No statue, no ceremony – just film-geek kudos to the year’s best sci-tech movies. By Adam Savage
Making movies has always been the most technology-intensive of art forms. It takes a small army of artisans to convince us that an actor in a mirrored box is tumbling through space, or that two humans with a mind-melding brain link are controlling a 80 m-high robot.
We continue PopMech’s century-long coverage of the film industry’s model-makers, FX artists and other specialists with our second annual roundup of outstanding sci-tech achievements. Our panel of experts debated the merits of contenders (very little blood was spilled), tallied the votes, and selected winners in categories that appeal to the film geek in all of us.
Panel of experts
Adam Savage cohost, MythBusters; PM contributing editor; movie-prop-maker | Anne –Thompson editor-in-chief, Thompson on Hollywood blog; editor-at-large, Indiewire | Bill Desowitz editor-in-chief, Immersed in Movies blog | Jim Meigs PM editor-in-chief | David Dunbar PM executive editor
Sci-Tech Movie of the Year: Gravity
Was there another choice? Alfonso Cuarón’s story of two astronauts’ incredible battle for survival 350 kilometres above Earth is intense, fresh and so groundbreaking in its storytelling that it’s hard to think of another effects-heavy film with such impact. It’s a simple story perfectly told; the drama is never overshadowed by the stunning effects. Cuarón has reset the bar for what’s possible with digital environments and 3D, all while keeping his actors’ mesmerising performances front and centre. It’s an astonishing achievement.
Best Alternate Universe: Oblivion
Although the plot won’t survive serious scrutiny (incredible coincidences, strange decisions made by most of the characters, including the aliens), Tom Cruise’s character, Jack Harper, inhabits a compelling and beautiful (if lonely) post-apocalypse Earth. To achieve his vision, director Joseph Kosinski used some of the oldest of old-school film techniques. Much of the action between Cruise and his lover/co-worker (played wonderfully by Andrea Riseborough) takes place in a glass house with jawdropping views above the clouds. Nearly all of it was realised without any CG whatsoever. FX supervisor Björn Mayer shot plates of clouds and landscape from atop Hawaii’s Haleakal volcano. Instead of compositing these images on to a green screen to be filmed on set, Kosinski projected the cloud plates through the actual set, a process called front projection. It’s not only cheaper than CG, it looks better, and it eliminated nearly 500 effects shots. Stanley Kubrick used the same technique in 1968 for his Dawn of Man sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Best Gadgets: Elysium
Nobody beats Neill Blomkamp when it comes to weaving a believable reality. District 9 seemed so grounded in its time and place as to feel like a documentary about the future. Elysium, his post-societal-collapse commentary on our current political situation, is that, only more so: the flying packhorse of a military transport from which the villain Kruger hunts Matt Damon, whose character has an exoskeleton bolted to his dying frame; the search drones that Kruger calls his “girls”; and my favourite piece of conceived future-tech, a Bugatti spaceship, with sleek lines and a leather interior.
Shoestring Award: Europa Report
Sebastián Cordero’s first English-language feature consists of “found footage” beamed from a doomed mission to one of Jupiter’s moons. With excellent performances and convincing sets and effects, it’s a terrific example of a smart director spending wisely.
Best Digital Effects: Gravity
This is the rare film that utilises digital effects solely to advance the story. The 3D is immersive yet subtle; the effects are jaw-dropping. Yet what you remember most is Sandra Bullock’s brilliant performance as Dr Ryan Stone.
To capture it to the last detail, director Alfonso Cuarón and his team developed a new paradigm for marrying the digital and the real. The centrepiece invention was a 3-metre light box (top, right) lined on the inside with display surfaces. Bullock was strapped into a birdcage-like device and filmed with a robotic camera for up to 9 hours at a stretch, all so the light on her face would perfectly match the pre-visualised digital action of her character. Hard work, but worth it: the effects keep our eyes on the human element and then take us for the ride of our lives.
Best Stunt: Captain Phillips
In a year crowded with great stunt work, the standout was also the most real. Director Paul Greengrass hired Somali-Americans to portray pirates boarding a 180-metre container ship from a 4-metre skiff. Stunt co-ordinator Rob Inch trained them to perform most of the film’s stunts – an incredible achievement considering none had ever taken an acting class.
Best Explosion: Iron Man 3
The choice of real-life bad boy Robert Downey Jr to play comic-book bad boy Tony Stark signalled early on that the Iron Man franchise was going to play on multiple levels of our cultural consciousness. The first set piece of Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, the destruction of Stark’s mansion perched high above the Pacific, fits right into this programme. The breathtaking scene luxuriates in the decimation of Stark’s monument to engineering and self-obsession. Black’s camera is ever-moving, bringing us complex carnage from every possible angle yet never abandoning us in space, as Tony saves both love-interest Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and himself with the same prototype suit, though Tony ends up a bit worse for wear. Not as bad as his house, though.
Coolest Vehicles: Pacific Rim
This year’s winners have arms and legs (and are 25 storeys tall). Two humans inside do all the thinking, and director Guillermo del Toro supplies the heart. In Pacific Rim, del Toro resuscitates the giant fighting robot genre with a vengeance. A rift deep in the Pacific Ocean has birthed the Kaiju, monsters from another dimension bent on destroying the human race. Humanity’s last-ditch effort to save itself is to build robots called Jaegers that fight the Kaiju hand-to-hand in battles that are a huge level up for the genre. With John Knoll and the geniuses at ILM, Del Toro has crafted a love letter to the monster movies of his youth, while also delivering seriously badass fistfights.
The Jaegers feel anchored in a reality sorely missing from the Godzillas we grew up with.
Best Make-Up: Rush
In Ron Howard’s terrific retelling of the autoracing rivalry between arrogant Austrian Niki Lauda (played by Daniel Brühl, in cap) and playboy Englishman James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), Lauda is horribly burned in a track accident.
Oscar-winner Mark Coulier (with Brühl) created four sets of prosthetic make-up – one for each stage of Lauda’s recovery.
In a pivotal, cringeworthy scene, Lauda shoves his helmet on his raw, scarred head – he simply must keep racing. Post-accident, Lauda is still prickly, but we understand and forgive him. In the end, the thing that makes him hard to look at – his burned, twisted face – is the thing that helps us see him more clearly.
Visionary Award: Alfonso Cuarón
I know, Gravity Gravity Gravity. But the film has engendered a new way of thinking about the marriage of digital effects and performance. Cuarón’s innovations and inventions will affect how films are made far into the future. That’s visionary.