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August 2014
Issue: January 1, 2014

Oscar Picks

By: Iain Blair
In terms of Oscar-worthy films, 2013 followed the usual release pattern; the first eight or nine months of the year saw a handful of potential contenders, including Fruitvale Station, The Great Gatsby, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Mud and Blue Jasmine, but it’s in the final stretch where the studios stack up serious projects (along with a few more light-hearted movies) such as Nebraska, 12 Years A Slave, Captain Phillips, Gravity, Mandela; Long Walk To Freedom, Lone Survivor, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Book Thief, American Hustle, All Is Lost, The Fifth Estate, August: Osage County, Her, Philomena, Labor Day, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Dallas Buyers Club, Inside Llewyn Davis and Saving Mr. Banks. Will Oscar as usual turn a blind eye to earlier releases in favor of the year-end releases? 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 & SOUND

Looking like an Oscar certainty, 12 Years A Slave, based on a true story, is a harrowing tale of a free black man who’s kidnapped and forced into slavery in the 1840s. To keep his ensemble film looking as authentic as possible, British director Steve McQueen, who called his shoot “as hard as it looks,” decided to shoot in Louisiana at four old plantations near New Orleans. DP Sean Bobbitt, who also shot McQueen’s Shame and Hunger, used Arri cameras and the production benefited from the state’s aggressive tax breaks, which reportedly kept the budget under $25 million. It was edited by Joe Walker, who cut Shame and Hunger, and who reports the film was shot through Cooke S4 lenses onto 4-perf 35mm, full frame, cropped to 2:35 in the cutting room. The film was processed and transferred to digital by a local lab, CineWorks. 

“We had a very simple set up, with Unity connecting an Avid in my room (running Version 5.5.3.3) and another in my assistant’s,” he notes. “For the Avid media we chose DNxHD 115, which looked great — even in the enormous theatres where we had test screenings. We managed to sidestep picture conforms for these, deriving the images direct from Avid. For some of the earlier production screenings we used a Blackmagic HyperDeck Shuttle 2, which uses a solid state drive to connect via HDSDI direct to the 2K projector and avoids tape decks and DCPs.”

Walker reports that McQueen shoots “very economically — we stored no more than 6TBs of media. My assistant Javier Marcheselli used Nuke to finesse temp VFX and I used a fair amount of audio software on my laptop, such as Metasynth — a great tool for looping atmospheres or extending the length of a chord. Everyone said it’s crazy to film in Louisiana in July, it gets hot. And there we were, well into August. That translates to the screen. Solomon is constantly engaged in gruelling physical labour and sweat pours from him in gallons. Everyone was eaten alive by insects. Kirk Francis, our sound recordist, stayed behind after the shoot to capture the sound of cicadas at different times of the day. They make an incredible noise in the evenings, a kind of circular buzz-saw pattern. It’s deafening — technically loud enough to cause permanent hearing loss. We used those recordings in the sequence where Solomon is left dangling from a noose in the middle of Ford’s plantation, and they build like a music cue during the section where Michael Fassbender’s character, Epps, discovers his fields have been devastated by cotton worm. My background was as a composer and sound editor, so I spend a ridiculous amount of time finessing these things. There are a lot of long takes in Steve’s films, but they never feel slow. There’s a carefully-managed tension. By not cutting, the audience has no choice but to invest in what they are watching, there are no safety ropes, no hand-holding. It’s kind to the actors, and it has the wonderful side benefit for me that when the cuts do come, the rhythm is crystal clear, and I can make a huge impact with them.”



As McQueen now lives in Amsterdam, the team moved their gear there for 10 weeks of fine cutting. Returning to the States, they moved first to New Orleans and then to Los Angeles for screenings and post work, including Hans Zimmer’s score and Leslie Shatz’s sound mix at Wildfire Studios. The film was scanned with Arri scanners and color timed at Company 3 by Tom Poole on DaVinci Resolve.

In such acclaimed films as The Departed (which won him the Oscar), Gangs of New York, Casino and Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese has examined the morally-corrupt lifestyles of the rich and infamous — the made men and gangsters that ran criminal empires and built Las Vegas while destroying the lives of anyone who got in the way. So maybe it was just a matter of time before he switched his attention to the machinations of stock brokers — another group fond of big numbers, sharp suits and the challenges of walking a very thin line between legal and illegal business. 
The Wolf of Wall Street, his aptly-named new film and dark comedy was shot by Mexican DP Rodrigo Prieto, whose credits include Argo, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Babel, Alexander and Brokeback Mountain (for which he won an Oscar nomination). The DP states that, contrary to some published reports, the film was not an all-digital shoot. 

