years of Oscar races that we’ve tracked. “Kubo” took home the most points for Critical Acclaim (with its 97% Tomatometer rating), while the lowest rated film was “Deepwater Horizon” with a very strong 83%. While this criteria was competitive, the scores for this category are relative to one another, so “Jungle Book” earned .75 points more than “Deepwater”.

None of the five films took away more than two Oscar nominations. As a result, no film earned any “Academy” points (a film starts earning “Academy” points only if it earns at least four Oscar nominations). Also, none of the five films were penalized for being a sequel; sequels, historically, are shunned at the Academy Awards. As you may have noticed, we did not label “Rogue One” a sequel. Even though the film is part of a cinematic universe, we decided that since the film follows a new set of characters, rather than a returning set of characters going on another adventure, it does not earn the sequel identity.

As an aside, if we continue running the Predictinator past this year, we are considering clarifying this piece of criteria to possibly include “reboots” and “films in an established cinematic universe”, since we feel like those films are also historically shunned at the Academy Awards.

With $364M domestic box office take, “Jungle Book” was the #2 earner among nominees (after “Rogue One”’s $522M), which decimated the box office point values for “Deepwater” and “Kubo”, since we score box office points relative to one another.

“Jungle Book” finished with a score 1.29 points higher than its next closest competitor, “Rogue One”. Most significantly, “Jungle Book” earned an important point for its primary visual effects consisting of organic creatures, and an additional .75 points for facial acting. None of the other four visual effects nominees earned any points in either of these two categories. The magnificent organic character animation in the film gives the movie a leg up, since, historically, the full Academy favors films with synthetic character animation and, particularly, animation that features characters that talk and emote.

The digital human work featured in “Rogue One” we deemed as supporting visual effects, not the primary visual effects created for the film. Space battles, environments, and “the world of Star Wars” are the primary vfx work of the film. We gave the same ruling last year to “The Force Awakens”, which featured computer generated characters Maz and Snoke as supporting visual effects elements.

Similarly, we also deemed the visual effects of “Kubo” to not qualify for ‘organic creature work’ as its primary visual effects. “Kubo”’s nomination for visual effects, the first for an animated film since 1993’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, is not without controversy. While live-action and animated films share techniques and concepts, their visually-oriented goals are substantially different. The vast majority of live-action films contain visual effects whose goal is to trick audiences into believing the sequences actually happened in front of real-life cameras, next to real human beings. Animated films do not share the same goal of tricking the audience in this way. Nevertheless, “Kubo” is a nominee, and just as we ruled for “Nightmare”, we deemed the primary visual effects of “Kubo” not to be the character animation in the film, but the creation of the entire world of the film. The art direction, creation, animation and assembly of the entire frame is the visual effect.

You may have noticed that we haven’t yet discussed “Doctor Strange”. Two years ago, we added the ‘is the film based on a comic book?’ criteria, which deducts one Predictinator point. “Strange”’s point value sits it solidly in the middle of the pack, just as most comic book movies typically do. To reiterate our reason for adding this criteria: comic book films have, historically, not been rewarded with visual effects Oscars.

We recently went into great detail discussing how our formula may be outdated since we may have already entered a new era of visual effects that renders our old assumptions no longer valid. We also qualified our argument with the “fluke year” defense: “Sometimes the 6000+ members of the Academy think differently than is expected; typically, the very next year, they go back to voting the way that is typically predicted.” This is the main reason we decided to run the numbers for this year’s race; if last year was, indeed, a fluke, then our philosophy remains sound.

Generally speaking, we feel pretty good about “Jungle Book” winning the Oscar; it’s the film that our gut tells us will win. It’s a nearly-universally loved film, with groundbreaking, well-executed visual effects. It was a giant hit, and Academy voters will feel good about rewarding this type of film.

That said, my wife and I have nagging concerns. Putting it mildly, last year’s “Ex Machina” win, which destroyed our formula, burned us pretty badly. As a result, we can’t help but look for potential spoilers, and attempt to pre-explain their potential victories.

