Monday, March 31, 2014

New trailer for X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, and a spoilers S.O.T.U.

There was so much movie news the other week, I nearly forgot to write about the new trailer for X-Men: Days of Future Past. It was the second Bryan Singer movie I worked on, after Jack the Giant Slayer, and since the X-Men comics series were my favorites growing up, working with these characters was the culmination of much geeky childhood enthusiasm (like The Avengers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles projects were). The movie will be overflowing with entertainment for fans of the comic, especially those who read the "Days of Future Past" series.

Speaking of geeky enthusiasm, the guys over at Schmoes Know noticed an unusual trait of the video: it managed to focus on the movie's broad themes, without spoiling any of the actual plot. That's not easy to do, and a relatively rare thing in the field of trailers. Historically, trailers have been heavy on spoilers and intentionally throw the juiciest parts of a movie out to attract viewers. The trailer for 1949's Casablanca is a typical example from its time, using heavy-handed devices like a campy voiceover, sensationalized score, and dominating overlaid text:

Considering the movie is among the best of all-time (and has the best screenplay of all time, according to story gurus like Robert McKee), it's almost odd the marketing for it seemed so desperate--at least compared to the more refined design tastes of today.

Flash-forward fourteen years, and you have Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds trailer (1963), which went completely in the opposite, minimalist direction. Using clips from the movie in a straightforward manner, the intensity it contains comes directly from the movie itself:

When the 1980s hit, computers were offering sleek new digital aesthetics, and the trailers of that decade relied on their eye-grabbing flash to push a new era of action films:

Contemporary advertising companies have taken the art of the movie trailers to another level, in part by creating multiple versions tailored for different outlets. Theatergoers are often treated to a two-to five-minute long trailer, often mimicking a three-act structure of its own. Like this trailer for The Dark Knight Rises shows, today's trailers can be long and story-driven without relying on much smoke and mirrors from the editing of the trailer itself. The quiet opening works well, and Hans Zimmer's score closes it out nicely at the end:

Now, onto the topic of spoilers. Working in previs is entirely about being shown the most dramatic and action-oriented sequences of a movie. You are exposed to a disproportionate amount of movie spoilers, and if you're lucky, they are for movies you are especially excited to see. Squaring this with my passion for helping make big Hollywood movies has not always been easy, and there are times where I try not to have certain moments given away for films I did not work on and am not familiar with the original material (comics, books, etc). It was fantastic to watch something like "Battlestar Galactica" without knowing any of the plot points ahead of time, but I doubt I'll care too much about knowing who the real "Winter Soldier: is when I get my socks knocked off by it.

Marketing for modern movies relies on new material being put out to keep websites abuzz with interest. At some point this is bound to reveal too much. How much is too much in your eyes?

For further reading on trailers, the New York Times article "Dissecting a Trailer: The Parts of the Film that Make the Cut" is a must-read.

Buzzfeed's 12 Posters that Totally Spoiled the Movie

Thursday, March 27, 2014


Featuring the mountainside "batter up!" shots that I worked on (0:59):

This project was unique because of the exposure we had to the director and second unit director. Plus, it provided an opportunity to revisit the Turtles movies that I loved as a kid for work reference. You don't get that every day...

Congrats to the team on another fun upcoming release.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Martin Scorsese's 2013 Jefferson Lecture at the John F. Kennedy Center

So as much as I enjoyed pouring over Oscars and box office history for last week's Top Ten List of VFX films, last year Martin Scorsese gently and solemnly reminded us all that such thinking is ridiculous and unfortunate. Of course, he's right. I loved this speech and hope you will too:

I watched Hugo last week and was blown away by its genius. If only Scorsese could be around for another 100 years to make movies.

Some choice moments:
  • Vertigo was nearly lost forever (partially because of Hitchcock)
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey ripped off two movies that came out just before it, and was critically panned
  • Socrates thought reading and writing was a threat to true wisdom, and we shouldn't see film going digital as a similar threat
  • His mother brought him to see Duel in the Sun as a kid, even though it was on the Catholic banned list. It has one heck of an ending:

Divergent screening

Tonight the Divergent crew screening was held in Westwood Village. The movie was a fun ride, and I know it will give younger fans of the book what they're looking for. As one might would imagine, crew screenings have their own level of energy; maybe not as exuberant as a midnight showing full of superfans, but there's still lots of good cheer and sporadic bursts of applause throughout the credits. Even if you've been on a project a while, it's never a sure thing to get screen credit, and there's always a feeling of anticipation right up until you finally see the names for your company start scrolling up.