“Our original plan was to shoot digitally,” he admits, “but Marty preferred the look of film, especially on the close ups.” But because the film also uses “quite a lot” of visual effects, and VFX supervisor Robert Legato had already budgeted all the effects for digital capture, the “all-film” plan was adjusted. “It was far simpler for Rob to pull the keys and greenscreen, and change anything he had to in the edit without rescanning the negative if we stayed digital for the VFX,” says Prieto. “So then we decided to shoot all the VFX scenes — and the greenscreen scenes in particular — with the Alexa. And once we’d decided that, I just thought, let’s use the Alexa for what it’s so good at — night scenes and low-light situations.” 



The DP and director settled on a hybrid approach, “the same thing I did on Argo, says Prieto; 80 percent of The Wolf of Wall Street was shot on film, and 20 percent was shot digitally, reports the DP. For the digital work he shot with the Alexa Studio. In terms of the digital workflow, the DP used a Codex Digital recorder to record the ArriRaw files, “which gives you the most latitude,” and used LUTs with the DIT, “to emulate film print stock,” he explains. The team also worked closely on the look with Deluxe in New York, where the film was finished at Efilm with colorist Yvan Lucas, Prieto’s regular colorist and collaborator since Alexander. The film was cut by Scorsese’s longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, and Philip Stockton was the supervising sound editor.

When British director Paul Greengrass, whose credits include the Oscar-winning The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93 and Green Zone, teamed up with two-time Oscar-winner Tom Hanks to make Captain Phillips, a ripped-from-the-headlines emotional thriller about four Somali pirates who hijacked a US container ship in 2009 and then held the captain (played by Hanks) hostage as they tried to negotiate a huge ransom, it quickly racked up early Oscar buzz. It’s easy to see why, as the film combines action, drama, suspense and fine performances from Hanks and the first-time Somali actors. 

Shot by DP Barry Ackroyd, who also lensed United 93 and Green Zone, the film presented “huge challenges” says Greengrass, including, “shooting at sea with real ships, which is harder than you ever imagine.” Locations included Malta, Morocco, Massachusetts, Virginia and the UK, and the team spent over 60 days at sea “and got great help from the US Navy,” he says. “Everyone said, shoot it in the big tank in Malta, but I knew we had to shoot on the real ocean or it’d look hopelessly inauthentic. And you know you’re at sea when you watch this.” 

Post was done mostly in London, with Double Negative and VFX supervisor Charlie Noble handling most of the visual effects (along with some shots by Nvizible and Proof). Editor Chris Rouse cut in LA at first while Greengrass shot and later moved to London and cut the rest there. Sound was done at De Lane Lea in London with supervising sound editor Oliver Tarney, who did United 93 and Green Zone with Greengrass. Then they finished up post back in LA on the Sony lot.

All Is Lost, starring Oscar-winner Robert Redford, is another sea yarn, but of a very different kind. Redford plays a nameless, lone sailor in the Indian Ocean who discovers his sailboat is sinking. The film was directed by J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) and needed two DPs — Margin Call’s Frank DeMarco and underwater expert Peter Zuccarini (Life of Pi) — to handle all the water scenes shot at Baja Studios’ famous tank (Titanic, Pearl Harbor). VFX were done by Spin VFX and the DI was done with colorist Chris Wallace on an Autodesk Lustre at Deluxe in Toronto. Pete Beaudreau was the editor and and three-time Oscar winner Richard Hymns was the sound editor and Steve Boeddeker was the sound designer and supervising sound editor on the almost wordless movie. If any film deserves Oscar attention for its sound work, this is the one.

Over the past 15 years, since his 1996 feature debut Citizen Ruth, director/writer Alexander Payne has created a small but potent body of work — including Sideways (which won him the ’05 Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Screenplay), About Schmidt, Election and The Descendants (which won him a writing Oscar). His new film, Nebraska, which is already getting a lot of Oscar buzz, is in B&W, and was edited by his longtime editor Kevin Tent, who edited The Descendants, Sideways and About Schmidt. 

