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Issue: January 1, 2011

Post's Best Bets For Oscar Gold

By: Iain Blair
Maybe it’s an illustration of that old saw, ‘Out of sight, out of mind,’ or maybe it’s just human nature to pay most attention to what’s right in front of us. Either way, the biggest number of Academy Award nominees have usually come from the raft of prestigious films that Hollywood typically saves for the end of the year. In fact, last year, more than half of 2009’s nominees for Best Picture were released in the final few months of the year. As the 83rd Academy Awards approach, it’ll be interesting to see if that pattern persists.

So far, it looks very likely, with such late and year-end releases as 127 Hours, The King’s Speech, True Grit, Another Year, Black Swan, Hereafter, The Fighter, Blue Valentine, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and The Social Network all looking like strong contenders in various categories. But can Oscar turn a blind eye to such acclaimed earlier releases as Shutter Island, Toy Story 3, Inception, Get Low, Alice In Wonderland, Winter’s Bone and even Iron Man 2? Impossible to tell, but with all that in mind, we now look into our crystal ball and present our annual top-picks list of likely nominees.

BEST PICTURE/BEST DIRECTOR

These high-profile awards usually go hand-in-hand (over 80 percent of the time in the past four decades), and often go to the underdog rather than the biggest gorilla in the room, as evidenced by last year’s wins for The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, which shut out James Cameron and Avatar, the biggest-grossing movie in history.

This year may see a scaled-down version of that scenario, even though two possible contenders — Toy Story 3 and Alice in Wonderland — each made over a billion dollars worldwide, closely followed by Inception ($815 million) and Shrek Forever After ($734 million). Of course, the Academy has always followed its own drummer, placing art above commerce, and this year it looks like some longtime Oscar favorites with proven track records will be amongst the potential nominees, along with some fresh faces.

Chris Nolan’s Inception, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is his first sci-fi film, a mind-bending tale of dream thieves that he scripted. That, with its $160 million budget and locations ranging from Britain and Japan to France and Morocco, combines the huge scale of his Batman films with the visual and cerebral trickiness of Memento and 2002’s Insomnia. (See our interview with director Nolan in the August issue). It was shot by his go-to DP Wally Pfister, who has scored three Oscar noms for his work with Nolan — for Batman Begins, The Prestige and The Dark Knight. Maybe the fourth time’s the charm.

There’s also great buzz around David Fincher’s thriller for the brain, The Social Network. With a razor-sharp script by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) and starring a great ensemble cast that includes Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake, it was shot on Red One by Jeff Cronenweth, who also shot Fight Club, much of it in the real Harvard and Boston locations of the story’s setting.

  “It was my first HD movie,” says the DP. “I’d shot music videos and commercials with the Red, and I loved doing a feature with it. It allowed Fincher and me to really push the envelope, and we used Arri master primes shooting wide open most of the time to give it more depth of field.” The team did their DI at Red Studios in Hollywood. “They have a Sony projector and [Quantel] Pablo color corrector on Stage 4, and LightIron did all the DI corrections for us, and it was an eye-opening way of doing it for me.”

With a tight budget of just $20 million, 127 Hours, Danny Boyle’s follow-up to his multi-Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire (it won eight, including Best Picture and Best Director), is another thriller — of a very different sort. There’s nothing social here — just a lone hiker (James Franco) trapped by a boulder in a tight, lonely canyon in Utah, who is forced to cut off his own arm in order to survive. Based on the real-life story of Aron Ralston, 127 Hours is a riveting suspense story shot by frequent Boyle DPs, Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog) and Enrique Chediak (28 Weeks Later).

Clint Eastwood shot his new film, Hereafter, starring Matt Damon, on location in Hawaii (which doubles for Indonesia), London, Paris and the Alps. This Babel-esque tale about near-death experiences was shot by DP Tom Stern, who teamed with Eastwood on Invictus, Gran Torino and Changeling, among others. The director has never let the grass grow under his feet, and what’s striking about his latest film is his embrace of the latest in visual effects artistry to help tell his story (see the Visual Effects section below). Oscar-winner Roman Polanski shot much of The Ghost Writer, his latest stylish, menacing and pulpy film, in Germany even though it’s set largely in Martha’s Vineyard. His DP, Pawel Edelman, was Oscar-nominated for his work on Polanski’s The Pianist, and also shot Oscar-winner Ray.

