The 94th Academy Awards are almost here, and the nominations are in. Of course, there are the usual shocks, WTF moments and surprises. No best director nom for Denis Villeneuve’s impressive work on Dune, despite the sci-fi epic’s 10 nominations? No best picture nom for
Spider-Man: No Way Home, a pandemic blockbuster, which also wowed critics? No Lady Gaga, who won rave reviews for her scene-stealing performance in
House of Gucci?
Almost as shocking is just how far COVID, now in its third year, has pushed the industry away from traditional exhibition and into the arms of streaming. Half of the 10 best picture nominees were released by streamers or released simultaneously online and in theaters. And in a sign of the times, all of Warner Bros.’ 2021 movies, including Dune and
King Richard, were released on streaming service HBO Max and in theaters simultaneously.
The Power of the Dog
Netflix scored the biggest haul of Oscar nominations for the third year in a row — 27 this year, including 12 for its psychological Western The Power of the Dog from writer/director/producer Jane Campion. Adam McKay’s star-studded satire
Don’t Look Up received four noms, including best picture and original screenplay. Other nominated Netflix movies included
Tick, Tick ... Boom! and
The Lost Daughter.
Apple TV+ earned its first Best Picture nomination for CODA and scored six total nominations: three for
CODA and three for Joel Coen’s
The Tragedy of Macbeth, including lead actor for Denzel Washington. Amazon’s film division scored four nominations for movies that were streamed on Amazon Prime, including three noms for Aaron Sorkin’s
Being the Ricardos.
Yes, a traditional studio like Disney earned 23 nominations, the second most of the year, but it’s obvious that streaming is not only here to stay but is now the dominant force in Hollywood.
With all that in mind, we now present our annual look at some of this year’s nominees.
BEST PICTURE/ BEST DIRECTOR
History was made when the nominations were announced. Jane Campion, the de facto frontrunner with The Power of the Dog, became the first woman to earn two best director nods (she previously won an Oscar nom for directing the 1993 drama The Piano). She was also nominated in the best adapted screenplay category.
And with Belfast, Ken Branagh became the first person to score seven Oscar nominations in seven different categories. He was nominated for directing, producing and writing the original screenplay for the film, and had previously earned nominations for best actor and best director (Henry V), best live-action short film (Swan Song), best supporting actor (My Week With Marilyn) and best adapted screenplay (Hamlet).
And veteran Steven Spielberg, who earned his eighth best director nom for his energetic and soulful remake of the classic musical West Side Story, became the first person to win a nom in that category in six consecutive decades – and this time for his first-ever musical.
Joining Spielberg, Campion and Branagh in the best director race are Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza) and Ryûsuke Hamaguchi (Drive My Car). While Anderson has long been an Oscar favorite – this marks his 11th nomination, though he’s yet to win, Hamaguchi and his film’s four noms were another big surprise.
And joining those directors and their films in the best picture category are CODA, Don’t Look Up, King Richard, Nightmare Alley, and Dune – the only box-office blockbuster in the bunch.
Streamer Netflix has not yet won a best picture Oscar, but The Power of the Dog looks likely to change that, and Campion assembled a key group of creatives, including DP Ari Wegner (Lady Macbeth), editor Peter Sciberras (The King) and VFX house Alt.VFX, to make the acclaimed drama. It was shot in a very remote location on the South Island of New Zealand, which doubled for Montana.
“It had terrible high winds, and winter weather there is very bad,” reports Campion. “We shot with Arri Alexa Mini LFs, which are light and great for this kind of location shooting and Steadicam work.”
Post, done in Sydney, was largely remote because of COVID.
“I love post, especially editing, so doing it remote wasn’t easy,” she adds.
The main editing challenges were “finding the story and reducing all the material to tell that story in the most economical, effective way. You're basically trying to fit in all the best material, all the best performance pieces, all the pieces you really believe in, and then you have to be ruthless about cutting all the rest.”
Trish Cahill was the colorist and the team spent “a long time” on the DI at Soundfirm in Melbourne working on “some difficult shots, like the exterior where Phil comes out of the mill at night and getting the right look in the night sky,” she adds. “And we did a lot of manipulation to get the colors just right and not too bright. And there were a lot of stages to the DI that I was surprised weren’t more automatic, like the HD version and 6K and so on. We had to go through it all again several times. But I loved the whole process.”
Branagh’s Belfast, a love letter to his hometown and a humorous, tender and intensely-personal story of one boy’s childhood during the tumult of the late 1960s, is another top contender. It was shot largely in black & white by his go-to DP, Haris Zambarloukos, and edited by Úna Ní Dhonghaíle.
“We shot very little in Belfast itself, as so much of the city has changed in the past 50 years and COVID also made it very difficult,” he says.
Instead, they recreated streets and parts of the city at an airport outside London.
“We also made a couple of guerilla-style trips to Belfast to get the rest of the footage.”
Post was largely remote.
“For the edit, I worked on an Avid at home and Una worked from Dublin,” Branagh reports. “Then we recorded all the sound and music as Twickenham Studios and Goldcrest in London, and did the mix at Shepperton Studios, so we had a lot of our regular post team.”
