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Issue: January 1, 2012

Oscar Picks

By: Iain Blair
When it comes down to Oscar-worthy films, 2011 pretty much followed the usual trend — the end of the year was packed with such serious, prestige projects as The Descendants, The Artist, The Iron Lady, Shame, War Horse, J. Edgar, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Albert Nobbs, Carnage, The Ides of March, Moneyball, Hugo, My Week with Marilyn and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. 

By contrast, the first eight months or so offered far less in the way of serious contenders, apart from The Tree of Life, Midnight in Paris, The Help, Beginners and a little film called Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2.

Will Oscar, as usual, turn a blind eye to earlier releases in favor of the year-end log-jam? 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 last year was no exception as evidenced by wins for hot favorite and most-nominated (12) nominee The King’s Speech and director Tom Hooper. 
This year, it looks like some long-time Oscar favorites with proven track records will be amongst the potential nominees, along with some fresh faces.

Steven Spielberg has two, very different major year-end releases attracting Oscar buzz: War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin. The former, a period piece, which tells the harrowing story of Joey, a horse sent into the killing fields of World War I, was largely shot on location in England and France, and used extensive previs by The Third Floor. The latter, also a period piece, is based on the best-selling Belgian cartoon books, and is a 3D, CG-animated feature that makes extensive use of the latest performance capture systems and the talents of actors Daniel Craig, Andy Serkis and Jaimie Bell, who plays and voices the title hero. 

And while David Fincher’s thriller for the brain, The Social Network, was ultimately beaten last year by The King’s Speech, both the director and a new film, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, are getting great Oscar buzz this year. Based on the international best-seller by Stieg Larsson, written by Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List), and shot by Jeff Cronenweth, who lensed Fight Club and The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a suspenseful, violent and downright creepy tale of a crusading Swedish journalist (played by James Bond star Daniel Craig) and messed-up, but brilliant, hacker (Rooney Mara) as an odd couple who team up to solve an old murder mystery. After shooting with the Red One for the first time on The Social Network, Fincher and Cronenweth again shot with the Red. 

The arduous 160-day shoot included locations in Sweden, Norway, Switzerland and London, with interiors being shot on stage at the Paramount lot and Red Studios Hollywood. Out of the 160-day shoot, the DP estimates that over 120 days were shot on the Red One with the MX chip. “As more cards became available and the workflow became more simplified, from the Epic to Red Rocket software and the ability to have it done by your own editorial staff, we migrated to using the Epics more,” reports Cronenweth. At press time, Fincher was still deep in post and the final mix. (See Post’s November cover story on www.postmagazine.com.)



Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2, the acclaimed climactic final chapter in the decade-long cinematic series, conjures up an equally dark, dangerous and ominous world, and may get some Oscar love for director David Yates and DP Eduardo Serra, who shot the last two Potter films back-to-back. Serra shot the film on Arri cameras with Cooke lenses, and says that, “I have always been at ease to play with the darkness in my other cinematographies, but most of the times this creates some resistance from the film director or producers. What I loved about the last film is that David pushed me to go dark, which all cinematographers love to do, so I was happily surprised that he and David Haymman and David Barron (the producers) were willing to make sure that we created nights as dark as possible, and the darkness was important for this last episode of the Harry Potter saga.” 

He also notes that while the only Harry Potter film to be released in 3D wasn’t shot in 3D, the conversion to 3D in post made it look “even darker than it was.” Serra also had to contend with a multitude of night shoots and omnipresent visual effects work. “We had so much greenscreen work, in almost every scene,” he reports. “We had plates and everybody was on the same stage.”  

Stressing the role of post in the production, Serra says he has “always been very involved in post. For me it is a major part of my responsibility. On this I shared my work with Peter Doyle, a magic colorist, and we did the post at the Leavesden Studios, near London. The night scenes in the forest are very dark, and we worked on actors’ faces in post production only.” Summing up, the DP says, “I find the film beautiful with its dark, gothic and magic atmosphere.”

There’s period and retro, and then there’s The Artist, a silent film so retro that it may appeal to the very oldest Academy voters without any sense of irony involved. Shot in B&W, with no dialogue, the French period piece about a ‘20s silent film star whose career collapses with the advent of talkies was predictably a crowd-pleaser and critical success at Cannes last year (Jean Dujardin in the title role won Best Actor). Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius shot his homage to silent films at Red Studios Hollywood, and DP Guillaume Schiffman shot the film in 500 ASA color on Panavision cameras. The color was then converted to B&W in post in Paris.



