The 91st Academy Awards, which take place on February 24th, are almost here, and the nominations have been made. As usual, the spring and summer releases and biggest box office films of the past year, including such global juggernauts as Avengers: Infinity War (the year’s top-grosser, which piled up an astounding $2 billion-plus haul),
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and
Incredibles 2 (which all grossed well over $1 billion each),
Mission Impossible — Fallout (nearly $800 million),
Deadpool 2 (over $734 million),
Ant-Man and the Wasp ($620 million) and
Ready Player One (over $580 million), had to vie for voter attention with the crowded fall and winter crop of potential contenders.
Well, not so much now, it turns out, since the Academy quickly backtracked and postponed the controversial introduction of its new, crowd-pleasing “Popular Film” award at the show. It was widely seen — and derided by many — as a way to include those summer popcorn blockbusters, along with other non-Oscar fare and such popular hits as A Quiet Place, The Meg, Hotel Transylvania 3 and Crazy Rich Asians, in the show and help its falling TV ratings.
Instead, audiences will see the golden boys handed out to films that many of them haven’t even seen (or even heard of). For ‘tis the season when the studios momentarily turn their backs on familiar brands, sequels, tentpoles, money-making toons, superheroes and escapist fare (i.e. nearly every one of those blockbusters), and give their full attention to such (mostly) serious, Oscar-worthy prestige projects as A Star is Born, Green Book, Roma, BlacKkKlansman, The Favourite, First Man, Mary Poppins Returns, Bohemian Rhapsody, If Beale Street Could Talk, Vice, Mary Queen of Scots, Cold War, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, At Eternity’s Gate and more. Other noteworthy films, Beautiful Boy, Boy Erased, The Front Runner, The Old Man and the Gun, Private Life, 22 July, Operation Finale, The Hate U Give, What They Had, Widows, The Mule, White Boy Rick and Welcome to Marwen surprisingly went without scoring any noms.
With the Oscar race heating up, here’s a look at some of the nominated films, as well as a few honorable mentions that still deserve some recognition.
BEST PICTURE/BEST DIRECTOR
When Bradley Cooper decided to make his directorial debut, he shot for the stars and remade a Hollywood classic — A Star Is Born (see our cover story in the November issue of Post). The result is an assured debut — and big hit — that bodes well for his future directing career, and the critically acclaimed film is certainly a strong contender in many of the races. And though not personally nominated, Rob Marshall also tackled an icon when he directed the new Mary Poppins film, a sequel to the 1964 Disney classic (see Post’s Mary Poppins Returns cover story in our December issue).
Alfonso Cuaron won Best Director for his last film, 2013’s Gravity, and was acknowledged again this year for his new film, Roma, a semi-autobiographical family drama set in the ‘70s, which has been the darling of the festival circuit (it won the Golden Lion at Venice). Director/writer Adam McKay is also getting plenty of buzz for Vice, his take on VP Dick Cheney (see my interview with McKay on page 16), and got plenty of nominations to show for it. And If they handed out Oscars for ravishing shots of curling cigarette smoke, Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, a ‘70s period piece, one of the year’s best-looking films and his triumphant follow-up to his Oscar-winning Moonlight, would win hands-down. As it is, his love story — and love letter to cinema — received three noms.
Spike Lee (who’s never been nominated for Best Director) finally got his acknowlegement for BlacKkKlansman, the well-received and timely 1970s drama. Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), Steve McQueen (Widows), Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite) and Peter Farrelly (Green Book) were all strong contenders going into the nominations, yet it was Lanthimos who scored the nod.
