It feels like a busy time right now in the visual effects industry. The biggest effects blockbusters are still big draws in cinemas, and VFX on television – from Westworld to Doctor Who – has never looked better. But what might 2017 have in store?
Here, I make five predictions for the year ahead in visual effects: weighing in on which film might cause a VFX Oscar upset, which digital characters may blow you away, how practical effects isn’t dead yet, and where effects studios are looking next to create great projects.
VFX Prediction #1: We’re headed for a big VFX Oscar upset (again)
Here’s a crazy prediction: a non-effects-driven film gets nominated for the Best Visual Effects Oscar and – despite being the rank outsider – wins. Except it’s not crazy. It happened last year with Ex Machina, which at the 2016 Oscars was competing against The Revenant, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian and The Force Awakens for the VFX prize. Read: See how the VFX was created for Ex Machina, The Revenant, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian.
At the next Academy Awards, it’s entirely possible that a similar scenario could play out. Right now, two ‘outsiders’ in Arrival and Deepwater Horizon are in the final 10 VFX contender longlist (which will be narrowed down to five when the shortlist nominations are announced on January 24th).
A third outsider, Kubo and the Two Strings – a stop-motion film – is also in the list. These will be competing against what surely must be the favourites; The Jungle Book, Doctor Strange and Rogue One.
Arrival, in particular, has that same invisible VFX feel that Ex Machina had – with top quality effects of ships, ship interiors and aliens that are incredibly well integrated into the slick storytelling. Arrival still has to make the final five, but it could be the upset of the year in VFX (all over again).
VFX Prediction #2: Digital characters will get their moment in the spotlight
It’s always been an unstated goal in visual effects to craft a photorealistic CG human – something so convincing that audiences can’t tell the difference between real and digital. The most high-profile case of this recently was ILM’s CG Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One – which older viewers knew to be CG (as Cushing died in 1994), but went unnoticed by many younger members of the audience.
The goal of creating a CG character so real you forget it’s digital is true of anything from humans to animals to aliens, and 2017 seems to be a year where each new film may try to outdo the last. Interestingly, several of these films are sequels which means we already have some idea of how good the CG work can be.
For example, we’ve already seen what Weta Digital can do with digital apes, but 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes is likely to take them up another level. That’s likely to be echoed by Framestore’s Rocket Racoon in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. And Spider-Man: Homecoming is another example of a character that’s already been expertly achieved in CG, so one can only imagine the new possibilities.
Be prepared, too, for some surprises in digital make-up effects from the likes of Valerian, Beauty and the Beast (below) and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.
VFX Prediction #3: De-ageing will remain all the rage
On a related front, in 2016 audiences got to meet a young Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War thanks to the efforts of de-ageing specialists Lola VFX, and a younger version of Anthony Hopkins few might remember for Westworld via the work of Important Looking Pirates. With this ‘beauty’ work so progressed now, expect to see more of it in both film and television.
Martin Scorsese has already flagged he intends to use the technology on Robert De Niro for the upcoming The Irishman. Although that won’t be until 2018, the existence of more and more projects going this route over traditional make-up and prosthetic effects suggests more should be in the offering.
VFX Prediction #4: Practical effects are back in fashion
Perhaps just like the non-effects feel of films such as Ex Machina and Arrival, audiences are still craving movies with a heavy practical half. And filmmakers – and film marketers – are noticing. Just look at the reels and trailers already released for Michael Bay’s Transformers: The Last Knight. Of course, a multitude of CG robots will ultimately be part of the final film, but the reliance on practical explosions and stunts is made clear.
Similarly, other studios behind 2017 releases have pronounced the extent of real photography involved in their movies. The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise, is said to have used the so-called ‘vomit-comet’ for scenes inside a plane about to crash. And the trailers for Wonder Woman and Dunkirk already have that sense of grit and grime designed to make them look more hand-crafted than some of the big effects-driven blockbusters.
VFX Prediction #5: VFX houses become full studios
The modern visual effects industry is maturing, and that means several studios are looking for ways to move beyond just service providers. That should grow in 2017 – companies such as Cinesite, LUXX Studios and Luma Pictures are already jumping into animated content.
Animal Logic, a studio that has successfully juggled both VFX and animated content, is one of the leaders here and has several projects in the works in addition to being the animation studio on the LEGO movies.
It’s not just animated content, either. VFX studios are poised to offer more and more VR and AR services as hardware platforms from Facebook, HTC, Samsung, Sony and Google begin to come online. That’s because effects houses are incredibly suited for the role – they understand stitching, 360 degree and panoramic projections and compositing the trickiest scenes. It makes sense that they will play a huge part in everything immersive.