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November 2014
Issue: January 1, 2013

Oscar Picks

By: Iain Blair
In terms of Oscar-worthy films, 2012 charted a familiar course — the first eight months of the year saw a handful of potential contenders, including The Dark Knight Rises, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Brave and Moonrise Kingdom, but it’s the final stretch where the studios stack up such serious, prestige projects (along with a few more light-hearted movies) as Lincoln, The Master, Anna Karenina, Hyde Park on Hudson, Argo, Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook, The Impossible, Flight, The Sessions, Zero Dark Thirty, Les Miserables, Skyfall, Hitchcock, The Hobbit and Django Unchained.

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/EDITING AND SOUND

It’s been 12 years since Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis, who has focused his energy on animated projects over the past decade, has made a live-action film. So Flight, a drama starring Denzel Washington about an airline pilot who avoids a crash, marks a welcome return to live action by the Forrest Gump and Cast Away auteur. It also marks a fresh collaboration with famed DP Don Burgess, who shot both those hit films and whose credits include such varied fare as Spider-Man and The Muppets.

Burgess, who shot on Red Epics, has long been a champion of integrating post elements prior to production. “I like to set the whole look of the film before we even start principal photography,” he states. For Flight, Burgess worked very closely with LA-based Light Iron Digital, with whom he first began collaborating with on The Muppets and again on his recently wrapped movie 42. “I’d take images shot on the Red Epic to their DI facility and put them up on the big screen, and then tweak the colors to create the look of the movie from a starting point,” he reports. “Then once I was on location, I had a set-up right there on the set where all the data is checked as soon as it’s been shot, and a look is also applied to those shots.”

From there, the data went to another workstation where it was cloned for the editor and all other necessary copies, and was then shipped back to Light Iron Digital for storage and post. “I like to set up a projection screen in a trailer where you can show dailies the next day at lunch,” he adds. “So the colorizing of all that is done entirely on set and on location, so that I can keep control of the pipeline and what that footage is going to look like to the studio, the editor and all the post people.”
Light Iron has cases and carts set up that they can send on location, “to do all that work and cloning, and to add the color look,” Burgess says, “so that made the whole workflow pretty trouble-free.” After three films together, “we have a very efficient pipeline, dealing with all the data and cloning and storage issues.”

Editor Jeremiah O’Driscoll, who first collaborated on Death Becomes Her and worked on Forrest Gump and Cast Away for Zemeckis, reports that, “This was so much easier than the motion capture projects we were doing — it was great to get back to live action.” The editor, who cut on Avid Media Composer, began the film on the Paramount lot while the film shot on location in Atlanta, “discussing the edit with Bob” via computer hook-up and teleconferencing. O’Driscoll then spent two weeks on location working with Zemeckis before moving the cutting room back to the director’s office in Carpenteria, CA. “The most difficult sequence to cut was actually the bit where Denzel’s character staggers around the house drunk,” notes the editor, “not any of the action scenes. It was just very tricky to trim down all the great material Denzel gave us to work with.” The final dub was done at Skywalker. 



With Argo as his third film as director (in which he also stars), Ben Affleck’s hostage rescue thriller tells the tale of six Americans who escaped the 1979 takeover of their embassy, and who were eventually smuggled out of the country in plain sight as part of a covert CIA operation. Part period drama/part political thriller/part spy story, the result has been getting its director strong Oscar buzz (see Post’s exclusive interview with the director in the November 2012 issue). Affleck shot in Istanbul, LA and Washington, DC, and reveals that during post, he got “a real education” in how visual effects (done by Method) could really help create the period piece.

“It’s always very tough doing stuff set in the recent past,” explains Affleck. “Luckily, I had great people, like Jackie West, who I stole from To the Wonder, the Terrence Malik film I was doing, and got her to come and do all the costumes. She understood that you don’t do Shaft with bell-bottoms and fur coats. You make it real and allow it to fade into the background. The paradox is that it feels more plausible and more realistic that way. One of the most interesting things is that we were doing a film set in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and using VFX technology that’s only been developed in the past six months, and all that helped us so much in creating a period piece. We could wipe off elements that weren’t period, reconfigure buildings and change signs — all the stuff you can’t really do without VFX. People are used to seeing effects being used for Harry Potter’s wand or magic, but they’re truly invisible in this film and that made it all far more convincing. 

“In particular,” continues Affleck, “we had to create Tehran from the ground up basically. We had some wide, establishing shots that were all VFX, as well as all the embassy shots and scenes. We had 2,000 people on one side of a wall, and on the other we had a soccer field, and we used VFX to turn that into the US embassy. Not only that, we were able to recreate it precisely, brick-for-brick. Pretty amazing! That was very interesting for me since I never went into this thinking that it would be a big effects movie in the end. But ultimately we had over 600 shots, and without them I probably couldn’t have made the film.”

