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What's going on with the troubled VFX industry?

Image credit: Marvel, New Line Cinema, Lionsgate

Image credit: Marvel, New Line Cinema, Lionsgate

The buzz around the state of the visual effects industry reached a fever pitch this winter when prominent effects house Rhythm & Hues filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in mid-February. Further attention was pointed at the men and women who create whole worlds from a blank green canvas during the Oscars, when VFX artists held a protest near the ceremony, which honored Life of Pi – a movie with effects by Rhythm & Hues – with an Academy Award in the visual effects category. The complaint? Movies like The Avengers, The Hunger Games, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy have scored big at the box office, grossing millions, sometimes billions worldwide, but the VFX industry that brought Asgard, Panem and Middle-earth to life doesn’t reap the same benefits as the studios.

The movement has spurred supporters to change their Facebook and Twitter profile photos to a green box, representing the green screen that would appear in movies were it not for VFX. Blogs have popped up that feature photos of what movie shots looked like before visual effects turned Andy Serkis into Gollum, before Mark Ruffalo was turned into the Hulk.

And more and more visual effects artists and their colleagues are speaking out about their financial woes and the changes to the business that they want to see. Last Thursday visual effects artists gathered for a meeting dubbed Pi Day VFX Town Hall (the name dually referencing Life of Pi and the March 14 holiday, as well as the artists’ frequent call for their “piece of the pi”). Panelists spoke to and took questions from a group of industry members at the Gnomon School of Visual Effects in Los Angeles, and VFX artists from around the world (including Vancouver, B.C., London, San Francisco, Austin, Tex. and New Zealand) connected via Google+ Hangout for the international discussion.

To help sort out the issues at hand in all this, EW talked to several Hollywood visual effects artists as well as with Roland Emmerich, director of visual effects-driven disaster movies Independence Day, GodzillaThe Day After Tomorrow, and 2012, as well as the upcoming White House Down. We also reached out to several other directors of effects-driven films and representatives for major Hollywood studios and for the Directors Guild of America. None returned EW’s request for comment for this article.

Just how bad are the financial woes of the visual effects industry?

READ FULL STORY

Oscar winners explain why editing, sound editing, sound mixing, and cinematography AREN'T technical categories

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Leading up to the Oscars, we looked at four categories moviegoers may mistakenly think of as “technical.” The truth is, there were no technical categories in last night’s telecast: Every winner was honored for his or her creative contribution to the film. In case you missed those earlier pieces — which explain what editors, sound editors, sound mixers, and cinematographers actually do — here are excerpts from winners in those categories that prove the point:

Argo editor William Goldenberg:

“It sounds funny, but a lot of people tend to think it’s a purely technical job where you literally go in and cut slates off, and the director says, ‘Do that, do that, do that,'” said Goldenberg, who won his first Oscar for Argo, but was also nominated this year for editing Zero Dark Thirty with Dylan Tichenor and previously for The Insider and Seabiscuit.

The editor begins work when cameras start rolling, and does the first cut of scenes — and of the film — on his or her own. Goldenberg, who’d previously cut Gone Baby Gone for Ben Affleck, went to the Argo director’s home editing room every Sunday, even during production, to show him his week’s worth of work. “Even though I wasn’t getting specific notes from him, I was getting a feel for what he wanted. It was almost like by osmosis: just having all his conversations in my head gave me a feeling of like, Oh, I know Ben would hate this or I know this isn’t what he’s looking for.” Affleck turned over nearly 1 million feet of film, including a noteworthy amount of footage of a parrot being enticed to squawk for the tense airport finale. “It was really hilarious, because you couldn’t see Ben, but you could hear him off-camera. He’s just squawking and squawking and squawking, and then the bird would finally do it, and he would squawk over the bird or be talking over it,” Goldenberg says. “It was a lot of bird.”  READ FULL STORY

Oscars: Visual effects artists protest outside Dolby Theatre

Protestors are no rare sight outside Hollywood awards shows — members of extreme religious groups often set up camp near events like the SAG Awards and the Oscars. But at this year’s Academy Awards, a protest of a different kind was taking place; It came from inside Tinseltown. A reported 400 or so visual effects artists gathered outside Dolby Theatre Sunday to pronounce their grievances with their place in the industry.