The two potential spoilers of this race are, in our mind, “Deepwater” and “Kubo”. The two films are the least “Hollywood” of the five films, and considering the “Ex Machina” win from last year, we need to pay attention to these two well-regarded films.

“Deepwater” features a man vs. nature narrative (as opposed to the typical protagonist/antagonist structure of the three other nominees), whose visual effects strongly support the narrative, rather than serve the purpose of pure spectacle. Academy voters sometimes shun typically structured films with “good guys/bad guys”, especially when there’s a worthwhile alternative worth rewarding (“Hugo”, “Benjamin Button”, “Gravity” and “Life of Pi” are recent examples that come to mind).

 “Kubo” is a strong contender as well, considering the film represents a magnificent achievement in hand-created stop motion animation (along with a healthy, significant amount of computer graphics and digital compositing). Academy voters could vote for “Kubo” as a protest against computer graphics; “CGI is ruining movies!”, a misguided trope, still has traction in 2017. Even though a predominantly stop-motion animated film like “Kubo” couldn’t exist without modern technology, average Academy voters could reward the film as the anti-CGI nominee.

And, had “Arrival” made it past the bake-off to become a nominee, I’d be shouting from the rooftops that it could easily become this year’s “Ex Machina”. If “Arrival” earned a Visual Effects Oscar nomination, it would have earned nine Oscar nominations, and been a force to be reckoned with. (No, we are NOT going to run the numbers with “Arrival” as a nominee. It’s a lot of work. Feel free to do so on your own.)

For only the second time in the last nine years, none of this year’s visual effects nominees also have a Best Picture nomination. In contrast, last year, three out of the five nominees were nominated for Best Picture (“Revenant”, “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Martian”). In addition, only one out of the ten films that participated in the visual effects bake-off was ultimately nominated for Best Picture (“Arrival”).

Marvel Studios earned its seventh visual effects Oscar nomination in nine years, with “Doctor Strange”. As a reminder, Marvel Studios debuted nine years ago with “Iron Man” (2008).

We’ll see what happens when the 89th Academy Awards take place on February 26, 2017.

Update: We got it right.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

"The Jungle Book" Wins Big at the 15th VES Awards

On February 7, "The Jungle Book" won five top awards at the 15th VES Awards, held by The Visual Effects Society.

"The Jungle Book" won all five of the categories in which the film was nominated. The other big winner was "Deepwater Horizon", which won two awards, including Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects. "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" which earned the most nominations, did not take home any awards. See the full list of nominees here.

Here are the winners of the live-action feature film categories. To see all the winners, read The Hollywood Reporter's coverage of the event.

Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature
Robert Legato, Joyce Cox, Andrew R. Jones, Adam Valdez, JD Schwalm

Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature
Craig Hammack, Petra Holtorf-Stratton, Jason Snell, John Galloway, Burt Dalton

Outstanding Animated Performance in a Photoreal Feature
Paul Story, Dennis Yoo, Jack Tema, Andrei Coval

Outstanding Created Environment in a Photoreal Feature
Adam Watkins, Martijn van Herk, Tim Belsher, Jon Mitchell

Outstanding Virtual Cinematography in a Photoreal Project
Bill Pope, Robert Legato, Gary Roberts, John Brennan

Outstanding Model in a Photoreal or Animated Project
DEEPWATER HORIZON; Deepwater Horizon Rig
Kelvin Lau, Jean Bolte, Kevin Sprout, Kim Vongbunyong

Outstanding Effects Simulations in a Photoreal Feature
THE JUNGLE BOOK; Nature Effects
Oliver Winwood, Fabian Nowak, David Schneider, Ludovic Ramisandraina

Outstanding Compositing in a Photoreal Feature
Christoph Salzmann, Masaki Mitchell, Matthew Adams, Max Stummer

Friday, February 03, 2017

The VFX Predictinator Was Completely Wrong, Part 2

What is The VFX Predictinator? Start here.