Oscar-winner Clint Eastwood (see Post’s exclusive interview with the director in on page 12 of this issue) teamed with Leonardo DiCaprio to make J. Edgar, a biopic (a perennial Oscar favorite genre) about J. Edgar Hoover, America’s top cop for five decades who helped create the FBI. Co-starring Naomi Watts and Armie Hammer (The Social Network), the film traces Hoover’s life from childhood to his death in 1972, and DiCaprio’s aging make-up and prosthetics could well earn an Oscar nod on its own. Eastwood once again teamed with such regular collaborators as DP Tom Stern, who teamed with Eastwood on Invictus, Gran Torino and Changeling among others, and editors Joel Cox (Oscar-winner for Unforgiven) and Gary Roach. The DI was done at Technicolor. (See our interview with Joel Cox in the December issue of Post.)

Alexander Payne shot his new film, The Descendants, starring George Clooney, entirely on location in Hawaii (see our interview with director Payne in the November issue), while Oscar-winner Roman Polanski, whose much-admired The Ghost Writer was snubbed last year, may be back in the race this year with Carnage, which was filmed in Paris. Based on the Broadway hit and Tony-winner God of Carnage, and boasting an Oscar-winning cast (Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and Jodie Foster), the film and its absurdist comedy is a perfect fit for the director, and was once again shot by DP Pawel Edelman, who was Oscar-nominated for his work on Polanski’s The Pianist, and who also shot Oscar-winner Ray.

Besides the front-runners, there are several other, critically acclaimed if lesser-seen, contenders that are also possibly being considered by voters, including The Tree of Life, an ambitious, enigmatic movie starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, directed by the equally enigmatic and ambitious — and highly respected — Terrence Malick. The director is notoriously press-shy about discussing his work, but his longtime co-producer, Nicolas Gonda, reports that post on the film took some 18 months to complete. “We were based primarily at our offices in Austin, Texas, and then toward the end we went to LA for all the finishing,” he says. “Laser Pacific did a lot of the digital finishing, and we did the DI at EFilm with Steve Scott. We did all our answer printing and photochemical processes with Jim Passen at Deluxe. We did our sound mix at The Lot and worked very closely with our mixer Craig Burkie, who does all of our films.”

The Tree of Life marks the first DI for the team, and Gonda says that the experience was “terrific — Steve Scott’s a true artist, and so is Brian McMann at Laser. We’ve worked with both of them before in different capacities, so they became an extension of our core post team and were able to bring their intuition and inspiration to the film, as well as their technical expertise. So it was a great collaboration.” 
And four years after Juno scored several Oscar nominations for director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody (who won), the team is back with Young Adult, a black comedy starring Oscar-winner Charlize Theron as a writer who tries to win back her now-married high-school sweetheart.

EDITING

Last year The Social Network walked away with the prize. This year, several notable contenders including Hugo, J. Edgar, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, The Artist, War Horse, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 and Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol look like possible nominations. 



Veteran editor Thelma Schoonmaker has cut all of Martin Scorsese’s films since 1980’s Raging Bull and has a great Oscar track record — six nominations for Best Editing and three wins, for Raging Bull, The Aviator and The Departed. Their latest collaboration, the family-friendly Hugo marks a change of pace for Scorsese, the master of gritty dramas — and the first 3D movie for both. The fantasy, set in ‘30s Paris, stars Ben Kingsley and Sacha Baron Cohen, and Schoonmaker reports that the greatest challenge of editing it was dealing with “all the 3D technical issues — how you project and finish it, and you have to be careful not to cut too quickly. But switching to 3D wasn’t that hard.” It helped that Scorsese had “a very planned-out concept for it, as he’d loved 3D since he was a kid, so he was thrilled to be able to make this,” she adds.

Hugo was shot at Shepperton Studios, England, and Schoonmaker set up an editing suite adjacent to the stage and began cutting right from the start. It also marked the team’s first all-digital production, as Scorsese has always shot on film before, even if they posted digitally. “So we had a digilab with a team working on the convergence of the two cameras, which all went on before I got the dailies,” she reports. As usual, Schoonmaker edited on Lightworks, which she’s used since Casino. “The British team of engineers upgraded it for 3D and were very helpful, so I could switch very quickly from 2D to 3D and back,” she notes. After a “long, very difficult shoot — the kids could only work four hours a day,” the team returned to New York in January 2010 and finished post and the sound mix by longtime Scorsese mixer Tom Fleischman at Sound Tracks in New York.