The protest followed the announcement earlier this month that visual effects house Rhythm & Hues is filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Protesters on a street corner near Dolby held aloft signs that read “Will matte paint for food,” “Respect for vex” and “We want a piece of the Pi.” Rhythm & Hues worked on Life of Pi, which took home the award for Best Visual Effects Sunday. READ FULL STORY

This year's Academy Awards: a lively, occasionally uneasy mixture of snark and sincerity

I’m someone who respects tradition, so in writing about the Academy Awards, I generally make a point of referring to them at least once — usually in my opening sentence — as, you know, “the Academy Awards.” But now I’ve learned that I shouldn’t even do that: The official, marquee title of the event that ABC broadcast to a billion viewers on Sunday night was “The Oscars.” (Barbara Walters must have been thrilled.) Which may make you think that the show has taken on a new, casual spirit. In certain ways, it has. The host, Seth MacFarlane, threw his barbed tomahawks, treating the Oscars as his own free-form joke writer’s playroom. MacFarlane, a maestro of misanthropic snark, knew that he’d been engaged to push the how many powerful people in the audience can we insult to their faces? tradition of Ricky Gervais to the breaking point, and he happily complied. He tossed prickly insults at Quentin Tarantino, Amour, Harvey Weinstein, Daniel Day-Lewis’ vocal performance as Lincoln, and — thank you! — Entertainment Weekly. But he also framed the whole thing as a self-conscious stunt in which the question of whether or not he was “going too far” became the perpetual theme of his comedy. READ FULL STORY

Oscar-nominated cinematographers explain how they envelop you in the story

life-of-pi-04Leading up to tonight’s Oscars, EW.com set out to take a closer look at four categories that moviegoers may mistakenly think of as “technical.” After tackling Film Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing, we conclude with Cinematography, with insights from Anna Karenina’s Seamus McGarvey and Life of Pi’s Claudio Miranda. (Django Unchained’s Robert Richardson, Lincoln’s Janusz Kaminski, and Skyfall’s Roger Deakins complete the category.)

The cinematographer may be in charge of how to technically achieve the shots on a film set — lighting, camera movement, and framing — but what he and the director are really collaborating on his how to tell their story creatively and emotionally. “What mood do you feel when you watch the movie?” says Life of Pi‘s Claudio Miranda, who was previously nominated for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. “When you look at the movie, I don’t want you to think about me, I want you to think about the scene. It’s very important to me that you don’t think this is a fantasy-reality play. You need to believe this. I feel like if I’m too fake with lighting, you’ll be taken away and not immersed in the story. When I’m lighting a set, I go, ‘Am I there? Am I there yet? Am I there yet? Am I there yet? Am I there yet?’ And then I’ll let go when I say, ‘Okay, we’re here. We can work with this.'”

Making moviegoers feel like they’re adrift on a boat with Pi and Richard Parker obviously presented challenges. “We had an amazing tank that we built and I helped design. We knew we were going to be inside there shooting for 2.5 months, so it was worth it to be able to do anything we want. On all these kind of scenes, we had an idea of what the weather would be like. In that tank, I can create storm clouds, nightfall. We had curtains that I can block out [light], doors to open and let in real sunlight,” Miranda says. “So lighting-wise, [the movie] had a big ebb and flow. There’s high noon, which is kind of harsh and crisp, and then it gives way to maybe like the beautiful golden light, like in the scene where the sun comes up and there’s that beautiful music that comes along with it. Pi throws the can out and it only goes so far, and then it ends with him going to the tiger, and the tiger does this little growl, and Pi backs up, and then he starts talking to God at that moment. It’s a very beautiful scene, but it’s also beautiful because there is an ebb and flow of not so much beauty beforehand. If it was all that, it wouldn’t be that special.”

PiSun

Of course it’s the special scenes that moviegoers remember best about Pi. While Miranda and director Ang Lee looked at a watercolor painting for inspiration for the painterly sky in the scene described above, Miranda looked for real references for the most magical scene.