“He’s edited all of my projects since ’95 and it’s a great relationship,” says Payne, who calls the post process, “my favorite part of the whole film. Writing is necessary but painful, directing is exhilarating but exhausting — and you have all those egos to massage. Post is where cinema really happens, where montages unique to cinema among the arts come alive.” 

Also looking likely to get Oscar attention is Saving Mr. Banks, which details the in-fighting between Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and “Mary Poppins” author PL Travers (Emma Thompson) — after all, it has a lot that appeals to Oscar voters; it’s a period piece, a true story, and all about Hollywood itself. Plus it has two Oscar-fave actors, although Hanks may have to fight his Captain Phillips character for a nomination. Directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), it was edited by Mark Livolsi and features VFX by Luma Pictures. Jon Johnson was the supervising sound editor.
Oscar fave Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind won him Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture) didn’t get the hit he deserved with Rush, the real-life story of the 1976 Formula One season and the dramatic rivalry between British driver James Hunt (played by Liam Hemsworth) and reigning world champion Austrian racer Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). But the film deserves consideration for its spectacular visuals, courtesy of DP Anthony Dod Mantle, Danny Boyle’s go-to DP who won the Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire, and impressive editing and sound work. The film was impressively edited by Howard’s longtime collaborators Dan Hanley and Mike Hill, who won the Oscar for Apollo 13, and sound was “crucial” to the film, “as you hear those cars before you ever see them,” notes Howard. 



“And Danny Hambrook, our sound designer, recorded lots of the historic cars and built up all these tracks, and in post helped design the engine sounds, and that made a world of difference. A lot of the F1 fans can tell the engines apart, so I wanted it to be right.”

Over the course of a long and storied film, TV and stage career that began in the ‘80s, Ralph Fiennes has established himself as an actor’s actor, a consummate professional equally at home playing gravitas and drama — The English Patient (for which he received a Best Actor Oscar nom), The Constant Gardner, The Reader, Quiz Show — campy adventure (The Avengers) — romantic comedy (Maid in Manhattan) — action (Skyfall) — and even an animated musical (The Prince of Egypt). 

“Like any actor, I like variety,” he notes dryly. But Fiennes, who has always excelled above all at playing morally bankrupt villains, both small-time mobsters (In Bruges) and larger-than-life, indelible incarnations of evil (Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, Lord Voldemort of the Harry Potter franchise), is now making a name for himself as a director. He’s always been attracted to darker material and morally conflicted, tragic characters, tackling the title role in his 2010 passion project, an updated version of Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” which also marked his directorial debut.

His second film as director, The Invisible Woman, also deals with themes of conflict and loss in its story of a young actress, Ellen Ternan (Felicity Jones), who in the 1880s met the famous — and famously energetic and controlling — Charles Dickens (Fiennes) and became his secret mistress (she reportedly bore him a son). The project, written by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady), reunites its star with The English Patient’s Kristin Scott Thomas (she plays Mrs. Ternan) and was another labor of love for Fiennes. 

“Dickens was a very complicated man, which I like, and while trying to direct and act at the same time isn’t easy, portraying his exhaustive energy and love of organizing amateur dramatics and so on came in very useful, as it paralleled what I had to do,” says Fiennes, who shot the film largely on location in England and posted it in London. He notes that shooting period pieces “isn’t easy, even if you find the original Dickens locations, as so much has been changed.” To help remove any traces of 21st Century technology and signage, Fiennes teamed with Molinare VFX and One Of Us.

And Mandela; Long Walk To Freedom deserves Oscar attention, with its inspired take on the late 95-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner’s momentous life, directed with both lyrical grace and urgent ferocity by Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl). The small-budget indie, shot entirely in South Africa, was a labor of love for all involved.

VISUAL EFFECTS & POST WORKFLOW

Visual effects have come a very long way in the past decade or two, and Oscar has usually voted like any fanboy and gone for the truly spectacular in this category. And the past year certainly saw plenty of spectacular VFX in such global blockbusters — and a few box office disappointments — as Iron Man 3, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Fast & Furious 6, Man of Steel, Oz The Great and Powerful, Pacific Rim, Oblivion, Thor: The Dark World, The Lone Ranger, Star Trek Into Darkness, Gravity, World War Z, The Great Gatsby and The Wolverine.



