“Avatar: The Way of Water” is too much of a juggernaut to lose the VFX Oscar — and senior VFX supervisor Joe Letteri from Wētā FX made a persuasive case for why it’s the frontrunner during Saturday’s “bake-off” at the Academy Museum, where Visual Effects Branch members watched presentations and Q&A sessions that will help determine the five nominees set to be announced January 24. Instead, the big question surrounding the category has been whether or not the high-flying “Top Gun: Maverick” has the right stuff to get nominated: Its VFX team, led by production supervisor Ryan Tudhope, was under a strict press blackout until the bake-off.
That’s because the marketing campaign (per actor-producer Tom Cruise and director Joseph Kosinski) has stayed on message about the amazing aerial photography and stunt work featuring Cruise flying in the cockpit of Navy fighter jets, with real g-force. The intention of Paramount and the “Maverick” team was always to wait until the shortlist submission to finally provide the compulsory three-minute behind-the-scenes reel (with before-and-after comparisons), 10-minute clip reel, and effects descriptions to qualify for Oscar consideration. This prevented Tudhope from doing any interviews explaining the crucial role of the supplemental VFX — which totaled 2,400 shots (principally from Method, now part of Framestore) — and how it was seamlessly integrated into the thrilling aerial sequences. Any reported stories from the filmmakers on the role of the VFX or detailed BTS footage have been highly anticipated, yet entirely absent; before Tudhope’s bake-off presentation, the best source for information on the scope of VFX work within “Maverick” — from CG aircraft to the digital removal of the jets’ pilots — was this Reddit thread.
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This kind of lengthy embargo is very unusual, particularly for a summer blockbuster with its eye on making the VFX shortlist, and IndieWire has learned that it frustrated not only the “Maverick” VFX team, but also some members of the VFX industry at large. Of course, the immersive, photographic work with intimate POV — led by Oscar-frontrunning cinematographer Claudio Miranda, and his innovative Sony Rialto Camera Extension System — should take precedence. But this notion that everything was in-camera and all practical is purely a myth.
When the big moment arrived on Saturday, Tudhope raised the curtain: he explained the challenges and accomplishments over the silent BTS reel, which contained aerial photography, air-to-air tests, digital re-skinning textures to make one fighter look like another, and digital pyro. This was followed by a well-edited clip reel that encapsulated the high degree of photographic realism and IMAX-level spectacle in the training maneuvers and seemingly impossible bomber mission.
Then Tudhope and his team took questions from Visual Effects Branch chairman Rob Bredow (senior vice present, chief creative officer of Industrial Light & Magic), Visual Effects Branch governor Brooke Breton (co-producer of “Avatar”), and Visual Effects Branch governor Paul Debevec (director of research at Netflix). They elaborated in more detail about the shot design collaboration for “frenetic energy and clarity,” camera tracking using GPS, special gimbal work to fill in the gaps, and referencing missile tests for the CG explosions.
Although the BTS reel was light on before/afters in comparison to the others, it accomplished its mission. According to one member, “for mostly photographic work, the effects were effective.” The overall presentation did justice to the film as well. Was it enough to convince voters to nominate “Maverick”? The consensus at the post-bakeoff reception was apparently yes. Another member told IndieWire: “The two definite nominations are ‘Avatar’ and ‘Top Gun’…excellent, top quality work. The rest is a little up in the air.”
Others queried were particularly high on the presentations for “The Way of Water,” “The Batman,” and “Nope,” which pulled back the curtain more explicitly on their unique work: the underwater performance capture and new muscle-based facial animation innovations on the “Avatar” sequel; virtually matching the silicone-coated lensing of Oscar-winning cinematographer Greig Fraser on the DC reboot; and enhancing Hoyte van Hoytema’s ingenious infrared and 65mm day-for-night cinematography on Jordan Peele’s horror thriller with depth pass, CG shadows, and other subtle details.
But there was also praise for “All Quiet on the Western Front,” with its great use of smoke and tanks as creatures, and “Thirteen Lives,” the real-life cave rescue film from Ron Howard, which poured massive amounts of water into tank sets and captured many shots in-camera. In fact, one member said it was the surprise of the bake-off. “Excellent and tasteful work.” Based on the reel, the member also liked “Jurassic World Dominion,” which touted lots of innovative animatronic dinos.
A few members, though, found it interesting that “The Way of Water,” “Wakanda Forever,” and “Thirteen Lives” all revolved around water, which made for fascinating comparisons. But they found it doubtful that there will be room enough for all three.