After much thought, we believe that the visual effects industry may have entered into a new era of its storied history. The first chapter of the digital era, launched with 1989’s “The Abyss” and its never-before-seen visual effects of the pseudopod, has ended, and a new chapter of visual effects history, the "post-digital" era, may have already begun. The high expectations of stellar-quality visual effects because of digital effects’ democratization and easier accessibility have exploded; a greater-than-ever diversity of films that can harness the power of visual effects is now a reality. If true, this destroys previous assumptions about the predictability of Visual Effects Oscar winners; the "post-digital" era cannot support the same criteria of The Predictinator, which provided accurate predictions of Best Visual Effects Oscar winners from 1989-2014, the digital era.

In 2015, after the 1.0 version of The Predictinator incorrectly predicted “Guardians of the Galaxy” instead of “Interstellar”, we made a slight tweak to the algorithm. We managed to plug the hole in our formula by giving negative points to comic book movies, as we believe Academy voters think films that are based on comic books are less worthy of award. Ultimately, the formula remained accurate through to 1989 (and even strengthened many historical races). In last year’s article, my wife and I pondered a fundamental question, to determine if a larger change is occurring with how the Academy votes for visual effects winners, one that would ultimately break our formula:

• Has there been a slow change in how visual effects films are perceived by the Academy, causing members to vote differently?

We discussed this at length, and I’d like to expand upon a couple of our original ideas, as well as add new thoughts.

Last year, after examining the changes that have been emerging over the last seven years, I wrote this about 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.” I now realize that I was probably too specific with this sentiment, limiting the idea to only digital characters. Academy voters and audiences not only expect stellar synthetic characters and creatures, but expect world-class, quality visual effects in every film--not limited solely to synthetic characters, and not solely from big-budget blockbusters like “Titanic”, “Lord of the Rings” or “Pirates of the Caribbean” films.  Expect smaller, more intimate, less spectacle-based films like “Hugo” and “Ex Machina” winning visual effects Oscars in the future, if this is indeed the case.

We may have also underestimated the impact of the visual effects moving from three nominees to five.  Films that would might not have made it past the bake-off with only three slots are now sliding in with five nominees, and sometimes winning the Oscar. Arguably, “Ex Machina” and “Hugo” would not have made it past the bake-off if our category still only was given three nomination slots. (As a reminder, the nominees are decided upon at a bake-off of films, and are chosen by the visual effects branch of the Academy.) 

In fact, the expansion of the Visual Effects Academy Award from three to five nominees in 2010 represents an indication of the industry’s maturation, potentially marking the start of the post-digital era. No longer is the craft of visual effects a second-class citizen; this change was long overdue and richly deserved.

In addition, three years ago, I wrote about the correlation of Visual Effects nominees and Best Picture nominees. With up to ten Best Picture nominees and the bump to five Visual Effects nominees, we foresee more films traditionally ignored in the visual effects race winning Oscars.

Furthermore, we see a trend of Academy voters actively shunning giant, franchise movies. Without the aid of some kind of visual effects breakthrough, we foresee reboots, sequels, Marvel comic book movies, and Star Wars movies not winning Academy Awards as often as they used to. Just look at the last eight visual effects Oscar winners for proof: “Ex Machina”, “Interstellar”, “Gravity”, “Life of Pi”, “Hugo”, “Inception”, “Avatar”, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “The Golden Compass”.

The first chapter of the digital age of filmmaking might be over, and a new post-digital chapter may have begun. Needless to say, The VFX Predictinator operates within a series of assumptions and quantifiable data to support those assumptions that may no longer be valid in the post-digital era.

In 1989, “The Abyss” marked the dawn of the digital era of Hollywood visual effects: computer graphics and digital compositing supplanted physical models, traditional matte paintings, and optical compositing and ultimately expanded the filmmaking possibilities. The digital era heralded storytelling of a different kind (a liquid metal Terminator, ultra-realistic dinosaurs, bullet time), and audiences have reaped the benefits for over two decades. The ubiquity of digital filmmaking and the maturation of the visual effects community has turned visual effects into a commodity, a value that is no longer exclusive to a certain type of film.