While the controversial X-Men director Bryan Singer was highly unlikely to be recognized after famously being fired from Bohemian Rhapsody (another ‘70s period piece based around the rock group Queen and its flamboyant front man Freddie Mercury; it was finished by Dexter Fletcher, although Singer’s still credited as the director), the film still snagged a Best Picture nomination. And if they handed out Oscars for patience and unwavering commitment to a project, Oscar-winning producer Graham King (Hugo, The Departed) would undoubtedly add another to his haul (his 45-plus films have grossed over $2.8 billion worldwide and have been nominated for 61 Academy Awards) for his latest production. Bohemian Rhapsody, a true labor of love and the warts-and-all biopic, took King “over 10 long years to make,” he told me. But the result is a triumph (it’s heading towards a global haul of $650 million on a tight $50 million budget), not only for star Rami Malek of Mr. Robot fame, who completely inhabits the role of Mercury and is well-deserving of the Best Actor nom, and the rest of the cast, but for all the talent behind the camera. The film, full of high energy and high drama, was edited by John Ottman (the X-Men franchise, Superman Returns; see our interview in the November issue of Post), who expertly balanced the powerful public moments of Live Aid and arena rock shows with the very different and often subdued private moments in the singer’s life. The film also showcases effective VFX work by Double Negative, Clear Angle Studios and a few other houses. And the sound — often so lame in so many films in this genre — particularly “We Will Rock You,” is thrillingly loud when it should be, subtly layered in the quieter scenes, and also deserves some Oscar love.
Writer-director Damien Chazelle made Oscar history when his retro-glamorous musical La La Land, a triumphant follow-up to his 2014 release Whiplash (which received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay for Chazelle), earned 14 Oscar nominations, winning six awards, including Best Director for Chazelle, the youngest director to receive the award. The film didn’t win Best Picture (it was the Oscar gaffe that reverberated around the world) but now he’s reteamed with that film’s star, Ryan Gosling, who plays famed astronaut Neil Armstrong in First Man, the riveting story behind the first manned mission to the moon. Focusing on Armstrong and the decade leading to the historic Apollo 11 flight, it’s a visceral and intimate account that puts the audience squarely inside the planes and rockets, fully immersing the viewer in the exciting and terrifying test flights and space missions. Written by Academy Award winner Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post), with Steven Spielberg as an exec producer, the epic drama also reunites Chazelle with his Oscar-winning director of photography Linus Sandgren (American Hustle), Oscar-winning editor Tom Cross (Whiplash) and Oscar-winning composer Justin Hurwitz (Whiplash). The director also teamed for the first time with production designer Nathan Crowley (Dunkirk, The Greatest Showman), and Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert (Blade Runner 2049, The Huntsman: Winter’s War).
Chazelle reports that he did all the post on the Universal lot, including the sound mix and the DI with colorist Natasha Leonnet from Efilm. “She also did La La Land and Whiplash, he says. “I love post, especially the editing. It’s my favorite part of the whole process and where it all comes together. We had some big editing challenges on this, and the big one was the huge amount of film I shot — two million feet — and a short editing schedule...So figuring out how to take all that, and a lot of it was documentary style, and trying to wrangle it into a narrative space and make the movie feel visceral and kinetic and propulsive was very challenging. And then finding the balance between the big set pieces in space and then the quiet moments at home was demanding.”
For Lambert, the film redefined shooting ‘in camera.’ “Since this is a movie shot partially in space, there are always going to be visuals that have to be created with computer graphics,” he reports. “We had to create a gentle balance using a diverse mixture of visual effects, special effects, archival footage and scaled models to help create the 1960s documentary-style film that was Damien’s vision. The biggest challenge was how to shoot certain space and in-flight elements with our CG content to fit within the boundaries of a film being shot 16mm and 35mm. The effects had to be subtle and shot in a particular way to make it feel like footage from the day. It was decided that shooting our spacecrafts against an LED screen was the best option to capture as much in-camera as possible. With the various crafts in the movie we tried to stick to a simple philosophy. Depending on the size of the craft in frame is when we would design the shot to either use the full-scale practical, miniatures or the full-CG version. We shot full scale practical crafts with the actors on six-axis gimbals in front of the curved 60-foot diameter and 35-foot tall LED screen. Using 90 minutes of content that was created at Dneg, we were able to create a pseudo full three-dimensional world in-camera. We rendered full 360 degree spherical images that gave us the greatest flexibility. The playback system allowed for interactive rotation and color grading as we filmed. In our search through NASA resources we came across some Apollo launch footage shot on obsolete 70mm military stock that had never been seen before. Some of those visuals we had to recreate with CG but others we augmented to fit within the parameters that we were shooting.”