Oz The Great and Powerful was another huge global hit and boasted over 1,500 visual effects shots, with over 1,100 done at Sony Imageworks (and another 400 done by Luma Pictures, Digiscope, Evil Eye, Method, Reliance, Third Floor and With A Twist). The senior visual effects supervisor was Scott Stokdyk, who worked with Oz director Sam Raimi on all three Spider-Man films (he won the Oscar for Spider-Man 2), and the Imageworks team included digital effects supervisors Francisco DeJesus and Peter Nofz, animation supervisor Troy Saliba, 3D visual effects supervisor Scott Willman and senior visual effects producer Diana Ibanez. The goal was to create a highly-stylized environment for the land of Oz and bring to life the CG characters that accompany Oz (James Franco) on his journey, including Finley the monkey and China Girl, as well as the characters and creatures that surprise them along the way. These included thousands of flying Baboons, with three unique hero Baboons, digital crowds in the land of Oz, including countryside and city crowds, and CG creatures, include attacking snapdragons, horses, various insects, butterflies, birds, flying fish, wooden horses, lions, squirrels, and river fairies.

In addition, the team created many CG environments, including the Kansas Circus environment, panoramics of the land of Oz, huge water environments with lots of close-up water interaction, the Emerald City’s main gates, boulevard, central square, back gate, back alley, bell tower, palace, dais, vaulted corridor, Throne Room, Room of Resplendence, balcony and bridge digital sets, and huge aerials of the city. Also created were the Yellow Brick Road countryside environments, China Town — a town made of porcelain plates, teacups and teapots, the Haunted Forest, the graveyard and ruins, and Glinda’s castle and village. Featured FX animation included magic effects for the witches, Glinda’s magic bubbles, Theodora’s fire tornado, the hot air balloon destruction during the Oz hologram show, and various fireballs, explosions and smoke effects.

“The big challenges were bringing a unique look to every environment, and life to all the characters,” reports Stokdyk, who says the process took over a year. The team used Arnold renderers and Katana lighting packages, along with Maya “as a base for all the character work, and Houdini for most of the effects work,” he adds. Summing up, he says that the VFX work, “was even more difficult than the stuff we did on the Spider-Man films, because it was all done on stage with a very classic stage-lit look, while the Spider-Man films were all grounded in New York locations.”

Aussie VFX house Rising Sun Pictures worked on three of the year’s most successful releases — Gravity, The Great Gatsby and The Wolverine. The Great Gatsby may seem like an unlikely candidate for 3D, but it suited director Baz Luhrmann’s spectacular vision for his reworking of the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald story. Shot on Red Epic-Xs, the film also had an unorthodox approach to post and its VFX, with DIT Brook Willard working with data manager Steve Freebairn and the production’s in-house VFX department to manage the workflow. 

Star Trek Into Darkness, shot by DP Daniel Mindel, whose credits include Mission Impossible 3 and Domino, featured hundreds of stunning VFX shots, created by an army of artists and technicians at Pixomondo, Stereo D, ILM, Halon Entertainment, Atomic Fiction and Kelvin Optical. The DI was done by Stefan Sonnenfeld at Company 3.



Another army of artists and technicians at Weta Digital, Scanline VFX, Digital Domain, Stereo D, Method Studios, Trixter, The Embassy, Framestore, Fuel VFX, The Third Floor and Cinesite labored over the VFX in Iron Man 3, while MPC, Cinesite, Prime Focus World and ILM helped bring the zombies to life in another global blockbuster, World War Z. And many of the same houses — Weta, MPC, Scanline and Double Negative, along with Gentle Giant Studios and Legend 3D, helped make Superman fly again in Man of Steel. And busy Weta was the sole VFX house on The Hobbit.

3D may have taken some knocks recently, but two high-profile films — Gravity and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug — proved that if you use the 3D correctly, audiences will come. To create the stunning photo-realism of Gravity, which looks like the frontrunner, acclaimed Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron assembled a behind-the-scenes team that included multiple Oscar-nominated director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, The New World), editor Mark Sanger (VFX editor on Children of Men) and Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor Tim Webber (The Dark Knight). “You have to design in 3D from the very start if you’re going to do it properly,” he says. “When you don’t, you don’t exploit all the possibilities and it’s usually lame and visually jarring. And often projection isn’t very good either. Here, we created a 3D experience from start to finish, which is totally different and the right way to use 3D.”