Our entire philosophy behind the predictability of Oscar voters has changed. With five nominees, the nominated movies frequently represent a greater variety of films. No longer are mind-blowing visual effects relegated to a precious few tentpole films, no longer are digital effects relegated to the few directors (Robert Zemeckis, James Cameron, Peter Jackson) who dared swim the dangerous waters of digital technology and turn it into art. Filmmakers like Ang Lee, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher and Alex Garland have access to the world’s talented visual effects artists and technicians, and the landscape of filmmaking is better off because of their access.

I can hear you asking from across the internet: “Yeah yeah yeah, well, are you going to run the numbers?” As you have just read, we’re not entirely convinced The VFX Predictinator, in its current state, is still valid. But we’ll run the numbers. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

The VFX Predictinator Was Completely Wrong, Part 1

"Ex Machina" winning the Oscar® for Visual Effects

What is The VFX Predictinator? Start here.

2016 was a year of earth-shattering upsets: the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. Donald J. Trump won the American presidential election. And “Ex Machina” won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.

Needless to say, we were shocked by “Ex Machina”’s win at the 88th Academy Awards over here at The VFX Predictinator Headquarters.  This upset didn’t just shake the pillars of the mighty VFX Predictinator, it shattered the entire philosophy into smithereens.

The visual effects category has seen a few upsets in its day. Typically, the award goes to the behemoth of the category (think “Avatar”, “Jurassic Park” and “Forrest Gump”). Most recently, the most memorable upsets include “Hugo”’s win over “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, “Babe”’s win over “Apollo 13”, and “The Golden Compass”’s win over “Transformers”. As shocking as those upsets were, our VFX Predictinator accurately predicted those races. (Yes, even “Hugo”.) We understand how those films won, since they each earned their victory with just enough points of criteria as dictated by The Predictinator.

We have no idea how “Ex Machina” won. Our formula, which correctly predicted the winner of the Visual Effects Oscar from 1989-2014, was completely wrong.

Its victory upends our philosophy. There is no model to explain what happened. Alex Garland’s film is imaginative, thought-provoking, and beautiful. The quiet, modest and understated visual effects that support the film are of the highest quality; the depiction of Ava (Alicia Vikander) was both technically flawless and aesthetically gorgeous.

I’ll touch on the highlights of last year’s numbers (to read the entire analysis, read The VFX Predictinator, 88th Academy Awards Edition). By all accounts, it was “The Revenant”’s Oscar to win; Alejandro Inarritu’s film was nominated for twelve Oscars (and ultimately won for Director, Actor and Cinematography), and soared with pre-awards Oscar buzz. It was a solid hit, and also earned key points since the primary visual effects for the film consisted of an organic creature. “Mad Max: Fury Road” was close behind in the scores; the film was also a critical darling and ultimately won a staggering six Oscars from its ten nominations. “The Revenant”, “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Martian” (another visual effects nominee), were all nominated for Best Picture, as well.

Then there was that universally-loved, gargantuan blockbuster which earned over $2 billion, “The Force Awakens”.

In contrast, “Ex Machina”, while highly respected and a critical darling, was barely on the radar. Yes, it earned two Oscar nominations (Visual Effects and Original Screenplay); in contrast, the other visual effects nominees earned five, seven, ten and twelve nominations. Surprisingly, “Ex Machina” didn’t even earn a single nomination at the Visual Effects Society Awards, which has eight feature film categories. The film earned $25M in the U.S.; the film with the next lowest box office score was “The Revenant”, with $119M.

From a purely statistical point of view, these numbers simply don’t point to a victory for “Ex Machina”. In fact, the film earned the least number of points from The Predictinator of the five nominees. Looking at the scene from a less numbers-driven perspective, the visual effects for “Ex Machina” were beautifully designed and executed, but one could argue the challenges tackled and achieved for the film did not rise to the level of past visual effects Oscar winners, which made its victory surprising to so many industry watchers. Some voices have expressed a similar sentiment for “Babe”, “The Golden Compass” and “Hugo” as well, but those victories are, for the most part, explainable. I have yet to hear a rational explanation of how the Academy’s 6000+ members cast more votes for “Ex Machina” over its competition, probably because I believe(d) so strongly in the philosophy behind our formula.

