per tradition, my completely subjective report from the VFX bakeoff.
tl,dr: I still say it's a two-horse race between Apes and Dunkirk, the rest of the field could be almost any of the other eight. Unless Shape of Water pulls an ex Machina (ha!) as the classy/arty dark horse.
Based on my scribbled notes, in presentation order:
So much emphasis on the practical fx, I began to worry they were hyping the practical TOO much. However, they threw in enough techno-wonk about shooting in IMAX to satisfy the frame-fiddlers, I think.
Fun tidbit: When you strap a custom IMAX camera to a miniature plane, then get in a chase helicopter with the plane's RC pilot and fly out over the Channel to line up a shot at 48 FPS - you get ONE MINUTE of shoot time before you have to go home again.
Prediction: Should be a finalist, will be.
The Shape of Water
Lovely, but tiny. I'm not saying that Best VFX should mean Most, but there was nothing groundbreaking on display. The FX were fine and the movie is pretty, but compared to Apes or Dunkirk... I just ain't feelin' it.
However, that was my read on ex Machina last year as well, and I sure missed the boat on that one. There's no denying that showing boobs at the bakeoff gets attention, because it happens so rarely.
Fun tidbit: Shape only got one audience question which either means it's a lock, or dead in the water (ha again!)
Prediction: shouldn't be a finalist. Could be, because boobs.
I haven't seen this movie and I'm not sure I ever will. From the reel it looks like Ridley's just going to keep remaking Alien with whatever new toys he can get hold of. Good for him, and all the work was fine but nothing new.
Prediction: The one I'm most sure won't make the cut.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2.
The Guardians are my fave flavor in the Marvel Mandatory Consumption Variety Pack, and of the three space chase movies this year it's my fave as well. Viewed right next to Valerian and Last Jedi, Guardians' space spectacle was the most eye-pleasing and its action the best-choreographed. But I have no idea if enough voters will agree with me. Also a problem: Vol 1 got a nomination and there may not be enough new stuff this time around.
But for ME, the highlight of the whole evening was re-watching Yondu's arrow lay waste to the bad guys to the tune of Come A Little Bit Closer, because VFX doesn't get any more fun than that. It's probably my favorite sequence of 2017. (Second place: Wonder Woman in No Man's Land, thanks for asking.)
Fun tidbits: The reel was one of the best of the evening - they included a LOT of the jokes, and they all got laughs from the crowd. It's never a bad idea to show that your VFX are the movie, not just eye candy. Whatever bugged me about Rocket in Vol 1. isn't bugging me anymore in Vol 2. Especially interesting since Rocket in Vol 2 was done by four different vendors. There was a fair amount of discussion about de-aging Kurt Russell, my vibe is the voters found it acceptable.
Best Line In The Presentation: "Every day, Gunn would have an idea that we weren't sure was a joke or not."
Least Helpful Line In The Presentation: From the practical FX guy, in answer to the question "So what was most challenging for you?" he said "Trying to find something to do." Whoops.
Prediction: Should get in. Probably won't.
Kong: Skull Island
In a year with the Planet of the Apes finale in the running, I'm not sure how much monkey love is left over for a Kong movie. The reel was solid - Kong punches the dinosaurs real good, often while knee-deep in procedural water - but I just wasn't feeling a lot of heat from the room for a movie that most people barely remember existed.
Prediction: It's somewhere in the middle of the pack. Might get enough votes, might not.
War For The Planet Of The Apes
From the vibe in the room, this one's got nothing to worry about. The supervisor's presentation was on the dry side - procedural hair blah blah, lighting blah blah - but the reel made sure to show lots of little character moments. Everybody loves Bad Ape, the editors knew that and featured him heavily. Money in the bank.
The topic of Serkis was touched on, delicately, as usual. The claim is that the on-set performers contributed a great deal as reference, but the mocap data wasn't used directly, the performances were entirely re-created with keyframing.
Fun tidbits: There are only 15 NON-fx shots in the entire movie. The DP shot the movie with heavy depth of field, so in the VFX shots they would sometimes intentionally miss the focus by a smidge, to add to the realism. And it's easy to think of the movie as just ape fx, so they made sure to point out the mostly-digital environments - forests and waterfalls and avalanches etc.
Prediction: If this doesn't make the list, the system is broken.
Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets
Haven't seen this one, not likely to. BUT JEEZUS LOOK AT IT. I don't think I've ever seen a bakeoff reel that gave me less of an idea of what the freakin' movie was actually about. There were maybe three shots of the actual lead actors in the whole thing - it was all about the world-building. BUT JEEZUS LOOK AT IT.
I dunno... if Avatar got a nomination, how does this not get one, too? The only reason would be that nobody in America saw this movie. But if "best vfx" does mean "most vfx" to enough of the voters, this one's in.
Fun tidbit: "Making this movie was so much fun, we thought nobody could possibly love it as much as we did. And we were right."
Prediction: Another one in the middle of the pack somewhere. Will not be surprised if it gets into the final because JEEZUS LOOK AT IT.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Reduced to a bakeoff reel, Last Jedi all seems very... familiar. The thing that got the most attention in the Q & A was the process of archaeologically re-creating puppet Yoda from original molds, etc. Which was fascinating, but it's not a good sign when your most interesting story is about doing the exact same effect that you already won an Oscar for in 1981.
Fun tidbit: Practical puppet scenes are a time-consuming pain in the ass to shoot (I can vouch for this personally.) When they shot the Yoda scene for Last Jedi, dozens of the cast and crew stood there for hours - at night, in the cold - just to see Hamill and Oz working together again. I would have, too.
Prediction: Star Wars movies are on the brink of becoming just like Harry Potter or Marvel or Jurassic Park, as far as VFX - just "another one of those". There'll be a Star Wars movie in the running every year for the foreseeable future and everyone in the room knew it. Jedi will likely get through on residual goodwill (and the large ILM voting bloc), but I will not be shocked if it doesn't.
This one's in a mini-race with Shape of Water for the Little Movie That Could slot, and I think it comes out ahead. Yes, it's a one-trick pony (or pig), but unlike the very small world of Shape of Water, Okja is out in the real world in dozens of environments, destroying cars and department stores and so on. Something about Okja wasn't quite "right" for me, but I can't put my finger on what. So as with the original Rocket, that may just be me.
On the plus side, I have a lot of love for any movie where the animation supervisor was on set puppeteering stand-in props and orchestrating the interactions with a creature to be added later, since a large part of my own career has been exactly that. (It was the first bakeoff reel in a long time that made me think "that would have been fun to work on.") My quibble with Okja's realism is somewhere in the lighting/compositing zone - as far as animation and interaction with actors and sets, I say it's a home run.
Fun tidbit: the animators held back on giving Okja too much expression, especially in the eyes. They wanted her to still seem like an animal - a smart one, but not too cartoonishly human-like.
Prediction: if there's a slot for a small movie to make the final five, I think Okja beats Shape of Water for the position. On the other hand - no boobs. Not human ones, anyway.
Blade Runner 2049
Didn't have a strong vibe for this one going in, but there seemed to be a lot of goodwill for it and so I rate its chances higher now.
On the other hand, it was one of the worst-constructed reels of the night. Too much time was spent on repetitive shots of the big landscapes. So much so, the reel ran out of time without showing the final fight in the flooding spinner at all - which would have been their strongest demo of practical effects. They ended up describing the effort that went into that scene in the Q&A, which was certainly not the best way to impress the crowd.
But they did make sure to include their one available boob shot, because boobs.
Fun tidbits: It was inevitable that the most discussion would be about the ninety seconds of digital Rachel.
The director felt there was something "off" about Rachel in her big scene, but in the shots where they re-created scenes from the original movie, she looked right. They realized the difference was original Rachel had been lit by Jordan Cronenweth and not Roger Deakins . They applied Cronenweth's lighting style to the digital model and showed that to the director, and he thought it was a real clip from the first movie. Problem solved.
Richard Edlund - one of the heads of the VFX branch - committed the closest thing to a gaffe in a mostly unremarkable evening. In the Blade Runner Q&A he offered the opinion that digital Rachel had "finally crossed the uncanny valley". In response, Blade Runner's VFX supervisor was quick to diplomatically point out that we'd seen a lot of digital humans throughout the evening that were great, but thanks for the compliment.
Prediction: There just seemed to be a lot of love in the room for this one. I feel like it has a better than 50/50 shot at a nomination.
Final prediction (confident version):
Three of the others, but probably not Alien
Final prediction (gun to my head version):
That second prediction is just barely more than a guess. This year is especially hard to parse.