The 58-day shoot used 16mm, 35mm and 70mm IMAX formats, and 615 effects shots were added in post. “We were able to shoot this movie without using one greenscreen or bluescreen for live action shots,” notes Lambert. First Man scored four Oscar nominations.
Other films of note include, The Old Man and the Gun, a true crime story starring Academy Award winners Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek. When writer/director David Lowery (A Ghost Story, Pete’s Dragon) set out to make the film, he didn’t know that it would mark the end of Redford’s acting career. Now 82, the Sundance Kid announced a few months ago that he was retiring, and this charming caper is a fitting swan song for the icon. Set in Texas, but mainly shot in Ohio (“for tax reasons,” Lowery says), this story of bank robber Forrest Tucker, which also co-stars Danny Glover and Tom Waits as his sidekicks, and Casey Affleck as the detective determined to catch him, is by turns exciting, breezy and poignant, and looked likely to woo many Oscar voters with its great performances, poetic visuals and understated direction.
First Reformed is another smaller film with an ageing icon who deserves recognition — writer-director Paul Schrader, who wrote 1976’s seminal Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro. He reteamed with De Niro and Scorsese on 1980’s harrowing boxing saga, Raging Bull, and went on to write and direct American Gigolo, The Last Temptation of Christ (reteaming again with Scorsese), The Mosquito Coast, Cat People and Bringing Out The Dead (yet another Scorsese collaboration), among others. First Reformed (his 21st feature and 12th as writer/director), examines a crisis of faith centered around a former military chaplain (Ethan Hawke) devastated by the death of his son in the Iraq War, and Schrader did all the post at the Post Factory in New York. “I love post and editing, even when things go wrong,” he says. “The main editing challenges were keeping the right tone and pace, as I’d decided to make slower films.”
The VFX were all done by Cloak & Dagger Media, and Atomic Art, and the DI was done at Company 3 with colorist Tim Masick.
“I love the process. It’s fun and not at all stressful compared with the shoot, and I love the cool, austere look we ended up with.”
VFX/POST WORKFLOW/EDITING & SOUND
Some of the year’s biggest hits — Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Mission: Impossible — Fallout and Deadpool 2 — also feature some of the year’s most spectacular VFX. And some of the best were on display in the Avengers/Panther/Ant-Man trifecta from Marvel. To bring the latest Avengers adventure to life, it took an army of VFX companies and artists, including ILM, Weta, Framestore, Dneg, Digital Domain and Lola. To achieve its dazzling blend of sci-fi and grounded African settings, Panther also enlisted teams from many of the same top VFX houses, including ILM, Dneg, Scanline, Lola, Rodeo, Stereo D, Mammal and Method. And Ant-Man similarly used several main houses — Dneg, Scanline, Luma and Method — and then added more vendors as needed during post. Though only Avengers: Infinity War scored a nomination for Achievement in Visual Effects.
The critically acclaimed sixth film in the Mission: Impossible franchise, which was a strong VFX contender leading up to the nomations, featured well over 3,000 visual effects shots.
