It has been argued that the Oscar for visual and digital effects is the great democratizer of the awards season. It’s perhaps the only category wherein you’ll find movies as diverse as The Matrix and Star Wars up against new-age classics such as The Lord of the Rings competing for the same prize with an equal shot at becoming Academy Award-winning films.
With this in mind, let’s take a stroll down movie memory lane by looking at some of the best Oscar-winning digital effects in our favourite movies since the turn of the century.
When James Cameron’s Avatar was released in 2009, it quickly became a game changer within the digital and visual effects world. Creating a live-action film using a new “director-centric” framework developed by the famed Rob Legato, Cameron was able to see and shoot everything that existed in the virtual world on a motion capture stage with the actors, whilst using the Simulcam. With this, he was able to assess how the actors’ CG characters interacted with the CG alien world of Pandora in real time, effectively merging digital with live action.
The CG character animation of the bioluminescent species was developed through the workflow created by New Zealand-based Weta Digital, who focused on a new level of building characters through facial solves and tracking. Perhaps most impressive is that Weta hand-painted everything to ensure its quality and uniformity in 3D space.
The combination of these methods took photo reality to a whole new level, raising the bar for digital and visual effects.
Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity has been harkened as the 2001: A Space Odyssey of the 21st Century. The opening shot and succeeding celestial scenes, including the exploratory shots of Sandra Bullock’s character floating in space are beacons of digital and visual effects success. The London-based firm, Framestore, developed new techniques for the movie’s digital and visual effects including the construction of the LED Light Box. Remarkably, everything in the movie was animated ahead of time, and the faces of Bullock and her co-star, George Clooney, were superimposed afterwards into the virtual environments. In fact, even their spacesuits and helmets were CG.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Peter Jackson arguably saved the best visual and digital effects for last when it comes to his Lord of the Rings trilogy. In fact, the final installment of his series includes 1,488 visual effects shots. These shots go on to create one of the most epic and jaw-dropping battles in movie history, as well as intimate and thoughtful details that were uncommon to see in movies this early in the century. In addition, Andy Serkis’ portrayal of Gotham is perhaps one of the most nuanced performances of a digital character. This animation and CG came courtesy of Weta, who continue to push the boundaries of digital and visual effect design.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Fun fact for those who didn’t know, but Brad Pitt, the actor who plays the leading character of the film’s namesake, doesn’t actually appear on screen until about one hour into the movie. The elderly man in his 70s, 80s and then 60s is simply a visage from the neck up, created through “emotion capture” which was a technique developed exclusively for this film. In addition to the treatment of Pitt’s character, the film contends with his co-star, Cate Blanchett’s character, aging eight decades; a supporting character sustaining seven strikes of lighting; and a double appearance of a reverse-zooming hummingbird. Needless to say, the level of detail put into the visual and digital effects of this movie are astonishing.
Perhaps one of the most thought-provoking and down-right confusing movies of the decade, Christopher Nolan’s Inception made great use of digital and visual effects to bring his chaotic, virtual world come to life. From the dizzying shootout in the confines of a room that turns upside down, to the constant maze-like maneuverings of entire cityscapes that seem to collapse and contract seamlessly, this film is a visual spectacle.
These films, alongside countless other Oscar winners in this category, should serve as inspiration for any current or budding digital effects designer. If you consider yourself a creative, an artist and someone who can navigate the ever-changing field of technology, then a career in digital effects design may be for you.
Check out CMU’s Digital Effects course to supplement your knowledge and kick-start your career in this exciting field.