There are several other much smaller-scale contenders that are being talked up by critics and fans, including British director Mike Leigh’s latest and aptly titled Another Year (see our interview with him on page 14 of this issue), which features a truly heartbreaking, devastating performance by Leigh regular Lesley Manville as a lonely alcoholic that deserves to be nominated. Then there’s Aaron Schneider’s  Get Low, Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and several releases that, at press time, had yet to be screened — festival darling Blue Valentine, starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling; How Do You Know directed by James L. Brooks; Black Swan directed by Darren Aronofsky; the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit, starring Matt Damon and last year’s Best Actor winner Jeff Bridges; and The King’s Speech, directed by TV miniseries vet Tom Hooper (Elizabeth 1), which is getting big Oscar buzz for star Colin Firth and Hooper. Ben Affleck is also getting Oscar traction for directing The Town, as is Lisa Cholodenko for The Kids Are Alright. And don’t count out Peter Weir for The Way Back or David O. Russell for The Fighter, which is also getting great reviews and major buzz.

EDITING

Several films look likely to get nominated, including The Social Network, which features the story of how Facebook was born, intercut with a pair of deposition hearings, thanks to deft work from editors Kirk Baxter (pictured, Benjamin Button) and Angus Wall (Benjamin Button, Zodiac, Panic Room).

They report that the greatest challenge of editing it “was to live up to the script and to maximize the great performances we were working with,” says Wall. “There was a tremendous amount of material and we had to be very diligent in making sure we used every nuanced performance possible. The movie is fairly breathless and so was the process of putting it together. We worked out of David Fincher’s offices in Hollywood and used Apple Final Cut Pro to edit the film.”

Harry Potter vet Mark Day (he cut Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince) may be in the running for his work on the The Deathly Hallows: Part 1, the first of the two-part franchise finale (he’s currently also cutting Part 2, which arrives next year).

Inception, with its many layers of dream states coupled with visceral action sequences, presented Nolan and editor Lee Smith, who previously collaborated with him on the Batman films and The Prestige, with “a big challenge.” Nolan reports that the team cut the film on Avid on the lot at Warners. The super-tense — and intense — drama 127 Hours may emulate last year’s tense winner, The Hurt Locker, thanks to its unblinking focus, courtesy of Boyle and editor Jon Harris, whose credits include Kick-Ass, The Descent franchise and Layer Cake.

127 Hours co-producer Christian Colson reports that all the editing and post was done at The Hat Factory in London where he, Boyle and Harris are based. “We cut it very quickly,” he says. “We shot in Utah in March and April, moved back to London and cut through the summer in time to premiere at Telluride in September. So it was a very fast edit and post schedule.”
Tony Scott’s latest adrenaline rush, Unstoppable, showcases fast-paced editing from Robert Duffy and Chris Lebanzon, both are frequent Scott collaborators. “It seemed like every corner we turned a new set of challenges presented itself,” says Duffy. “The one constant was keeping up with Tony! I don’t think he sleeps. At first it was dealing with the amount of film that would arrive to the cutting room. Tony likes to shoot. Narrowing down your options was the first hurdle. We set up the cutting rooms at Scott Free. We were on Avids, Mac-based. Half-way through the project we upgraded to Version 5, a seamless transition.”

ANIMATION

It’s been another very strong year for animated features, both creatively and at the box office, where such animated features as Toy Story 3, Shrek Forever After, Despicable Me, Tangled and How to Train Your Dragon all easily outperformed competing live-action features. Indeed, with its universally glowing reviews and huge box office — $414 million domestic, and over a billion worldwide making it the highest-grossing animated film ever — it’s hard to imagine that Toy Story 3 won’t rack up another win for Pixar, following last year’s triumph for Up. Insiders say that the film even deserves a Best Picture nod, which makes sense considering that while it’s been over a decade since Woody, Buzz and the rest of the gang last delighted audiences, the franchise continues to dazzle the eyes with its spectacular CG animation while also managing to explore emotional and weighty themes of change and growing up in a film more than worthy of the other two. (See our interview with director Lee Unkrich in the July issue). But although Pixar seems to have a lock on the award, even Oscar voters like occasional change and they may want to loosen the apparent stranglehold that Disney-Pixar has over the category (amazingly, every Pixar film has been nominated since the category was introduced).