J. Edgar features complex cutting between eras and storylines spanning 50 years, courtesy of Clint Eastwood’s long-time editors Joel Cox (an Oscar-winner for Unforgiven) and Gary Roach, who’s worked with the director since 1996. (See our interview with Cox in the December issue.) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, with its twists and turns, is a showcase for editor Dino Jonsater, who cut director Tomas Alfredson’s acclaimed Let the Right One In, while Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows was edited by Guy Ritchie’s long-time editor James Herbert, and Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol was cut by veteran Paul Hirsch, who won the ’78 Oscar for his work on Star Wars. And let’s not forget last year’s Best Editor winners Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

ANIMATION

After a very strong 2010, where animated features such as Toy Story 3, Shrek Forever After, Despicable Me, Tangled and How to Train Your Dragon raked in both the critical plaudits and the cash (with over a billion worldwide, Toy Story 3 was the highest-grossing animated film ever — and the biggest film in the world last year), 2011 has turned out to be another strong year for animated features, both creatively and at the box office.

The biggest disappointment? Cars 2 failed to live up to (maybe too high) expectations, and while in previous years Pixar seems to have had a lock on the award (every Pixar film has been nominated since the category was introduced), this year may offer competitors a real chance to knock Pixar off its perch. 



Paramount’s Rango showcased state-of-the-art animation and visual effects by ILM, and was the first animated film for both ILM and Pirates of the Caribbean veteran Gore Verbinski (see Post’s exclusive interview with the director in the March 2011 issue). Applying all the post lessons he and VFX supervisor John Knoll had learned on the Pirates mega-franchise, Verbinski and his team built a hybrid digital pipeline that was both animation and visual effects. Verbinski describes the result as like one big post process. “It’s really open-format, and I think this collision of gaming and live action and animation is changing the way films are made. Often now, before I have a screenplay for a movie, I’ll have story room, or location photos and bits of character design, and pin it all up. The idea of narrative being informed by visuals and storyboards and text is exciting, and there are a lot of thumbprints on the sculpture by the time you’re done with it.”

The Adventures of Tintin has all the right ingredients — superstar director Steven Spielberg finally making his first ever animated film, ground-breaking 3D motion capture (based on Jim Cameron’s dazzling animation process developed for Avatar), The Lord of the Rings’ Peter Jackson producing, and Daniel Craig, Jaimie Bell and Andy Serkis doing voiceovers. Universally glowing reviews and huge box office overseas — where it was strategically released first — only increase its chances.

The irresistible Carnival vibe of Rio, the 3D CG extravaganza from director Carlos Saldanha (the Ice Age franchise) and Blue Sky, was a $484 million global hit and capitalized both on native son Saldanha’s familiarity with the city and the filmmakers’ drive “to explore a world and place that hadn’t been done yet,” he explains. “As I was writing, I was thinking about how Ratatouille used Paris so well, so why not Rio? It’s so photogenic and exotic. And then everything — the animation palette, the design, the music — all just flowed naturally from that.” But with tropical birds — and their colorful plumage — front and center, Rio’s first big challenge was creating realistic feathers. Saldanha and his team developed a lot of proprietary technology, including a special tool called Voxel. “Instead of just having one hair follicle, we had one that sprouts out to many, creating the impression of a feather,” he reports. And for the bodies, “we did a lot of controls to simulate the wind and all the elements.” Saldanha and his team also had to animate a lot of costumes with feathers, as well as scenes with huge crowds. “The Carnival parade has over 40,000 characters, so there was a lot of technical work to make sure it all rendered and looked right,” he says. “It’s a constant evolution of tools, some of which we built for the Ice Age films.”

Then there’s Happy Feet 2, George Miller’s 3D sequel to ‘06’s Oscar-winning $385 million grossing Happy Feet. The popular penguin dance party teams Robin Williams with Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, throws in newcomers Sofia Vergara, Pink and rapper Common, and again showcases an eco-sensitive plot. The animation was created by Dr. D Studios, and Oscar-nominated animation director Rob Coleman (Star Wars: Attack of the Clones) reports that the film used a special review tool, “that allows me to see my team’s animation cut in with the lensing, the lighting and effects work. That was a great piece of integration technology put together specifically for this film.” Coleman speaks for all the animation projects when he says, “The software has gotten better, but also the smarts. With things like the rendering, the feathers, fur, eyes and snow — all is a marked improvement, thanks to the many people in R&D, IT and software departments.”