Note the other audience members holding up their phones at the bottom to photograph their names.
The sequences we worked on include: the Dauntless faction jumping off the train for the tests, Tris's mirror room test, Tris running/climping up to the platform/jumping onto the downtown train, the Dauntless rooftop jump off the train, the big Tris net jump, the zipline ride, the tightrope walk test, and Four's father test. They all ended up being extremely faithful to the previs, and as a result looked polished and well-planned (and in the case of the mirror room, very complicated to pull off).

Check out Divergent this weekend--and be sure to stay for the credits!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

New trailer for THE MAZE RUNNER

Although there have still not been trailers for a few other Third Floor projects I worked on, this was the last project I worked on there. It was a small and fun crew that was given a nice amount of freedom. It's looking good so far, and I'm excited to see how it all comes out.

Release date: 14 September 2014

Friday, March 14, 2014

Unearthing the VFX Oscar Elite: My List of the "Best" All-Time Visual Effects Films

This week my longtime friend and film historian Paul Booth sent me an email with a fun request: "I would love a Top 10 Visual Effects films you feel I need to see."

If this question isn't "film geek" bait, I don't know what is. A list of the "best" visual effects movies is of course entirely subjective, and there are many ways to create one. Past Academy Award winners for "Best Visual Effects" seems like a great place to start, and there is a place for the highest-grossing movies as well.  Since this year's Academy Awards had a Best Visual Effects shoo-in (Gravity) which was also a strong contender for Best Picture, I thought I would replace my email reply with a blog post that took a closer looked at these films.

Before I continue, however, ask yourself this movie trivia question: "What films have won the Academy Award for both Best Picture and Best Special/Visual Effects?" I discovered the answer while creating my list.


To start making my list, I wanted to start by looking at "hard" data, so I looked up the past winners of the Academy Award for Visual Effects. It is worth noting that the category underwent an evolution over the years: its name changed to reflect the gradual eclipse of visual effects over special effects, starting as "Best Special Effects" in 1939 but becoming "Best Visual Effects" in 1978. In some years the award wasn't given out at all. After I reviewed the list of 74 winners, I cross-checked them with the Best Picture winners and nominees from the same years, of which there were 22. Finally, when typing up the list, I added notes for movies that especially relied on a fully-digital or practical principal character, to show how common that complicated effect has become. These last two notes were only made offhand, and are not 100% complete.

Best Visual Effects (or equivalent) and Best Picture Oscar Winners and Nominees:

pink = Best Picture nominee
red = Best Picture winner
d = principal digital character
p = principal practical character

2013: Gravity d
2012: Life of Pi d
2011: Hugo
2010: Inception
2009: Avatar d
2008: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button d
2007: The Golden Compass
2006: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest d
2005: King Kong d
2004: Spider-Man 2
2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King d
2002: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers d
2001: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
2000: Gladiator
1999: The Matrix
1998: What Dreams May Come
1997: Titanic
1996: Independence Day
1995: Babe
1994: Forrest Gump
1993: Jurassic Park
1992: Death Becomes Her
1991: Terminator 2: Judgment Day
1990: Total Recall
1989: The Abyss
1988: Who Framed Roger Rabbit
1987: Innerspace
1986: Aliens
1985: Cocoon
1984: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
1983: Return of the Jedi p
1982: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark
1980: The Empire Strikes Back p
1979: Alien
1978: Superman
1977 ("Best Visual Effects" from this year onward): Star Wars
1976 ("Special Achievement in Visual Effects"): King Kong
1975 ("Special Achievement in Visual Effects"): The Hindenburg
1974 ("Special Achievement in Visual Effects"): Earthquake
1973 NO AWARD GIVEN (More on that here)
1972 ("Special Achievement in Visual Effects"): The Poseidon Adventure
1971 ("Best Visual Effects"): Bedknobs and Broomsticks
1970 ("Best Visual Effects"): Tora! Tora! Tora!
1969 ("Best Visual Effects"): Marooned
1968 ("Best Visual Effects"): 2001: A Space Odyssey
1967 ("Best Visual Effects"): Doctor Dolittle
1966 ("Best Visual Effects"): Fantastic Voyage
1965 ("Best Visual Effects"): Thunderball
1964 ("Best Special Effects"): Mary Poppins
1963 ("Best Special Effects"): Cleopatra
1962 ("Best Special Effects"): The Longest Day
1961 ("Best Special Effects"): The Guns of Navarone
1960 ("Best Special Effects"): The Time Machine
1959 ("Best Special Effects"): Ben-Hur
1958 ("Best Special Effects"): Tom Thumb
1957 ("Best Special Effects"): The Enemy Below
1956 ("Best Special Effects"): The Ten Commandments
1955 ("Best Special Effects"): The Bridges at Tokyo-Ri
1954 ("Best Special Effects"): 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
1953 ("Best Special Effects"): The War of the Worlds
1952 ("Best Special Effects"): Plymouth Adventure
1951 ("Best Special Effects"): When Worlds Collide
1950 ("Best Special Effects"): Destination Moon
1949 ("Best Special Effects"): Mighty Joe Young
1948 ("Best Special Effects"): Portrait of Jennie
1947 ("Best Special Effects"): Green Dolphin Street
1946 ("Best Special Effects"): Blithe Spirit
1945 ("Best Special Effects"): Wonder Man
1944 ("Best Special Effects"): Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
1943 ("Best Special Effects"): Crash Dive
1942 ("Best Special Effects"): Reap the Wild Wind
1941 ("Best Special Effects"): I Wanted Wings
1940 ("Best Special Effects"): The Thief of Baghdad
1939 ("Best Special Effects"): The Rains Came