Toy Story 3 does face competition from some very different animated features, including Shrek Forever After, the fourth and final chapter in a classic series from DreamWorks Animation, which also joined the 3D craze. Released back in May, the epic fairy tale returned to its green roots with a reboot that had Shrek (Mike Myers) yearning to take a break from marriage and fatherhood so he could revisit the good old days of being a truly scary bachelor ogre. The result? Another $240 million domestic take, and over $460 million internationally in the kitty. Back in April, DreamWorks Animation also released How to Train Your Dragon, a clever tale about a Viking teen who befriends a dragon that referenced classic precursors Old Yeller and King Kong with Harry Potter overtones. Mixing a visually beautiful palette with kinetic action that takes full advantage of its 3D digital format, the film also has a great message — ignorance breeds fear and vice versa — that helped make this a global hit (close to $300 million overseas) and a strong contender for an Oscar nomination.

Very different in tone is Despicable Me from Universal, which has watched from the sidelines while the likes of Pixar (bought by Disney for a staggering $7.4 billion), Fox (whose last Ice Age sequel grossed $885 million) and DreamWorks Animation have hogged the limelight over the past few years. The film is an inspired international collaboration with ingredients that include Ice Age producer Chris Melendandri (hired away from Fox), French directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin, and animation by the French visual effects house Mac Guff Ligne. The result is a rich goulash that tips its hat to the Bela Lugosi classics, thanks to Steve Carrell’s Eastern European accent as Gru, the heartless thief who morphs into a doting dad. Throw in Julie Andrews’ plummy English tones and you get a smart, funny and charming 3D kiddie tale that got rave reviews and which turned into a huge $250 million hit in the US.

Warner’s Legend of the Guardians: the Owls of Ga’hoole, based on the children’s book series, is a much darker tale — more like Animal Farm meets The Lord of the Rings by way of Braveheart. Directed by Zack Snyder, who does for owls and feathers what he did for Greeks and armor in 300, the film uses lush 3D animation from the team behind the ‘07 hit and Golden Globe-winner Happy Feet. Shot in Australia, it features voiceovers from such stars as Helen Mirren and Geoffrey Rush, but despite good reviews, it failed to ignite the box office.

Walt Disney Animation Studios had better results with its film Tangled, which took a big team of animators, software engineers and a new program, Dynamic Wires, to create the 70 feet of hair that trails behind Rapunzel.

DreamWorks Animation is also behind Megamind, a clever twist on all the comic superhero stories, where the super-villain both wins the day and gets the girl. Imagine a world where Lex Luthor defeats Superman and wins the heart of Lois Lane and you get some idea of how Megamind, which was directed in 3D by Madagascar helmer Tom McGrath and which features the voices of Will Ferrell, Brad Pitt, Tina Fey, David Cross and Jonah Hill, both pays homage to comic book conventions and subverts them at the same time.

Of course, not all the likely contenders are big-budget studio efforts. My Dog Tulip, based on the beloved 1956 memoir by British writer J.R. Ackerley about an adopted dog, was made by well-regarded filmmakers Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, who used French software TVPaint to create over 60,000 drawings and a painterly look to the film’s detailed post-war London settings that is very different from the shiny CG surfaces of other contenders. And an Oscar-friendly all-star cast (Christopher Plummer, Isabella Rossellini and the late Lynn Redgrave) for the voiceovers can’t hurt. Tales From Earthsea, directed by Goro Miyazaki, son of Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese master behind Ponyo, Princess Mononoke and Oscar-winner Spirited Away, features gorgeous dreamscapes, and the voices of Timothy Dalton and Willem Dafoe.

VISUAL EFFECTS

Oscar has always gone for the truly spectacular in this category. Recent winners include The Lord of the Rings franchise, Spider-Man 2 and Benjamin Button. While Avatar was the no-brainer win in this category last year, the picture looks less clear-cut this year. But Chris Nolan’s visual effects tour-de-force Inception probably has the edge. Nolan has always loved pushing the technical limits of filmmaking, as Inception perfectly demonstrates. All 500 visual effects were done by Double Negative in London, with Paul Franklin, who co-founded Double Negative, acting as the visual effects supervisor. Always a big fan of in-camera effects, the film combined a lot of unusual rigs — including several sets that could rotate 360 degrees for the famous “floating corridor” sequence — with CG.