Another hit sequel, DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda 2, is also in the race. Following the ’08 $631 million global smash Kung Fu Panda, and starring an Oscar-friendly cast that includes Angelina Jolie and Dustin Hoffman, the well-received sequel earned $653 million worldwide — making it the highest-grossing film ever directed by a woman, Jennifer Yuh — who won an Annie for her work on the first film. Another DreamWorks film, Puss in Boots, was beautifully animated in 3D. This hit prequel to the Shrek films stars Antonio Banderas as the title character in full Zorro/Latin lover mode, and was directed by Shrek 3’s Chris Miller. The $130 million production features the vocal talents of Salma Hayek as Kitty Softpaws and Zach Galifianakis as Humpty Dumpty. 

VISUAL EFFECTS  

Oscar has usually gone for the truly spectacular in this category, and movies such as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Hugo, Cowboys & Aliens, Captain America, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Super 8, Sucker Punch, Thor, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, The Adventures of Tintin, X-Men: First Class, Real Steel and The Tree of Life are all spectacular, albeit in very different ways.

The wonder and origin of life as opposed to the destruction of the apocalypse informs the ambitious, enigmatic The Tree of Life, directed by the equally enigmatic and ambitious Terrence Malick, and shot by his New World DP Emmanuel Lubezki, a four-time Oscar nominee (including for New World). Scenes depict the Big Bang and the first single-celled life forms on Earth as well as dinosaurs, and were overseen by senior visual effects supervisor Dan Glass (Batman Begins, the Matrix franchise). “We never used other films as references — it was photos, art pieces, and discussing our travels,” the DP says, “and Terry wanted it all to look as real as possible, so the dinosaur scenes are only 15 to 20 percent CGI — the rest is real.”

The DP, who shot Tree on Arri cameras and master primes (“for that crisp, clean look”), says the biggest challenge was dealing with the DI and all the complex visual effects, “especially for the natural history part of the film. The DI took many months, because Terry had shot some of the visual effects plates 20 years ago, such as the fetus sequence, and some of the negative hadn’t been preserved very well, and matching the lighting for the dinosaurs and the plates was very difficult. So we had Dan Glass and all the animators discussing the light and how to make it look realistic on film. It was a whole catalog of problems.”

Those problems were ultimately solved by a team headed by visual effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey) at ‘Skunkworks,’ based in Austin, along with effects from Prime Focus VFX, Double Negative. One Of Us, Method Studios, Evil Eye Pictures and others. Image processing was by Lowry Digital.

Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol features some stunning visual effects work by ILM, including scenes set at the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, located in Dubai, and sand storms. All the work was supervised by ILM veteran John Knoll, Oscar-winner for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Additional effects work was done by Fuel VFX. And Transformers: Dark of the Moon featured an army of VFX artists and technicians from Legend 3D, ILM, Digital Domain, Prime Focus and several other companies. Digital Domain also helped bring Real Steel’s robots to life. Erik Nash was the studio’s VFX supervisor.

SOUND DESIGN, MIXING AND SCORES

As with visual effects, Oscar has usually gone for the most splashy in the sound design and mixing categories — last year’s big winner was Inception — and likely contenders include Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, showcasing sound design by Gary Rydstrom, along with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, with The Descendants, War Horse, J. Edgar, Carnage, The Ides of March and Hugo also possibly in the running. 



But it’s not just the big live-action films that showcase sound. Ironically, retro silent film The Artist relies on an inspired score by Ludovic Bource, recorded at the Bijloke Studio in Brussels with 80 musicians from the Flanders Philharmonic. “It was a wonderful experience for me, and now I want to do another silent film,” he says. “It was just so magical.” 

2011 was a busy year for Spanish composer Alberto Iglesias; first, he scored Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In, a crazy modern opera stuffed full of sex, murder, rape, revenge — and plastic surgery, along with serious themes about the nature of identity and creation. Then he switched gears and scored the bleak spy thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (both were done at Air Studios, London). Stephen Griffiths and Andy Shelley were the supervising sound editors, and Howard Bargroff and Doug Cooper were the re-recording mixers on the film at De Lane Lea. 

Sound also played a “key role” in Gnomeo and Juliet, the garden-gnomes-meet-Shakespeare mash-up, reports director/co-writer Kelly Asbury. “We had this great score by Elton John, but we were still surprised just how big and crucial a role all the sound work played in creating this totally believable world. Glenn Freemantle and his team worked diligently during our post production in London to contribute a sound that perfectly captures the heightened reality that these gnomes live in.”