Let’s look at some of the theories I've heard that attempt to explain the “Ex Machina” win.

This theory states that the front-runners’ votes (in sum totaling a near-majority) were split right down the middle, allowing an underdog to sneak in and grab a victory. Let’s say the front-runners were “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Revenant”, and they each earned precisely 32% of the vote. As front-runners, the two films garnering 64% of the vote seems plausible. That leaves “Ex Machina” to swing in with 35% of the vote and win victory, right? But this only works if zero percent of Academy voters voted for “The Force Awakens” or “The Martian”, which isn’t likely.

Okay, so what if “Fury Road”, “Revenant” and “The Force Awakens” split the near-majority vote? For this to work, each of the three films would have to earn precisely 24.9% each, leaving “Ex Machina” with 25.3% of the vote and the win--assuming zero votes for “The Martian”. As a reminder, with five nominees, the absolute minimum percentage of votes required to win is 20.1%.

This theory is based on the idea that actors, the largest single branch of the Academy membership, prefer to vote for performance-heavy films, typically shunning visual-effects driven blockbusters, even in the ‘technical’ categories such as Editing, Cinematography and Visual Effects. (Reminder, the full Academy membership votes for the Oscar winners, not individual branches.) Typically, this would mean the actors’ branch would shun films like “Transformers”, “Poseidon”, and “The Avengers”, which, as the theory goes, wallow in spectacle at the expense of human characters.

Giving some credence to this theory is the fact that Alicia Vikander, star of “Ex Machina”, won an acting Oscar Academy Award last year--but for a different film. She took home a Best Supporting Actress award for her work on “The Danish Girl”. Was “Ex Machina” riding the buzz and momentum that ultimately awarded Vikander an Oscar? This idea becomes far less likely once one is reminded that “The Revenant” featured megastar Leonardo DiCaprio, the actor who took home a Best Actor role for the very same film. It’s more likely that “The Revenant” (starring a man who already had four Oscar nominations and ten Golden Globe nominations under his belt) would benefit more from the ‘halo effect’ of momentum than “Ex Machina”, starring the relative-newcomer Vikander.

In addition, The Predictinator attempts to account for a bit of ‘actor prestige’, with a piece of criteria dedicated to acting: ‘has the lead actor of a film previously won an acting Academy Award?’

This idea takes the point of view that the grand philosophy of The Predicinator is solid, and the Academy voting block, riding an un-predicted massive wave of goodwill toward "Ex Machina", voted for it in overwhelming numbers. There's no denying the visual effects for "Ex Machina" were beautiful and compelling; it rightfully earned its stellar reviews. Similar to Marisa Tomei's acting win for "My Cousin Vinny", or "Shakespeare in Love" winning Best Picture (over "Saving Private Ryan"), sometimes the 6000+ members of the Academy think differently than is expected; typically, the very next year, they go back to voting the way that is typically predicted.

Something has changed in the way visual effects are being evaluated, interpreted and understood. The art and science of digital visual effects have matured to such an extent that, perhaps, a new chapter in the history of filmmaking has begun. Our previous assumptions no longer are true, and therefore, our formula has begun to crumble.

In Part 2, we’ll discuss this idea and illustrate how it affected the results of The VFX Predictinator. Here's Part 2.

Monday, January 30, 2017

89th Academy Award Nominees for Visual Effects

The nominees for the 89th 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 26, 2017.

Here are the nominees for Achievement in Visual Effects for the 89th Academy Awards. Congratulations to everyone involved in the creation of these magnificent images.

Craig Hammack, Jason Snell, Jason Billington and Burt Dalton
This are the first Oscar nominations for Hammack, Snell and Billington, and Dalton's fourth (who won for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button").

Stephane Ceretti, Richard Bluff, Vincent Cirelli and Paul Corbould
This is the second Oscar nomination for Ceretti and Paul Corobould, and the first for Bluff and Cirelli.