Post production was also front and center from the very start of the 3D hit thriller. “We actually needed to complete post before we even started pre production,” reports Cuaron. “We had to do very precise animation for the whole film, with perfect lighting and rendering. Then some of the rendering started every scene’s prep work.” And even though the director started on post work early for such VFX-driven films as franchise blockbuster Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, he admits that front-loading post production and VFX (all done at London-based Framestore) onto a complex shoot like Gravity is the new normal. “I’d never gone through a post experience like this before,” he states. “It was totally unconventional. It was also quite scary, because we developed all the technology and had these prototypes, and it was all theoretical. It wasn’t until we had all the final rendering — maybe three years into the process — that we finally knew that the theory worked.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that the film is one big VFX shot. “There’s not one frame without VFX,” reports Cuaron. “Some are incredibly complicated, and some are less so. Tim, the DP and myself conceptually created all the technology to do it, and Tim is a genius — not just with technology, but he’s also an artist. So Tim was very involved right from the start through the four-plus years, creating the technology and figuring out just how to achieve every moment we aimed for. So he was on the set and also working with the actors, to make sure it all went smoothly, because the lighting dictated the technology and vice versa. And in addition to Framestore he brought in Rising Sun Pictures and Nhance to do some shots.” The DI “was crucial” and the “last big link in the whole chain,” he adds. “Emmanuel’s worked for so long with Steve Scott at Technicolor in LA and Steve came to London to work on it for a while, and then we completed it in LA”

Writer/director/producer Peter Jackson and his team, including senior VFX supervisor Joe Letteri, returned to Middle-earth for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second of the 3D trilogy set 60 years before the Lord of the Rings blockbusters (see Post’s exclusive interview with Letteri in the Dec 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 VFX crew over a two year period. “Basically, on films like these you start post on Day 1 as there’s so much involved,” he notes. Editing was once again done by Jabez Olssen.

While Gravity and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, may be an extreme example, all films with a heavy VFX component now routinely start post at the same time as pre production. Director Justin Lin, who’s been driving the Fast & Furious mega-franchise since 2006’s Tokyo Drift, and who’s become the go-to car-chase and car-stunt filmmaker of his generation, did exactly that with his Fast & Furious 6, the latest blockbuster episode of the long-running action franchise. Ask him how early he had to integrate post into the shoot, and he notes, “Right from the start of the entire project. The post aspect was crucial and we integrated that very early on. Right after storyboard I went to pre-vis, so I immediately get the editors on to start cutting it, as I need everyone to be on the same page.”



While The Lone Ranger re-teamed uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski and shape-shifting Pirates of the Caribbean star Johnny Depp (who also bonded with the director on the 2011 Oscar-winner Rango), it didn’t get much love at the box office. But the impressive VFX, by ILM, MPC, Hydraulx, Lola and Gentle Giant among others, might get an Oscar nod. And the hybrid movie — it was a combination of film (about 70 percent) and digital (30 percent) — has some interesting post angles. Dailies were scanned immediately into 4K and were also graded by Company 3 who did the DI. “It was a great set up, as we had the look we wanted generated in camera, and that was then carried on throughout our dailies and into post and the telecine,” says DP Bojan Bazelli. “And it was the same thing with our digital dailies. We’d shoot our digital files, make a copy on-set to be safe, and then the original drives would be sent by courier to Company 3 where they’d copy it again and grade it.” The team used a Codex Digital recorder to record the ArriRaw files, which the DP says has “the most latitude of all the options.”

Rush may get attention for its spectacular visual effects, courtesy of Double Negative. Howard worked closely with VFX supervisor Jody Johnson, and reports that Rush used, “about 700 VFX shots in the end, of varying types. A lot were just brush strokes and rig removal stuff, but we also had our big moments where cars are crashing and then things where it’s just too dangerous and too expensive and unpredictable to try and do any other way except with VFX. So I couldn’t have made this film and have it look the way it does with all the visual effects.”



Like Rush, writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s second film, Elysium, was a box office disappointment, but it deserves Oscar attention for its VFX. Image Engine in Vancouver, who did all the aliens in Blomkamp’s District 9, did all the VFX for Elysium — “870 which is a lot, but not that much compared to Pacific Rim or The Hobbit or Avatar, where you’re talking thousands of VFX,” notes the director. “Image Engine are so good at integrating characters over live action performance. It’s rotomation, so the animators copy the essence of the actor, and then do the background restoration where they paint him out.” The really difficult VFX was creating the Torus space station. “With both my films I have a very particular way in which the VFX work, which is that I try to give the VFX artists as much of a leg up as I can — meaning very clear light direction with sunlight, everything is embedded in the camera, the actor is there for reference so you can replace him,” he adds. “And with Elysium, most of the film is like that, but then suddenly you’re cutting to a 100 percent digital render of the manicured inside of the space station, and that was very challenging to do.”