Another Ben, Ben Lewin, is also getting Oscar buzz for Sundance Audience Award-winner The Sessions, the emotional yet ultra-realistic portrait of real-life poet and polio victim Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) who, confined to an iron lung, hired a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt). “Usually the big post challenge for me is getting over the shock of seeing the first assembly,” admits the Aussie director. “But this time I was very moved by it and realized, it’s not a repair job — be careful, it’s precious. Editor Lisa Bromwell and I knew it would be a performance-based piece that didn’t need an editing style so much as just refining the great performances we had.” Lewin, who “loves” the post process, and Bromwell edited on Avid Media Composer 5 in Lewin’s Santa Monica garage. 

“We did a six-week pass, took a break and then did another month,” he reports. “Then we did all the sound work over six weeks at Sonic Magic in Culver City, who were great. Sound is so important to me; I can get a sense of a film’s drift just by listening to it, without visuals, and I did a lot of sound work at film school. One of the great things about the Avid Media Composer 5 is the number of tracks you can work with simultaneously, and we could mini-mix all the way and get a total sense of the sound, which helped a lot with the pacing and specifics. For instance, the iron lung sound was quite complex, creating the right sound, and one of the real art forms of mixing is blending the production sound with ADR, so you can’t notice the difference. That’s quite a skill.” 

Summing up, Lewin notes that the film, “turned out better than I expected. We’d filmed a couple of fantasy sequences, but in the end we never even used them, as I felt they would just blunt the realistic tone the performances had established. That was a surprise to me.”

It’s sad but true: women directors rarely get any Oscar love, but that all changed in 2009 thanks to The Hurt Locker, the Iraq War bomb squad drama directed by Kathryn Bigelow, when the nail-biting suspenseful underdog shut out the biggest gorilla in the room, James Cameron’s Avatar, the top-grossing movie in history.
Now, Bigelow is back — and at press time getting more Oscar buzz — with another war drama, Zero Dark Thirty, the still-largely classified story of the decade-long hunt to find the world’s most wanted man: 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. Bigelow, who once again teamed with Mark Boal, assembled an impressive behind-the-camera team that included Aussie DP Greig Fraser (Snow White and the Huntsman, Killing Them Softly), who was interviewed on page 16 of this issue, and film editors William Goldenberg (who also cut Argo and won Oscars for The Insider and Seabiscuit) and Dylan Tichenor (whose credits include The Town, There Will Be Blood and Brokeback Mountain).

It was shot in far-flung locations, including India (which doubled for Pakistan), Jordan (which doubled for Afghanistan) and London, and with the film logistics mimicking the military operation they were recreating, Fraser and Bigelow opted to go digital and shoot with the Alexa — the first digital feature for both. 

As usual, the DP was “extremely involved” in the DI, which was done at Company 3 in Santa Monica. “I always like to be involved as much as possible, depending on time and availability, and another big plus of going digital was that there were no neg pulls that had to be scanned for the DI,” he says. “So it was a bit simpler for me to start the DI process very early.”

Hitchcock tells the story behind the legendary director’s 1960 masterpiece and taboo-breaking Psycho, and was directed by another Brit, Sacha Gervasi (Anvil!) “I love post because it all comes together in the edit and post,” he says. “That’s where, after the craziness of the shoot, you really get to shape the material and make the film.” It was cut on an Avid by Pamela Martin (The Fighter) on the Fox lot. “I loved what she did on The Fighter, and she did another brilliant job on this.” Like Argo, the film is a period piece, this time portraying LA in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, “which needed a lot of VFX to get right,” he says. “Furious FX did all the effect shots — several dozen — and I found the whole process fascinating.”

Calling the sound mix and score “crucial” to the film, he worked with famed mixers Doug Hemphill and Ron Bartlett — “two of the best in the business, who work with Ridley Scott, and who were also mixing Life of Pi at the same time, also on the Fox lot. But despite their crazy schedule, they gave it their all, because as with everyone else, this was a true labor of love that turned out even better than I had hoped.”

For his first feature, the acclaimed idiosyncratic, magical realist fable Beasts of the Southern Wild, director Benh Zeitlin used VFX to create prehistoric aurochs and reteamed with Ben Richardson, the British DP who shot it on 16mm and first met Zeitlin while living in Prague, and then collaborated on his short film Glory At Sea. “It took four years to make Beasts; a real labor of love,” reports Zeitlin, who also loves “the sculpting process of post, along with all the editing, sound design and music.” Few directors write their own scores, but to “capture the right feeling” Zeitlin did exactly that, reteaming with composer/producer Dan Romer (they first collaborated on the score for Zeitlin’s Glory At Sea). 