Robert Legato, Adam Valdez, Andrew R. Jones and Dan Lemmon
This is the fourth Oscar nomination for Legato (who has won two Oscars for "Hugo" and "Titanic"), the third for Jones (who won for "Avatar"). This is Dan Lemmon's third nomination, and the first for Adam Valdez.

Steve Emerson, Oliver Jones, Brian McLean and Brad Schiff
These are the first Oscar nominations for Emerson, Jones, McLean and Schiff.

John Knoll, Mohen Leo, Hal Hickel and Neil Corbould
This is Knoll's sixth Oscar nomination (who has won for "Pirates 2"), the first for Leo, the fourth for Hickel (who won for "Pirates 2"), and the fifth for Neil Corbould (winner for "Gravity" and "Gladiator")

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Death Star and the Final Trench Run

Star Wars fans pride themselves on knowing each and every detail from the original trilogy. But there’s one little detail from “Star Wars” (1977) that might surprise a lot of fans, and the reality of this detail is different than our collective head canon.

At the end of the original film, Rebel ships fly along the Death Star trench in an attempt to blow up the space station. Look at the photo of the Death Star at the top of this post: can you point to the trench that Luke and the Rebels flew down to fire upon the exhaust port that would ultimately destroy the space station?

Nearly everybody points at the equatorial trench of the Death Star. I asked dozens of die-hard fans, including many co-workers at Industrial Light & Magic, and nearly every single person pointed to the equatorial trench. If you asked me, I would also have said the equatorial trench.

In fact, this came up during ILM “Rogue One” dailies one day. Computer Graphics Supervisor Vick Schutz and Visual Effects Supervisor John Knoll were chatting about the details of our computer graphics version of the Death Star, and Knoll casually remarked that the trench run in “Star Wars” is a longitudinal line on the Death Star (meaning, a north-south trench).

Most of us in the room were dumbfounded. “What did he say?”

Of course, it all makes sense if you think about it for even a minute. 

The equatorial trench is where the major hangar bays are located on the Death Star. The hangar bays are depicted in this sequence from “Star Wars”, when the tractor beam locks onto the Millennium Falcon. The equatorial trench is large enough to house multiple hangar bays stacked vertically. 

Now, contrast this with the final trench run; the trench is barely large enough for three small fighters to fly down, side-by-side.

So, we now realize that the trench with the Death Star’s exhaust port weakness is not located at the equator since the equatorial trench is several times wider than the final trench, but how do we know that it’s a vertical, longitudinal trench. Why couldn’t it be a different latitudinal trench, parallel to the equator? Or, perhaps the equatorial trench narrows on the ‘far’ side of the Death Star, the side of the Death Star we never see?

Well, it’s a longitudinal north-south trench because the movie literally showed us.

detail of the Rebel briefing sequence, led by General Dodanna

The scene of General Dodonna briefing the Rebel troops contains some computer graphics displayed at the front of the room. As Dodonna describes the challenges ahead, the audience can see quite clearly that the trench that contains the exhaust port is perpendicular to the equator. It was there the whole time.

Why have so many of us been confused for so many years? I have a few ideas on that.

There are only two prominent geometric features on the Death Star: its dish and its equator (a trench). Later in the film, we see a third bit of geometry, the final trench. Our brains want to connect this new trench with something we've seen before, and because of their similarities, and the simplicity of that connection, it’s not a big leap for us to (incorrectly) deduce the two trenches are one and the same.

Secondly, consider this shot, which takes place early in the battle sequence, of the X-wings preparing to draw Imperial fire:

Look at how this shot is composed; the two lead X-wings are banking right and swerving, almost as if they are about to travel down the length of the equatorial trench, which is prominently featured in the shot and sits directly behind the lead ships. In reality, the X-wings start their attack run down the trench much later in the sequence, but this shot is visually striking, and subtly (and wrongly) suggests the attack run takes place down the equatorial trench.