While it has lately looked like films with great visual effects go hand in hand with Best Picture nominations, there were three 10+ year droughts in Oscar history where no film was nominated for both awards. Moreover, only five times in 74 years did the same film win both awards, and four have been in the last 20 years. To put that into perspective, Walt Disney won four Academy Awards in one night.

So once again, the list of the "VFX Oscar Elite," containing the epic powerhouses that managed to buck the odds to win for Best Picture and Best Visual Effects is as follows:

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Forrest Gump

One fantasy film and four historical films, with two set in ancient Rome.  Three share the all-time record for most wins by a film. None of the them share any directors, producers, or actors (as far as I could tell upon first glance). It is an interesting group of five films that, prior to doing this research, I did not know had this fact in common. After searching the Internet for a bit, no other website seemed to mention this specific list either, so I assume this is not a well-known or commonly-discussed piece of trivia. What's more, now that the last six years of the Academy Awards have all contained a film that shared nominations for Best Picture and Best Visual Effects, we might be due for another film to join the ranks of this VFX Oscar Elite very soon (keep this in mind when making your Oscar picks next year!).

Other observations:
  • By cementing the category's modern name, Star Wars literally changed the category of "Best Visual Effects."
  • It does not seem to be as easy for Peter Jackson's fantasy movies to win Best VFX any more. Despite the Lord of the Rings movies winning Best VFX Oscars every time they were nominated, Peter Jackson's movies have not won the award since Return of the King collected both the Best Visual Effects and Best Picture awards in 2003. 
  • By and large, The Academy has not seemed to "snub" any great visual effects movies for its nominations. The field seems to be more of a meritocracy than others. Although, The Dark Knight Rises recently missed nomination in 2013.
  • Speaking of 2013, Life of Pi won in perhaps the Academy's most competitive year, beating out The AvengersThe Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Prometheus, and Snow White and the Huntsman. 1999 was also a year with a big rivalry between The Matrix and Star Wars: Episode One (no Star Wars prequel ever went on to win the award).
But enough about arbitrary and subjective things like artistic awards. Let's move on to something concrete:

Box Office Performance

Skipping any that were fully-animated, I took a look at the top ten highest-grossing films of all time (domestic, then worldwide) and saw how they lined up with the above Oscar-winners:

light blue = Best VFX nominee
blue = Best VFX winner
red = Best Picture nominee
pink = Best Picture nominee/Best VFX winner
purple = Best Picture winner/Best VFX winner

Top Ten Highest-Grossing Movies of All Time - United States

1. Avatar
2. Titanic
3. Marvel's The Avengers
4. The Dark Knight
5. Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace
6. Star Wars
7. The Dark Knight Rises
9. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
10. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (awards status currently unknown)
11. Pirates of the Caribbean - Dead Man's Chest

Top Ten Highest-Grossing Movies of All Time - Worldwide

1. Avatar
2. Titanic
3. Marvel's The Avengers
4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2
5. Iron Man 3
6. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
7. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
8. Skyfall
9. The Dark Knight Rises
10. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

  • None of the top ten highest-grossing films have been both nominated for and lost the Best Picture and Best Visual Effects categories.
  • Directors who have remained consistent standouts over the years include: Michael Bay, James Cameron, David Fincher, Peter Jackson, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, Sam Raimi, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, Gore Verbinski, and Robert Zemeckis.
  • We love ourselves some aliens and comic book heroes, don't we? No wonder those movies keep getting made.