Miranda: There was a point when Ang and I went, in the middle of the night in southern Taichung, diving in the ocean in a bay that was phosphorescing. That was kind of our inspiration for the whale scene at night, and how that looked and how that felt and how the phosphorescence kind of went around your hand. As you shook your hand, the [phosphorescent plankton] get more excited and they become a little brighter. We played around with that in the movie. It ends up lighting the scene a little bit more. Being with Ang, in the middle of the night in an ocean just whacking away at phosphorescence — I just thought that was a pretty stunning moment.

Another scene that was special to him was the candlelit scene. “I really wanted the candles to light the whole scene. I decided with the crew, and I said, ‘There should be at least 50,000 candles on camera to cover the space. To last the night, they bought over 120,000 candles to keep what we see going. We had 2,000 people lighting. I don’t care what anybody says, when you’re there, you go, ohmygod, it is a beautiful spectacle. You walked away from that night, like, Ah. (Contrast that to one of his favorite scenes in Benjamin Button: “I like a room where people can walk around freely. I don’t like lighting people in a box, where they can’t move. There was one scene in Benjamin Button, when he’s saying goodbye to Mr. Oti, when I just put a light bulb in the middle of the whole scene, and I said, ‘Let’s just try this bulb in the middle, and let’s just let it be the bulb, and let it be what it is: Let it blow out, let it be horrible, let it be this, but this is the scene.’ I love that moment.”)

PiCandles

Lee also wanted to use 3-D as a storytelling point, with where the actors are placed. “There’s the scene where the ship sinks, and the ship is on the inside of the screen and Pi is floating a little bit outside. It’s kind of like a separation — this is his life going away,” Miranda says. “So when I lined it up, we put him in the audience-plane side of the screen and the ship was on the opposite side. We play different aggressions, like if an actor is being aggressive, we’ll put him towards screen as well. We wanted to play 3-D as a story point because it’s another way to make you feel the story.”

PiSinking

NEXT: Anna Karenina’s Seamus McGarvey on the beauty of elaborate Steadicam shots and simple close-ups

Oscar-nominated sound editors explain their key challenges (and the sounds you may not know they create)

Leading up to Sunday’s Oscars, EW.com will take a closer look at four categories that moviegoers may mistakenly think of as “technical.” After tackling Film Editing, we turn to Sound Editing, with insights from the nominated supervising sound editors of Argo (Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn), Life of Pi (Eugene Gearty, who shares his nod with Philip Stockton), Django Unchained (Wylie Stateman), and Zero Dark Thirty (Paul N.J. Ottosson). Skyfall‘s Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers complete the category. (Update: Read our Sound Mixing and Cinematography pieces.)

Early in his career, Zero Dark Thirty‘s supervising sound editor Paul N.J. Ottosson, who won both the sound editing and sound mixing Oscars for The Hurt Locker, his first collaboration with Kathryn Bigelow, would create a sound for everything he saw on the screen. “I would make them as big and cool as you possibly could,” he says, laughing. “They’d bring me to the stage, and sometimes the director would take out things: “We don’t need this. You don’t need this.’ And you’re just thinking Why, I see that thing on the screen? But at some point, you become more of a storyteller and start to focus on the story itself, and it’s a revelation. You understand how much better your work becomes and how much more important it becomes to the movie itself.”

For Argo‘s Ethan Van der Ryn, a two-time Oscar winner for King Kong and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, working on Saving Private Ryan was a turning point: “Steven Spielberg knew that he wanted to play the invasion of the Normandy beach with sound only, no music. So it was really an open slate to make it work with sound — to get to use the right, authentic sounds so you really feel like this experience is recreated for the viewer in an immersive way and you’re there, but also be able to do it in a way that becomes very emotional, that’s not just about getting all the details right. You have to have the right ingredients, but you need to weave them together in a way that works on an emotional, powerful sonic level.”

To understand the art of sound editing, we asked the nominees to talk us through some of their key challenges and scenes. But first, let’s start with the difference between sound editing and sound mixing, a separate Oscar category.