But the new Fox 3D/2D release The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third in the franchise, might give Inception a run for its money. Directed by Michael Apted, who’s helmed such big studio hits as the Academy Award-winning Coal Miner’s Daughter, (see our interview with Apted in the December issue), the film has nearly 1,400 visual effects shots, which were divided up between five visual effects houses in London where post was based — MPC, which did 70 percent of the shots, Framestore, Cinesite, The Mill and The Senate. Overseeing all this was visual effects supervisor Angus Bickerton, whose credits include The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons. “It was a huge task, as we were dealing with animated characters such as Aslan and Reepicheep, all the water scenes, and the climactic battle at sea,” he reports.

It did help that Moving Picture Company had already created an animated Reepicheep for the last film. “That’s why we also went back to Framestore as they’d done Aslan before,” says Bickerton. “All their fur-rendering was further revised and improved from the last two films. But MPC had to deal with a huge amount of water effects for the Dawn Treader and sea serpent in the final battle scene.”

Apted and Bickerton agree that the most difficult effects sequence to do was the sea battle at the end, “which has been the last thing to arrive,” notes Apted. “It’s very heavily computer-driven, with all the water and the serpent and Reepicheep with the dragon and so on. It was tough to shoot, and we spent a lot of time — over 18 months — doing previz on it, as it had to be so precise, and there was a lot of 2nd unit work too and we were all doing bits and pieces of it and needed to keep it all in order. We had this massive real boat, but we did all the battle stuff in the studio, so we were in this sort of blue box with our big set, and slightly flying by the seat of our pants, as you didn’t really know what you were getting. All the stuff I shot and the 2nd unit was pretty minimal, and the real story was in all the visual effects. MPC did most of it. Then other places worked on the water, so that was tricky, when different vendors do different parts of the same shot.”

To create the seascapes, the team blended plates of the real ocean and a boat doubling for the Dawn Treader shot at sea with CG water using the latest versions of Flowline VFX by Scanline. “So we got real sea-plates with real water wake, and then put the CG Dawn Treader on top of those,” Bickerton explains. “So for the first 80 percent of the film, it’s all real water. Then the last two reels use CG water. MPC used Flowline for the big serpent battle, and The Mill, who did a few shots, used RealFlow software. Framestore created the giant standing wave at the end of the film using proprietary software.”

Iron Man 2 (the first was nominated in 2008) also features work by several houses, including ILM with visual effects supervisor Ben Snow, Double Negative, The Embassy, Hydraulx and Fuel VFX. Another likely contender, Tron: Legacy, showcases the work of Digital Domain, Digital Domain Vancouver, Mr. X and Ollin Studio, with Eric Barba (Benjamin Button, Zodiac) as the VFX supervisor.

Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter probably used more visual effects shots than all his other films combined, with contributing companies including Scanline VFX, Giant Studios and The Base Studio, along with a huge team of digital compositors, rotoscope artists, motion capture technicians and data wranglers. Together they created a terrifying tsunami and glimpses of the hereafter.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows predictably used an army of digital artists and such houses as MPC, Framestore, Double Negative, Rising Sun Pictures, Cinesite, Gradient Effects and Baseblack to bring all the on-screen magic to life, and Unstoppable features effects by Asylum and Pixel Liberation Front.

David Fincher has always used VFX quite subtly, and The Social Network’s tale of huge egos and massive duplicity is helped along by shots from such houses as Eden FX, Lola VFX, Ollin Studio and Outback Post. Lola’s VFX supervisor Edson Williams reports that the biggest challenge of the job was the fact that Fincher did not want to create a fully synthetic twin for Armie Hammer, who plays both Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss.

“He wanted to use the actual performance of Armie, and project Armie’s real face onto [body stand-in] Josh Pence’s body,” he reports. “This was an immense challenge because it had never been done before. We had to develop an entire new approach to face replacements in 60 days.” So how did they do it? “Lola created a lighting rig comprised of 12 computer controlled lights, that surrounded Armie,” he explains. “The timing and intensity of the lights were synced to the movements and lighting cues of Josh’s on-set performance, then we re-projected the animated lights onto Armie’s face as he delivered the dialogue seated in our lighting rig. It was like an ADR session at NASA.” Equipment used to do this included four Red cameras, a beam splitter, four Kino Flo 400s, eight Litepanel 1x1 bi-colors, a DMX controller and Qtake software.