Making My Final List

After discovering those five movies that won Oscars for Best Visual Effects and Best Picture, I knew I had to give special consideration to them, and they required a good reason if they were not to be included. In the end, however, I decided to drop Forrest Gump, because its effects, while undoubtedly clever and well-executed, were not enough of a spectacle in the movie to make a "best Visual Effects movie" list, with all that has been released since 1994. Gladiator was removed because its effects also weren't quite as impressive compared to other top VFX films. As a side note however, what is uniquely great about movies like Forrest Gump and Gladiator are their timeless visual effects that pushed the limits of the available technology, without being so overly ambitious that their quality and believability suffered. Ben-Hur I omitted because it was released back in the special effects era, and its visuals are what a game developer might politely call "last generation." Titanic is a classic movie with great effects, but for diversity's sake, I only included one James Cameron movie.

For the replacements, I weighed factors like accolades, spectacle/believability, timelessness, historical significance to the VFX medium, and memorability/entertainment level. Three over-the-top juggernauts seemed like appropriate choices to showcase what the limits of current technology can do. Although it wasn't in the league in terms of box office, Life of Pi was chosen for its similarly ambitious and beautiful effects. A Christopher Nolan movie needed including as well, even though he commonly relies on practical technology for shots that seem like they would be digital (the rotating hallway set in Inception is a great example of this). David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button also achieved a powerfully touching performance by a digital character, winning his visual effects team an Oscar, along with a whopping thirteen Oscar nominations (including Best Picture). The Matrix and Empire Strikes Back are both entertaining classics with watershed effects that have aged very well over time.

So after weighing all those factors, I came to my final list (in order of release date):
  • Life of Pi
  • The Avengers
  • Transformers: Dark of the Moon
  • Inception
  • Avatar
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
  • The Matrix
  • Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
A pretty safe list, and of course, he's already seen them all (d'oh!). Expecting that though, I made a couple of back-up lists. Other than the Academy Award winners and the tip-top box office grossers, here is a select a list of "Best Visual Effects" also-rans whose visual effects have stood the test of time:

Apollo 13, Blade Runner, District 9, Harry Potter films, Iron Man 1 and 2, Jurassic Park 2 and 3, The Matrix 2 and 3, Minority Report, Pearl Harbor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the Star Wars prequels, Transformers 1 & 2, War of the Worlds

And here's list of fun ones, although some effects might not have held up as well over time:

Back to the Future 1 and 2, Ghostbusters, The Fifth Element, Jason and the Argonauts, Jaws, Planet of the Apes, Skyfall, Starship Troopers, and on and on...

So that's it. I hope all this helped put these movies in a new light. What makes up your top ten list of visual effects movies?

Hat tip to these online articles, which helped prevent films from slipping through the cracks of my memory: Den of Geek's Top 50 Movie Special Effects, Erin Whitney's 13 Jaw-Dropping Visual Effects in Movies, and Chris Agar's 8 Movies That Revolutionized Hollywood's Visual Effects

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Colin Stokes: The Hidden Morals of Movies or How Movies Teach Manhood

Today I watched a TED talk by an unassuming dad named Colin Stokes. Using a dry sense of humor, he compared the two favorite movies of his daughter and son: The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars (respectively) and how they have influenced them both. As a new dad who got hooked on Star Wars early, and enjoyed (but never dwell on) the Wizard of Oz, the subject matter was up my alley.

There were many memorable lines, from the then-prescient:

"I think if the Wizard of Oz were made today, the wizard would say 'Dorothy you are the savior of Oz that the prophecy foretold. Use your magic slippers to defeat the computer-generated armies of the Wicked Witch.'"

To the topics of how the heroes in each movie succeed:

"I wonder what my son is soaking up, and I wonder what he is soaking in: is he picking up the themes of courage and perseverance and loyalty? Is he picking up on the fact that Luke joins an army to overthrow the government? Is he picking up on the fact that there are only boys in the universe, other than Aunt Beru, and of course this princess who's really cool, but who kinda waits around through most of the movie so that she can give the hero a medal and a wink and thank him for saving the universe by using the magic that he was born with?

"Compare this to 1939 and the Wizard of Oz. How does Dorothy win her movie? By making friends with everybody and being a leader. That's kind of the world I'd rather raise my kids in. Oz. And not the world of dudes fighting, which is where we kind of have to be. Why is there so much Force--capital F force--in the movies we watch with our kids and so little in the yellow-brick road?"

The conversation goes on from there to address the evolution of the Disney princess yet how male characters have stagnated. Additionally, he cites his informal study of top Hollywood movies rate against the famous Bechdel Test, which powerfully shows how far the movie industry has yet to go to flesh out the character makeup of their stories. From there he extrapolates how an improvement in this area could help to reduce sexual assault.

It was an effective speech at getting me to see these films from a new angle, and I will keep its notions in mind with each children's movie release.