“We had to integrate all the VFX and post right at the start, as we had so many,” reports director Chris McQuarrie, who posted the film in London around Soho, and did the sound at De Lane Lea. Once again working with editor Eddie Hamilton, he worked with “VFX supervisor Jody Johnson at Double Negative, who did an amazing job. Dneg, Lola, One of Us, Bluebolt and Cheap Shot all worked on them, as there was a lot of rig removal and clean up along with the big set pieces.” Those included “the most difficult VFX sequence, the big ‘High Altitude Low Opening’ or HALO sequence where Tom jumps out of a Boeing Globemaster at 25,000 feet,” he says. “We shot part of it at an RAF base in England, and some of it in Abu Dhabi, and then we had to add in the whole Paris backdrop and the lightning for the storm, and to maintain the reality we had to keep the horizon in the shot. And as the actors were falling at 160mph towards the Paris skyline, all of those shots had to be tracked by hand. No computer could do it, and that alone took hundreds of people working on it for three months to complete.”
The DI was done at Molinare in London with colorist Asa Shoul, “We had a big job dealing with all the stuff we shot in New Zealand, bringing it up to the other footage. I actually try to get the film as close as possible to what I want on the day, and then the DI as a way of enhancing and shaping that, but I don’t actually like to manipulate things too much, although we gave all the Paris stuff this sort of hazy, sweaty look and feel which I love.”
Deadpool 2 features “more than 1,600 shots,” says director David Leitch, who worked closely with VFX supervisor Dan Glass, who did The Matrix films and Batman Begins. The team “tried to push the envelope wherever possible,” he notes. “The main vendors were Dneg, Framestore and Method, and they all specialized in different things, and then Weta also did all of the facial animation VFX for Ryan Reynolds. They did the first one, and we loved their work, so we just brought them back.”
Isle Of Dogs
The most difficult VFX shot to do? “I think the hardest was the big fight scene at the end, which features two fully-CG characters,” he adds. “As a choreographer, it was a very interesting challenge, as all my fight scenes, like in Atomic Blonde, were pretty analog. We did some mocap, but it only helped to a point. After that, it was all down to the animation, and they did an incredible job.” The DI was done at Efilm on the Fox lot with colorist Skip Kimball.
Other visual effects work of note, though perhaps not scoring Oscar noms, is Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Here, ILM artists also pulled out all the stops for the fifth film in the mega-franchise. ILM London, San Francisco and Vancouver did most of the heavy lifting, with other vendors such as NVisible, Scanline, Image Engine, ILP and El Ranchito all helping out and working closely with the full-size animatronics team to create a seamless illusion.
ILM’s Scott Farrar, working with director John Krasinski, created the blind creature in the hit horror film A Quiet Place. Because they didn’t want it to have any humanoid features or aspects, it was entirely animated, and while they did have a motion capture guy on the set, he was used mostly as a marker for the actors and camera crew.”
On the editing side, Steve McQueen says that for his twisty heist thriller Widows, “post is my favorite part of filmmaking, as it’s just you and the editor in a dark room, actually making the film.” He once again teamed with go-to editor Joe Walker, who’s cut all his films, as well as films like Blade Runner 2049, Arrival and Sicario. “Joe and I go way back to 2007 when we did Hunger and we always work very closely together. I sit right next to him and I’m there for every single cut, dissolve, whatever. I’m very present. I’m not one of those directors who comes in, gives some notes and then disappears. I don’t know how you do that. And I love editing, and finding the pace and rhythm, and what makes Joe such a great editor I think is that he started off in music, so he has a great sense of how to work with sound.”
The big editing challenges? “There are all these intertwined stories and characters, so it’s always about finding the right balance and tone and rhythm,” he adds. “The whole opening sequence is all about pulling the audience in and then grabbing them with a caress and then a slap, and another caress and slap, as we set up the story and the main characters. And then there are so many parts to the story that it’s like this big Swiss watch — all these moving parts and different functions. But you always go back to the widows. And a script isn’t a film, it’s a guide, so you’re feeling your way in the edit, seeing what works and what doesn’t. And the whole thing has to be cohesive, one thing, and that’s your goal.”
The VFX were all done by One of Us and Outpost VFX, but were all about enhancing stuff, not dazzling the audience. The aim was always for realism, not fantasy.