SOUND DESIGN & MIXING

The Social Network’s rapid-fire dialogue, set mainly against noisy backdrops of college dorm rooms, parties and clubs, meant that Fincher’s team of sound guys — go-to supervising sound editor Ren Klyce, sound effects editors Larry Oatfield and David C. Hughes, and sound re-recording mixers David Parker and Michael Semanick — had their work cut out for them. Klyce reports that, “the biggest challenge was editing and mixing the dialogue. The rapid-fire pace of the picture made it tricky: We wanted to have all the words of Sorkin’s script be clearly understood, but also wanted the scenes to feel realistic. Blending the actors’ lines over the sound pressure of the music and background textures walked a fine line. We mixed the film on a Neve DFC at Skywalker Sound. The production was recorded digitally on a Zaxcom Deva and was edited on Pro Tools and Fairlight systems. Signal path never left digital domain, except in special instances where we needed to distort music (like the Ruby Skye club scene).”

Inception also presented big challenges in terms of its sound design (Warner’s Richard King) and mixing (via Skywalker Sound’s Gary Rizzo and Lora Hirschberg on Warner’s re-recording stage 9), as Nolan explains. “I like films where the music and the sound design, at times, are almost indistinguishable. One of the interesting things that happened early on is the Edith Piaf song [“Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”], which was always in the script. And right at the beginning of our post production process, I had to make the decision of, ‘Do I get the sound department or do I get the music department? Do I get Hans Zimmer (who scored Nolan’s two Batman epics) to manipulate that track until it sounds as if you’re hearing it through the dream, where it slows down and gets massive and all the rest?’ That was an interesting way to go.”

Ultimately, Nolan decided to give it to Zimmer, “and let him run with it and see if in some way it might inform elements of the score, because we talked in early conversations about how toward the action climax of the film, there was going to be a need for the score to interweave seamlessly with this source cue, which is an extremely difficult technical thing to do.”
Supervising sound editor and sound designer — and frequent Nolan collaborator — Richard King, along with Michael Mitchell, Bryan Watkins and Eric Potter, gave the film its haunting sound.

Skywalker Sound also worked on such diverse films as Iron Man 2 (sound editor Chris Boyes), Tron (sound editor Gwen Whittle), How To Train Your Dragon (sound editor Randy Thom) and Toy Story 3 (sound editor Tom Myers).
Unstoppable had many creative challenges, “not the least of which was making the trains sound real and believable,” reports Mark Stoeckinger, supervising sound editor. “Tony spent months around big powerful trains and wanted to recreate that awesome visceral feel sonically. Conveying speed and power were key. It was quite challenging to capture and create the weight of a train moving fast. When trains are running at the speeds which they are in the film, they are quite dangerous to be too close to, plus they lose that definition of the clack of the rail joints that really signify speed. Capturing useful sound for Unstoppable was like shooting a documentary on trains, where it might take hours of footage to capture the small bits that were truly exciting.”

All sound editing and creation work was done at Soundelux by Alan Rankin and Ann Scibelli. The soundtrack was mixed at Todd-AO Stage 1 by Kevin O’Connell and Beau Borders. The mix was done on a Euphonix console and edited on Pro Tools. Sound was recorded on Deva and Sound Devices recorders. “There were countless microphones used, but special mention is due to the DPA 5100 6-channel microphone, which helped us record true 5.1 recordings and help give that ‘you are there’ feel.” he adds.

Finally, The King’s Speech, the drama about King George VI and how he overcame a dreaded stutter, features the work of supervising sound editor Lee Walpole and sound editors and mixers Jim Goddard, Paul Hamblin, Catherine Hodgson and John Midgley. Iain Canning, co-producer of The King’s Speech, says that the British drama was partly backed by UK post house Molinare. “They were equity investors, so we did a post production deal with them and were based there. All the sound was a key part of the film, maintaining all of those clicks and silences, as the film’s about the gaps as much as it is about the words.”