Technicolor–PostWorks New York provided conform and digital intermediate color grading for Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Daniels is a longtime client of the facility which provided similar services for Daniels’ films Precious and The Paperboy. Inside Llewyn Davis, shot on 35mm by Bruno Delbonnel, is the latest film from directors Joel and Ethan Coen, and Technicolor-PostWorks provided an advanced dailies workflow and final color grading under the guidance of Technicolor supervising digital colorist Peter Doyle.  
 
ANIMATION

It’s also been another strong year for animated features, both creatively and at the box office, with several likely contenders, including Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, Monsters University, Despicable Me 2, The Croods, Epic, The Smurfs 2, Frozen, Turbo, Planes, Free Birds and Wind Rises, likely the last film from Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki. 

For The Croods’ writer/directors Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders, the big challenge was bringing a prehistoric world to life. “Neither of us realized just how much work was involved, as everything from a leaf to a rock had to be built and surfaced,” reports Sanders. “We had no shortcuts, and there are no structures — it’s all the natural world.” It took the team of 300 artists “over four years” to complete the task, says DeMicco, and they used “every tool at our disposal, from old-school matte painting to the latest technology.” 

For the sequels and prequels — Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, Monsters University, Despicable Me 2, The Smurfs 2 — the big challenge was keeping the magic fresh. “You’re faced with a real dilemma — audiences want the familiarity of the same characters, but at the same time, they don’t want just a repeat of the first film,” acknowledges Pixar’s Dan Scanlon, director of Monsters University. 

Scanlon worked with a team of 200 for nearly five years on Monsters University. “You’re always aware of the pressure to do better than the original,” he adds. “And it’s really tough as those characters were specifically designed to tell one story, which has now been told. So you have to design a whole new story and journey, and also make sure that there’s a new emotional change. It can’t be the same as the first movie, and sequels often fall into that trap.”

Indeed, critically and financially successful movie sequels are notoriously hard to pull off, and in the world of animation, for every inspired Toy Story 2 success, there are plenty that have crashed and burned (Cars 2). Revisiting characters and their worlds — and keeping them fresh — is a tricky balancing act, even for Pixar. 

Similarly, for Kris Pearn and Cody Cameron, the returning directors of the 2009 surprise hit Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, the big challenge facing Cloudy 2 was “not to repeat ourselves in both the types of jokes and the character stories,” says Pearn. On the plus side, the team didn’t have to sell the concept this time out. “The studio had a lot of reservations about Cloudy 1 as it was so Muppetty and cartoony with this whole crazy world,” he recalls. “We spent a year out of the four-year process just trying to convince them it’d work.” The team also decided to flip the original’s “disaster movie” genre. “This time we went for the monster movie, which gave us all this new energy, and took the sentient food idea — which made the least sense in the first film — and ran with it,” explains Pearn. 

So far so good. But what about the use of animation in such features as Gravity, Oz The Great and Powerful, Iron Man 3 and World War Z — and what do these strikingly diverse films all have in common? Despite their very different artistic visions, subject matter and tone, they’re all part of one of the hottest trends in Hollywood — the hybrid production that seamlessly blends live-action and animation techniques, enabling their creators to boldly go where no filmmaker has yet gone. But while this hybrid approach is golden at the box office, the increasing blurring of the lines between live action and animation is also calling into question what exactly constitutes an animated film these days. Gravity is obviously not “cartoony” in the way that Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Monsters University and Despicable Me 2 are, but Cuaron happily describes his four-year labor of love as, “like making an animated movie.” Says Sanders, “I feel that today, live action films are finally catching up in a lot of ways with where animation was born. Animated films have always had these incredibly fanciful realms.”

Adds Oz The Great and Powerful’s senior VFX supervisor Scott Stokdyk, “We’re now creating in VFX the virtual equivalent of the entire live action production — and it’s a trend that’ll keep growing.... So yes, it’s getting harder and harder to define exactly what an animated film is now.”