The post process, he stresses, is crucial.
“It’s the place where I understood, right from my first film, that it could make, in terms of performance, a good one bad, a good one great, a bad one much better. The power of change in post is just amazing to me, and realizing that anything is possible, if you have the imagination.”
Editing the film “was tough because of COVID and having to work remotely, but I was able to search on my Avid through hundreds of hours of news footage of the time and find the half dozen pieces critical to the movie, such as the opening color montage of Belfast.”
The big editing challenges were “finding the soundscape, I think, and finding a way to make the riot at the start as explosive as it needed to be. Finding a way, when we didn’t have action pieces and coverage, to let the single setup still frame find a pace that was impactful. And sometimes that was as big of an editing challenge as all of the flashy, fast-cutting scenes in the riot sequence, or the shoplifting sequence.”
The DI was done at Goldcrest in London with colorist Rob Pizzey.
“He’s also worked with me on various films, and I’m involved every step of the way,” says Branagh. “The big thing was dealing with the look of the black & white, which we wanted to be very liquid and glamorous, the sort of black & white you felt you could walk into. We did a Dolby Vision version, and we explored the whole tonal range of the contrast, but we didn’t mess about with grain or add any. We kept it clean to have this ‘Hollywood black & white,’ as I call it, as opposed to a European black & white. Ours is much richer, and it was a choice informed by my love of noir films and not wanting a washed-out look, and I love the look we got.”
King Richard stars two-time Oscar nominee Will Smith, now nominated for his starring role in the unlikely-but-true story of Richard Williams, the driven and determined father who had a vision and an unwavering belief that he could coach and turn two of his daughters, Venus and Serena, into tennis legends. The film was helmed by indie director Reinaldo Marcus Green, who stresses that, “It's not just a sports drama. It's a story about family and belief, and I set out to make it as personal a film as I could.”
Post “was crucial, especially as we had a lot more visual effects than you'd think, so we began dealing with all that very early on in prep. Part of all that was dealing with the girls, as we cast just two girls who had to play different periods growing up, and we have a big time jump of four years at one point, so we had to use VFX to make that seamless. And it was a combination of VFX and body doubles to create realistic tennis sequences. So all the previs was crucial to how we'd shoot all the big tennis sequences. And then all the VFX had to make all that stuff seamless. And then when COVID hit, we needed even more VFX work in terms of creating extras and crowds. We literally shot the final scene with just 100 extras in the stadium before COVID shut us down, and the stadium seats over 7,000, so that took a lot of VFX work to fill it up in post.”
For my interview with CODA director Sian Heder see my Director's Chair
story from June 2021.
VISUAL EFFECTS & POST WORKFLOW
Oscar has always loved really big, splashy VFX, and frontrunner Dune is stuffed with them, thanks to the hard work of nominees Paul Lambert, Tristan Myles, Brian Connor and Gerd Nefzer and Dneg.
“We were dealing with post and visual effects right from the very start,” notes director Denis Villeneuve. “Just in terms of all the sets we had to design and build, we had to plan what would be real and what would be set extensions, and then any creature and vehicle — such as the ornithopters (huge insect-like flying machines) — had to be previs’ed, so that when I was shooting I'd know exactly what we'd need for plates and all the visual effects. The whole movie was storyboarded and then we did so much previs with The Third Floor and MPC.”
As all the VFX played a crucial role, the director worked “extremely closely” on them with VFX supervisor Paul Lambert, his two-time Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor.
“He was with me all the time and on-set every day. We developed such a shorthand on Blade Runner 2049 that I knew I wanted him on this, and we did well over 2,000 VFX shots. There's been a lot of talk about how much we did in-camera, but the truth is, everything we did in-camera had some sort of VFX work done — a fix or addition and enhancement and so on. For instance, the ornithopter bodies were real, but only half the wings were real — the rest was all CG. And then we used real helicopters as a reference for color, light and reflection and so on, and we had them take off and land, but all the flying sequences were VFX and took a lot of work.”
The hardest VFX sequence to do was “definitely the worms,” he reports, “and it involved a lot of R&D with sand and particle movement, and Dneg had to write a lot of new software to bring them to life. It was very complex, as we wanted it to be totally photo-real and look like part of the whole environment — not just added on. That took a very long time.”
Dneg was the main vendor and they created over half the shots, including the sandworms using ZBrush and Maya, but Rodeo FX, Wylie Visual Effect and Track VFX also contributed. Gentle Giant, Digic and The Scan Truck provided cyber scanning. Digital Domain did motion capture. Lidar Guys did the Lidar.
It's telling that another top contender, No Time to Die, is the first Bond film since 1979’s Moonraker to win a VFX nom. Stellar work from the nominees – VFX supervisors Charlie Noble, Joel Green, Jonathan Fawkner and Chris Corbould – seamlessly blended some 1,500 cutting-edge VFX with the franchise’s usual OMG stunt work. And shooting on film and IMAX rather than digital helped highlight the invisible VFX work, which ranged from complex set pieces, like the gritty DB5 car chase, to the sinking boat sequence, face replacements, backgrounds and bridges. Dneg, Framestore, ILM, Milk and Gentle Giant were some of the many vendors involved.