Post on the indie took, “a very long time,” explains Zeitlin. “We began editing in New Orleans, where we shot, for almost a year, and then moved post to New York, where we rented offices to continue editing and do the music and VFX work.” The film was cut on Final Cut Pro and Zeitlin worked with two editors — “Crockett Doob, who did the New Orleans stage, and Affonso Goncalves, who did the New York cut. But they were both involved all the way through.” Brendan Bellomo, “a rogue genius,” oversaw all the VFX, “with his battle-station of VFX machines crammed into his Brooklyn apartment,” reports Zeitlin. “So all our VFX were done largely in this rag-tag way, but when we got down to the wire — as the VFX continued all the way through our sound design, done in San Francisco — we set up a 24/7 post suite in a hotel room,” he explains. “That let us finish all the VFX and sound design just in time for Sundance” (where Beasts won the Grand Jury Prize and Excellence in Cinematography Award, and later the Camera d’Or at Cannes).

VISUAL EFFECTS  

Oscar has usually gone for the truly spectacular in this category, and movies such as The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man, Cloud Atlas, John Carter, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, Zero Dark Thirty,  Les Miserables and The Hobbit certainly don’t disappoint.

The Amazing Spider-Man, the fourth film in the multi-billion-dollar-grossing franchise, was a huge global hit and boasted over 1,600 visual effects shots, most done at Sony Imageworks, with Jerome Chen as VFX supervisor and David Schaub as animation supervisor. Shots were also farmed out to Pixomondo, Pixel Playground and Method. Director Marc Webb (see Post’s interview with him in the August 2012 issue) reports that the film ended up employing over 3,000 people, many of them animators and lighting compositors. 

“The visual effects side of it is like making a whole other film once you’ve finished the actual shoot,” he notes. “It’s interesting because they call it post, but we actually started a lot of that stuff before we were even in production. So post now really bleeds over into production, whether it’s previs or shooting plates and creating environments, because it’s an incredibly demanding schedule in terms of all the rendering and so on.”

Writer/director/producer Peter Jackson and his team, including senior VFX supervisor Joe Letteri, returned to Middle-earth for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a prequel — and the first of a planned trilogy — set 60 years before the Lord of the Rings blockbusters (see Post’s interview with Letteri in the December 2012 issue). Letteri, whose credits include The Adventures of Tin Tin: The Secret of the Unicorn, Man of Steel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and X-Men: The Last Stand, reports that post was all done at Weta Digital, with over 2,000 shots and an 800-strong visual effects crew over a two-year period. 

Cloud Atlas, co-directed by the Wachowskis (the Matrix trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), is an ambitious and visually stunning film that featured effects work overseen by Method Studios’ Dan Glass, who previously supervised VFX for four other films for the Wachowskis and Batman Begins. For Glass, challenges included, “actors playing multiple roles in different eras and settings — all in an indie production, so we had to be very creative.” Working “very closely” with the make-up and costume teams, Method and another dozen vendors, including ILM and studios in Germany and Britain, created 1,060 VFX shots, 400 of which were done by Method. “We used Maya, Houdini and Nuke — standard gear,” he adds, “but the result is definitely not a standard look.”  



Despite being a huge hit and critically acclaimed, Skyfall is unlikely to get a lot of Oscar love, but the VFX by companies including Cinesite, BlueBolt, Double Negative, MPC and Peerless, and overseen by VFX supervisor Chris Corbould (Oscar-winner for Inception) deserve recognition. Similarly, Double Negative’s work on The Dark Knight Rises was spectacular, as were the VFX on Life of Pi by Rhythm & Hues.

John Carter, the epic 3D sci-fi tale (with a reported epic budget of $250 million), may have sunk at the box office, but director Andrew Stanton, who won Oscars for his work on the Pixar hits Wall-E and Finding Nemo, didn’t find the transition from animation to live action as extreme as he expected, and he certainly didn’t waste a penny when it came to the film’s impressive VFX work.

To help create the visual style and look of the film, Stanton turned to two key collaborators — DP Daniel Mindel, whose credits include Mission Impossible 3 and Domino, and VFX supervisor Peter Chiang, who runs Double Negative, the acclaimed London-based effects house whose credits include Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 & 11, Iron Man 2, Inception and The Dark Knight Rises. “We had to figure out who was going to do all the computer-animated characters for the film, so we met with Peter and his team,” recalls Stanton (see Post’s interview with the director in the April 2012 issue), “and their group really reminded me of how Pixar felt in its early days, so it was good match.”