Essentially, the sound editorial team is responsible for assembling every sound you hear in the movie except the score and the dialogue that was recorded on set. This includes atmospheric sounds like the wind and ocean; hard effects, which are sounds synched for things like cars, gunshots, and explosions; and nuance sounds such as footsteps and people touching things with their hands. Though it’s more fun to talk about those sounds they gather and create (which we’ll do), they also edit and clean up the production dialogue delivered to them for clarity — syllable by syllable if necessary for directors like Quentin Tarantino who want to use as little ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) as possible, notes Django Unchained’s Wylie Stateman, a six-time Oscar nominee who’s done all of Tarantino’s films since Kill Bill: Vol. 1.

It’s the production sound mixer’s job to capture that dialogue on set as cleanly as possible to preserve the actor’s original performance. Post-production, the sound mixing team takes all the prepared sound elements mentioned above (there could be tens of thousands), plus the score (there were roughly 96 music tracks in Skyfall, for example), and affixes them to the screen and positions them in the theater while also setting their volume levels relative to each other. So they, too, create that immersive, emotional experience.

NEXT: The art of building tension without music

Oscar-nominated editors clear up the biggest misconception about their category (and explain the decisions you may not know they're making)

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Leading up to Sunday’s Oscars, EW.com will take a closer look at four categories that moviegoers may mistakenly think of as “technical.” First up: Film Editing, with insights from Life of Pi‘s Tim Squyres, Silver Linings Playbook‘s Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers, and Zero Dark Thirty‘s Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg, the latter of whom also cut Argo, making him one of only a handful of editors in Oscar history to compete with himself. Lincoln‘s Michael Kahn completes the category. (Update: Read our Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Cinematography pieces.)

Ask a film editor what the biggest misconception is about his or her role, and the answer is the same: “It sounds funny, but a lot of people tend to think it’s a purely technical job where you literally go in and cut slates off, and the director says, ‘Do that, do that, do that,'” says William Goldenberg, Oscar-nominated this year for both Argo and Zero Dark Thirty and previously for The Insider and Seabiscuit. What will surprise those moviegoers then is just how many decisions the editor actually makes — and when. Let’s start with an overview: READ FULL STORY

'The Hobbit,' 'Life of Pi,' and 'Fringe' lead the Saturn Award nominations

Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit movie may not have gotten much love from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror Films saw things differently, lavishing the fantasy epic with nine Saturn Award nominations today. The awards, now in their 39th year, honor the best genre films, TV shows, and home entertainment. They’ll be presented in June, though the ceremony’s exact date and location have yet to be announced.

Here’s a partial rundown of this year’s Saturn nominees, including the movies honored in its new independent film category. Visit the awards show’s website for a full list.

Best Science Fiction Film
Marvel’s The Avengers
Chronicle
Cloud Atlas
The Hunger Games
Looper
Prometheus

Best Fantasy Film
The Amazing Spider-Man
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Life of Pi
Ruby Sparks
Snow White and the Huntsman
Ted

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Oscars 2013: See the Academy's special edition posters for the nine Best Picture nominees

The Best Picture nominees have gotten a pop art facelift. Not that the nine Oscar contenders needed a facelift of any kind, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – along with Gallery1988 – still found a way to produce a fresh, eye-popping take on now-iconic images from these films.

The Academy recently released nine posters, one for each nominee, created by an international group of artists, many of whom have worked with Gallery1988 before.

Called “For Your Consideration,” the project is the first collaborative exhibition for Gallery1988 and the Academy. The Los Angeles gallery’s past entertainment-related poster collections include “Fringe Benefits,” which featured art inspired by fan-favorite episodes of Fringe, and The LOST Underground Art Show. READ FULL STORY

BAFTA winners announced, 'Argo' picks up Best Film and Director awards

The British Academy of Film and Television Arts handed out their awards Sunday in London. Argo walked away the big winner with Best Film and Best Director for Ben Affleck.

Lead acting prizes went to Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln and Emmanuelle Riva for Amour, with supporting awards going to Christolph Waltz for Django Unchained, and Anne Hathaway for Les Misérables. Click past the jump to take a look at the full list of winners.

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