“Sound and music are huge for me, and it’s interesting as a lot of the movie has no sound or music. At the beginning, there’s just this one chord on a violin when we get to the title card, and that’s it. And there’s no sound for two-thirds of the movie, and then we only have some ambient music and Procul Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale and a Van Morrison song, and that’s why all the sound design is so important. When the women lose their husbands, I didn’t want it to be hammy and tug at your heart-strings. I wanted you to feel that pain and that grief and that journey. And when they start to act and take control of their lives, that’s when the music and sound kick in, almost like this muscular drive, and our supervising sound editor James Harrison did a great job with all that. We did all the mixing in Atmos at De Lane Lea in London, and the DI at Company 3 London with colorist Tom Poole.”
Like all animation, Pixar’s Incredibles 2 (receiving an Animation nod) is essentially one long VFX sequence, and returning director/writer Brad Bird and his team fully utilized new technology and dazzled with such eye-candy as the Parr family’s futuristic home, Helen’s ‘elastic’ motorcycle, new digital suits and the 3D city, complete with an old town and suburbs. In the stop-motion animation tour-de-force Isle of Dogs (also receving an Animated Film nod), visual effects supervisor Tim Ledbury managed to maintain the DIY Wes Anderson sensibility and work in an innovative way with the time honored art form. Although puppets and sets were detailed and real, all the “hand-made” elements were shot in-camera against greenscreen and had to be composited together. His VFX team’s previs compositions were essential, as many previs mockups allowed Anderson to make framing decisions before cameras rolled and sets and elements were built and established. With 50-plus sets and hundreds of set ups, they also used “mobile” greenscreens and forced perspective to minimize the need to composite shots together, and used CG with the seas, when the dogs are on the raft traveling along and the ocean backgrounds. VFX were also crucial when the motion control cameras couldn’t get close enough to the puppets.
A few honory mentions in the audio category are Beautiful Boy, the harrowing family drama about drug addiction and the first English language film from Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen. Editor Nico Leunen notes that the nonlinear, emotionally driven film stylistically mimics the way memory works. Sound designer/supervising sound editor Elmo Weber should have been recognized for his beautifully realized and detailed naturalistic soundscape. Along with sound FX editor Marc Glassman, he spent days recording environments, then Van Groeningen and Luenen spent many hours at Weber’s home listening to and blending the various elements in a 7.1 monitoring environment.
Sound also played a key role in what should have been another contender, the family drama The Hate U Give. When BAFTA-winning sound editing supervisor Don Sylvester (Walk the Line), Oscar-winning re-recording mixer Andy Nelson (Les Miserables) and Oscar nominated re-recording mixer David Giammarco (Moneyball) began collaborating with director George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food) on the film, they all set out to carefully craft a soundscape that was ultra-realistic, and did all the mixing on the Howard Hawks stage on the Fox lot.
Mary Queen of Scots
Mary Queen of Scots, the sweeping period drama about the turbulent life of Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) and that of her English cousin Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), was certainly noticed for costume design and hair and makeup, but it also deserves attention for its great sound.
Theater director Josie Rourke, making her feature film directorial debut, worked closely with a sound team that included sound designers Ian Wilson and Alastair Sirkett, and re-recording mixers Steve Single and Andrew Caller. The team used the new The Mix Stage at the Abbey Road Studios. Single and Wilson produced three temp mixes during the picture edit period, with Single using the Avid S6 console for dialogue and music, and Wilson using an Avid S3 for his effects. While preparing for each temp mix, the team worked in 7.1.2 Atmos Pro Tools sessions and folded down via Spanner to 5.1 in the tracks to feed the temp mixes. “This meant we were always carrying the temp mix adjustments and edit work forward towards the final mix,” says Wilson. Premixes were done at Pinewood Studios, and the effects were mixed by resident Pinewood mixer Caller in the Dolby Atmos room. The final mix at Abbey Road took three weeks.