Guardian of VFX: Is VFX Hollywood’s Whipping Boy?

Who is the Guardian of VFX ?

Adam Dewhirst is a 3d artist working in post production VFX in film in London – his credits include The Dark Knight, the Golden Compass, Prince of Persia, WWZ and his latest film, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy which opens on July 31st. In the lead up to the films release we asked Adam to blog about a few topics concerning VFX in film. Before we let Adam loose on his first blog post for GS we thought the best way to show off Adam’s credentials was with his showreel…enjoy!

Is VFX Hollywood’s Whipping Boy?

Transformers 4 has just  been released, and by all accounts  a terrible movie. Now, I am a fan of transformers, well …I’m a fan of the cartoon rather than the movie franchise. I can’t stand Shia Labeouf, or Megan fox, and I can’t envision Mark Wallberg being a big improvement on these two. The plot for T4 is pretty thin, largely ridiculous and let’s face it “a film by Michael bay” is code for “loud and in your face!”. Now saying all of that I have still managed to see all three films and in all honesty I’ll probably go see the 4th… Why? Because the visual effects are so awesome.

Let’s back track a bit. I work in visual effects and quite often we are whipping boys and girls who get the blame for a film being terrible. In my mind bad movies do not necessarily have bad visual effects, although granted they may be unnecessary – I’m looking at you Star Wars prequels, but that doesn’t make them bad, nor should they be blamed for the overall outcome of the film.

Recently Warner Bros issued a statement about the release of “Jupiter Ascending”, the latest film from the Wachowski siblings, stating the film was getting set back about eight to nine months so the visual effects could be finished ….. Bollocks! From everything I have heard within the Industry, the VFX on this film are done!  In my opinion the reason the film is being set back is because the producers have lost faith in the success of the film. It’s convenient  for them to lay the blame at the digital feet of VFX, as it’s a faceless entity ( I for one can assure you it’s not faceless! ). I mean you’re not going blame the director(s) are you? You’re not going to put the blame on a bankable star? But the faceless entity that is VFX? Sure let them Take the brunt of it!

Let’s look at some recent examples that have all been labelled failures for different reasons, and why the VFX are not to blame.

Edge of Tomorrow. 2014 – This is actually a pretty good film, with a premise that has the end of the world mixed in with ground hog day and chucks in Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. The VFX are awesome in this film, but it’s been tagged a failure as it hasn’t reached the box office success it was predicted to. This has nothing to do with the quality of the film itself. I doubt it even has anything to do with the pull (or lack of) of Tom Cruise rather that the cost of making the movie and therefore the money it has to make back was so high that the expectations for the film have to be enormous.

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Any moment now Tom will start running…RUN TOM RUN!

Battle of Los Angeles. 2011 – Once again those pesky aliens decide to invade the earth. The only thing that can being them down? You guessed it gentle geek it’s a rogue troop of US marines! This sounds awful and it is, but I think Battle of Los Angeles is one of those films that knows it’s premise is weak, much like the Fast and the Furious (also good VFX) . Once you get beyond the ridiculous concept, Battle of Los Angeles is a fun movie, mostly shot with a steady cam style, and the VFX is pretty damn seamless, integrating into the real LA so well you often forget it’s there.

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Battle of Los Angeles aka ‘Where’s Will Smith when you need him’

John Carter. 2012 –  Again – not a bad film, but the budget was so overblown on this that it was regarded as a failure. Let’s not forget  that despite being badly marketed in the UK and the US, it still managed to gross over $73,000,000. The VFX in this film is cutting edge, an entire race of “Tharks” from the planet Mars interact with real actors in scenes that rival Avatar and Lord of the Rings for photo realism. Totally underrated!

Taylor Kitsch

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The Tharks show their disappointment in the marketing campaign for John Carter

47 Ronin. 2013 – Ugh, I had high hopes for this, no idea why, it all sounds bad even on paper. I mean Keanu Reeves leading a team of 47 actual samurai in feudal Japan, yeah that was always going to go down well. The acting is bad, the plot and motives are pretty weak but the visual effects? Stunning! Particularly the creatures and the sets, which are from a really rich and colourful palette. I love the forest creature at the opening of the film and the dragon at the end is also awesome.

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All films regarded as failures for whatever reason, I’m not necessarily trying to explain each one away, and to be fair both Battle of LA and 47 Ronin are not good films as a whole, but in each case, the VFX was not responsible. I would even argue the VFX did everything possible to save the movie. The question is can visual effects redeem an otherwise bad movie? Well it’s a hard case to prove.

Let’s look at Tron Legacy – one of my favourite films, and to be fair, it’s almost entirely because of its visual style. I know a lot of people felt this film was a let down as a sequel but there’s also a lot of people who love it.. I would argue that a film where everything but the lead actor (and in some cases him/her as well) is cg is largely responsible for this appeal. Strip back the VFX and what do you have? Green screen and a slightly weak script with an ageing Jeff Bridges playing two characters (nothing against Jeff, I’m a big fan, but let’s face it, this sequel was made several decades too late) . OK there is an awesome soundtrack by Daft Punk, as well as great lighting and a lovely feeling of nostalgia feel to the film, all of which brought together by the fantastic VFX.

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Life of Pi – a film that won Oscars for both cinematography and visual effects… Without the computers is a kid in a boat talking to himself. Gravity? No VFX, and it’s Sandra bullock and George clones dangling from the ceiling for two hours, and I don’t know about you, but is saw enough of him hanging around in Batman and Robin (less said about that the better).

VFX can make and break a film,(Lost in Space, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) but it’s rare that it drives the film. When it does the producers will make the effort to ensure it is as visually stunning as possible.  At the end of the day when people say things like Phantom Menace has too much cg instead of real sets and puppets”  they may well be true but that’s not to say the overused cg itself is bad. Visual effects is at a point where there are so many good studios producing outstanding work it becomes more about “how can we outshine the competition?” and less about “how cheaply can we do this?”. lets face it, its a good time to be a computer generated house elf because its more than likely your death scene will convey more sadness and emotion than any real actor in the entire franchise, and in case you’ve not seen the Harry Potter films, I’m sorry, but I’m referring to Dobby’s untimely death in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 1! (I’m not crying, I have grit in my eye).

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In this week’s Panorama – ‘Where do house elves go when they die?’

 

Next week – why Guardians of the Galaxy is a risk for Marvel. Check out Adam’s website over at www.adamdewhirst.com

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