Like Bond, Spider-Man has finally ended a long dry spell in the VFX category. 2004’s Spider-Man 2 was the last in the superhero franchise to win a VFX Oscar, so the pressure was on for Spider-Man: No Way Home’s director Jon Watts and VFX team led by nominees Kelly Port, Chris Waegner, Scott Edelstein and Dan Sudick. Port, Marvel’s VFX supervisor, oversaw some 2,500 VFX shots and work done by many vendors, including Sony Pictures Imageworks, Framestore, Digital Domain and Luma, which included resurrecting such VFX-driven characters as Doc Ock, Green Goblin, Sandman, Electro and Lizard. All the technical advances since Spider-Man 2 are on full display; while Ock’s tentacles were only part-CGI in that film, they’re all fully-CGI this time, and Ock’s de-aging process used a facial tracking system and compositing to take years off actor Alfred Molina. Creating Sandman was even more challenging, involving very complex simulations with millions of grains of sand all interacting.
Spider-Man: No Way Home, courtesy of Perception
When award-winning indie filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton was tapped by Marvel to helm its VFX-heavy big superhero tentpole Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, it surprised many pundits. And the challenges were huge — creating an action-packed origin story featuring Marvel’s first Asian superhero, as well as Marvel’s first dragons and the rings themselves. But the gamble paid off, with Cretton and his VFX team — visual effects supervisor Christopher Townsend (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), Joe Farrell, Sean Noel Walker and Dan Oliver — nimbly combining dazzling action, martial arts, monsters and VFX in a mega-budget epic blockbuster.
“On these huge projects you start post and working on the VFX before you even really start anything else, and it all goes on at the same time and never stops until the very end,” reports Cretton. “That was a big learning curve for me.”
The team used “a ton” of both previs and postvis, done with The Third Floor.
“It was a combination of fight-vis that was coming from the stunt department, and that was quite a bit more than in most Marvel movies, and then we'd figure out how to do a combination of fight-vis with previs, and we'd pass on the fight-vis to previs in order to do all the VFX-heavy previs that the stunt department was not able to do,” explains Cretton. “Then we'd puzzle-piece all our sequences together to see how they were working. Then in post, we also did a lot of postvis as we were constantly searching for the edit and doing test screenings, and we had a post VFX editor with us in the room all the time as we had so much postvis happening through the whole process, to make it watchable for the test screenings.”
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, courtesy of Rising Sun Pictures
One of the film’s main technical challenges was pulling together the big opening bus-fight sequence.
“It has all the very complicated stunts, but it's also a very VFX-heavy scenario that you could never shoot in real life,” he reports. “So, to be able to create VFX that could mold to the style of the stunt choreography and that aesthetic was quite a process. We shot all the bus interior stuff and stunts in Sydney right at the start of our shooting schedule. And we'd already gone over it all with Chris Townsend and his team, and tracked out exactly what the bus journey would look like going down the hill, so we knew precisely what plates we needed outside the bus at any given time. It took a lot of coordination between VFX, stunts, and our 2nd Unit on the ground in Sydney. Then, at the end of the shoot, once we had the whole sequence pieced together with previs doing the big bus crashes, we went to San Francisco to shoot the real, physical action and crashes. So again, it was like this giant puzzle you had to put together in post and the edit.”
Ultimately, many VFX companies, including Weta, Trixter, Digital Domain, Rodeo, Luma, Rising Sun, Scanline, Method Melbourne, Distillery, Stereo D, Fin Design, Basilic Fly and BotVFX, all contributed.
“Weta did all of the third act, all of the creatures — all the big stuff,” says Cretton. “Trixter did a lot of the creature design and animation, and all the initial work on the rings was done in-house at Marvel, and then various companies did animations of the different ways the rings could be used, before it was handed off to Weta. And then Industrial Pixel and the Lidar Guys did the character scanning and lidar for us.”
The hardest VFX shots to do? Simple, the water stuff, he adds.
“Weta did it all and it’s really gorgeous water simulation. But it took so long and so much hard work, and I was told that at one point, we'd completely shut down all of the rendering computers available to Weta for these water sims. That’s how crazy it was.”
Free Guy, courtesy of Digital Domain
Finally, director Shawn Levy’s Free Guy doesn’t just showcase some stunning VFX — it couldn’t exist without them, as it’s set in both a videogame and reality, and stars Ryan Reynolds as a bank teller who discovers he is actually a background player in an open-world video game and decides to become the hero of his own story.
VFX supervisor Swen Gillberg (Avengers: Endgame) and his fellow nominees Bryan Grill, Nikos Kalaitzidis and Dan Sudick created some 1,400 VFX shots (vendors included Scanline, Digital Domain and Lola) that ranged from head replacement and creation of a digital stunt double for the star to a VFX-heavy car chase, environments and dozens of background characters.