While the original plan was to shoot it all on location in the US Southwest, ultimately however, due to logistics and budget constraints, the film first moved to London and many of the effects shots had to be done inside. Filming on stage took some six months, at Shepperton, Longcross, and also in a converted warehouse in North London. 

Later, the filmmakers moved to Utah for another two months for all the location work, with a huge exterior greenscreen set at Lake Powell in Arizona. There are a huge number of visual effects shots in the film, ultimately done by three visual effects houses: Cinesite did all the environments and any inanimate objects like ships; Double Negative did all the character animation and anything with actors or creatures involved; and MPC contributed a couple of standalone sequences.
Mindel worked “very closely” with Chiang, and the DI was overseen in-house by Pixar at EFilm with colorist Mitch Paulson. “What’s so interesting about shooting a hybrid digital-analog film like John Carter is that some of the artifacts that are left later can’t be taken away, as they’re part of the skeleton of the film,” adds the DP. “I love that, the idea that the two technologies can work alongside each other and complement each other.”

Another 3D tale, Men in Black, was back for the third installment of director Barry Sonnenfeld’s sci-fi comedy franchise, and once again visual effects were front and center with over 1,200 shots, all done by Sony Pictures Imageworks. Unusually, Sonnenfeld (see Post’s interview in the May 2012 issue) teamed with two visual effects supervisors — Ken Ralston, who has won five Oscars for his pioneering work on films such as Star Wars, and Jay Redd, whose credits include Stuart Little and Monster House. The director says he’s “very involved” in every aspect of VFX and as an ex-DP, puts special emphasis on depth of field. “I like to shoot the plates with the same lenses that you shoot the foreground with,” he stresses. “There are some people who have an aesthetic where when you’re shooting with computer graphics, you do away with the laws of physics, and every single thing is in focus. But I don’t like that or believe in that.” The director, who says that post is, “my favorite part of the whole filmmaking process, because it’s where you get to make the movie better,” did all the post on the Sony lot and a DI at EFilm, with Steve Scott.

ANIMATION

It’s also been another strong year for animated features, both creatively and at the box office, with several likely contenders, including Wreck-It Ralph. Disney’s wacky and anarchic comedy showcased its state-of-the-art 3D animation in a digitized homage to ‘80s video arcade games by The Simpsons and Futurama director Rich Moore, making his feature film directorial debut. While the CG 3D film The Lorax grossed nearly $350 million worldwide, critical response was mixed. 



More admired were ParaNorman, a 3D stop-motion tale made with the same loving attention to detail that the Laika studio artists lavished on Coraline, and Frankenweenie, Tim Burton’s homage to Frankenstein and all horror films — and the first B&W movie and first stop-motion movie to be released in IMAX 3D. Burton, who calls the film “a labor of love,” says that it was inspired by his love of stop-motion and based on his 1984 short, “which is also pretty odd,” he admits. “I was very passionate about it being B&W and doing it stop-motion, because the language of B&W is so emotionally rich and immediately takes you back to all those classic horror films. Same with stop-motion, which just seemed the perfect technique for the story. I just get so much joy from using the technique, however labor-intensive it is.” Indeed, the film took “about a year just to animate and shoot, and before that we had two years of preproduction and testing the puppets,” he reports. “We did it all at Three Mills Studio in East London with an international crew of about 200 animators, and I’m very happy with the way it turned out.”

After the disappointment of Cars 2, Pixar’s Brave was right on target with its tale of strong-willed and ace archer Scottish princess, Merida, Pixar’s first heroine — and it also earned over $530 million worldwide — making it the seventh highest-grossing Pixar film. The 3D family blockbuster Ice Age: Continental Drift hauled in $870 million worldwide, making it the third highest-grossing film of the year and sixth highest-grossing animated film in history, and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, the first in the franchise to go 3D, was also the best-reviewed in the series — and the highest-grossing, with over $725 million worldwide. 

Rise of the Guardians, DreamWorks’ Santa-with-attitude tale (he’s voiced by Alec Baldwin) is an edgy kiddy epic that also showcases the talents of first-time director Peter Ramsey, and The Secret World of Arrietty, a dreamy fantasy about tiny people living under a house, combines the great tradition of British children’s storytelling with gorgeous animation courtesy of Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli. (The anime film grossed nearly $150 million worldwide. 



And don’t forget the 3D CG comedies Hotel Transylvania featuring the talents of Sony Pictures Imageworks, and Pirates! Band of Misfits, which is a clever hybrid of Aardman’s brilliant claymation enhanced with CG VFX in the service of a briny yarn starring Hugh Grant.