Combine this with this POV (point-of-view) shot, used twice in the film, depicting a Rebel fighter’s initial descent into the final trench...

...and our brains once again combine these two thoughts. Both shots feature a fighter diving in the same screen direction to (apparently) travel down a trench. We incorrectly conflated these two shots, combining them into a single location.

Don't feel badly if you thought the final trench was the equator. Heck, even Legoland got it wrong in its giant Death Star lego build.

Legoland in Carlsbad, CA. Photo by Todd Vaziri, November 2016
(Live Photo from iPhone 6, GIF'd with Google's Motion Stills iOS app)

Here’s one more bit of trivia about the geometry of the Death Star. Did you notice anything a little strange about the animated Death Star plans that R2-D2 successfully delivered to the Rebels?

The weapons array (the dish) is centered on the equator! Of course, the Death Star we see in the film has the array clearly in its northern hemisphere. Why is there a discrepancy?

Larry Cuba was tasked with creating the computer graphics for the film, depicting the stolen Imperial plans. He was given a single matte painting to base his graphics upon (shown above). This early design of the Death Star had its equatorial trench bisecting the dish array. Cuba had already started animating when director George Lucas and Industrial Light & Magic made a design change to the Death Star, moving the array to the northern hemisphere. There simply wasn't enough time to change Cuba’s already-in-progress graphics to reflect the design change, due to the massive complexity of the creation of the computer animation; the graphics based on the original Death Star design was projected in the General Dodonna scene for the final film.

update: Larry Cuba reached out to me to correct and add clarity to the timeline of events. Cuba says, "I don't know *when* in the course of the production the decision was made to change the design, but I wasn't notified of it. I don't think it would have been that difficult to change [the graphics]." To be clear, Cuba's completed graphics were rear-projected on-set during first unit shooting. At some point after that scene was filmed, unbeknownst to Cuba, the design change to the Death Star array took place. Subsequently, all of the visual effects models and matte paintings of the Death Star (with the new placement of the dish) were created at Industrial Light & Magic in Van Nuys, California, with the "new" location of the array.

Cuba also reminded me of this cool detail he added to the animation of the graphics. "You'll notice that after the Death Star appears in the animation, it rotates toward you to show the north pole, supposedly the location of the exhaust port, before rotating back to zoom in on the point the pilots were to enter the trench much further south for their approach." I love the method Cuba took to help tell the story here: he's using the rotation of the camera to first indicate the location of the port, then the location of the best place to enter the trench. 

We joked in “Rogue One” dailies that the Stardust file Jyn stole actually contained every major version of the plans of the Death Star, including an early version with the array bisecting the equator (but still containing Galen Erso’s exhaust port vulnerability), and at the Rebel briefing in “Star Wars”, General Dodonna just happened to project one of those early versions to the troops. Head canon!

Here are some terrific resources online discussing Larry Cuba’s computer graphics on the film:

• “Making of the Computer Graphics for STAR WARS”

• Animating the Death Star Trench, from Fantastic Films


The original Atari Star Wars arcade game also strongly implies the equatorial trench is where the final run takes place. Thanks, "DoctorMemory".

On January 25, I decided to turn off comments for this article.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

VES Announces Nominations for 15th VES Awards

The Visual Effects Society has announced the nominees for the 15th VES Awards. The nominees were determined by VES members who participated in the nomination judging process.

The leading nomination earner for feature films was "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" with six nominations. Next up with five nominations was "The Jungle Book" and "Doctor Strange".

Earning two nominations were "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" and "Deepwater Horizon". Earning a single nomination this year were "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children", "Allied", "Jason Bourne", "Silence", "Sully", "Warcraft", "Deadpool:, "Star Trek Beyond", "Alice Through the Looking Glass", "Independence Day: Resurgence" and "X-Men Apocalypse".

Of the ten films invited to the Academy bake-off this year, "Arrival", "Passengers", "Captain America: Civil War" and "The BFG" did not earn any VES nominations, while "Kubo and the Two Strings" earned six nominations in animated feature categories.

Listed below are all of the live-action feature film categories. To see all of the nominees, visit The Hollywood Reporter'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
Stephane Ceretti, Susan Pickett, Richard Bluff, Vincent Cirelli, Paul Corbould

Christian Manz, Olly Young, Tim Burke, Pablo Grillo, David Watkins

Frazer Churchill, Hal Couzens, Andrew Lockley, Jelmer Boskma, Hayley Williams

John Knoll, Erin Dusseault, Hal Hickel, Nigel Sumner, Neil Corbould

Robert Legato, Joyce Cox, Andrew R. Jones, Adam Valdez, JD Schwalm

Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature
Kevin Baillie, Sandra Scott, Brennan Doyle, Viktor Muller, Richard Van Den Bergh

Craig Hammack, Petra Holtorf-Stratton, Jason Snell, John Galloway, Burt Dalton

Charlie Noble, Dan Barrow, Julian Gnass, Huw Evans, Steve Warner

Pablo Helman, Brian Barlettani, Ivan Busquets, Juan Garcia, R. Bruce Steinheimer

Michael Owens, Tyler Kehl, Mark Curtis, Bryan Litson, Steven Riley

Outstanding Animated Performance in a Photoreal Feature
Laurent Laban, Gabriel Beauvais-Tremblay, Luc Girard, Romain Rico

Sven Jensen, Jee Young Park, Steve Walton, Cyrus Jam

Paul Story, Dennis Yoo, Jack Tema, Andrei Coval

Benjamin Jones, Julio Del Rio Hernandez, Jake Harrell, James Hood

Sunny Wei, Brian Cantwell, Brian Paik, Jee Young Park

Outstanding Created Environment in a Photoreal Feature
DEADPOOL; Freeway Assault
Seth Hill, Jedediah Smith, Laurent Taillefer, Marc-Antoine Paquin

Brendan Seals, Raphael A. Pimentel, Andrew Zink, Gregory Ng

Adam Watkins, Martijn van Herk, Tim Belsher, Jon Mitchell

Enrico Damm, Kevin George, Olivier Vernay-Kim, Yanick Dusseault

Outstanding Virtual Cinematography in a Photoreal Project
DOCTOR STRANGE; New York Mirror Dimension
Landis Fields, Mathew Cowie, Frederic Medioni, Faraz Hameed

GAME OF THRONES; Battle of the Bastards
Patrick Tiberius Gehlen, Michelle Blok, Christopher Baird, Drew Wood-Davies

John Levin, Euisung Lee, Steve Ellis, Barry Howell

Bill Pope, Robert Legato, Gary Roberts, John Brennan

Outstanding Model in a Photoreal or Animated Project
DEEPWATER HORIZON; Deepwater Horizon Rig
Kelvin Lau, Jean Bolte, Kevin Sprout, Kim Vongbunyong

Paul Giacoppo, Gareth Jensen, Todd Vaziri, James Tooley

Jay Machado, Marko Chulev, Akira Orikasa, Steven Knipping

Daniel Nicholson, Rhys Salcombe, Chris Elmer, Andreas Maaninka

Outstanding Effects Simulations in a Photoreal Feature
Klaus Seitschek, Joseph Pepper, Jacob Clark, Cosku Turhan

DOCTOR STRANGE; Hong Kong Reverse Destruction
Florian Witzel, Georges Nakhle, Azhul Mohamed, David Kirchner

Miguel Perez Senent, Matt Puchala, Ciaran Moloney, Luca Mignardi

THE JUNGLE BOOK; Nature Effects
Oliver Winwood, Fabian Nowak, David Schneider, Ludovic Ramisandraina

Outstanding Compositing in a Photoreal Feature
Matthew Lane, Jose Fernandez, Ziad Shureih, Amy Shepard

Mathew Giampa, Adrian Sutherland, Daniel Lee, Ed Wilkie

Christoph Salzmann, Masaki Mitchell, Matthew Adams, Max Stummer

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE; Quicksilver Rescue
Jess Burnheim, Alana Newell, Andy Peel, Matthew Shaw