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The best of the best: The SP-FX houses


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#1 of 97 TerryRL

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Posted April 18 2007 - 01:00 PM

ILM has won 15 Oscars in its 32 year history, Weta Digital won the Visual FX Oscar four out of the last six years. SPI (Sony Pictures Imageworks) continues to shell out solid work since winning their first FX Oscar for "Spider-Man 2". Digital Domain is now under new leadership and is hoping to make a serious run at the top houses in the industry. Rythm & Hues continues to fly under the radar while securing contracts for huge movies like the last two 'X-Men' movies, the 'Narnia' films, and the upcoming "His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass".

Who would you consider to be the best of the best in biz in the area of Visual Effects?

My Top Five

#1 Industrial Light & Magic (ILM): After all these years, I still rank them as the best in the industry. While many complained that their work on the Star Wars Prequels was "inconsistent", last year saw them produce one of the best CG characters created for the screen with Davy Jones in the Pirates sequel, which won them their 15th Oscar for screen FX. Historically, this is the FX house to beat. Their work on the original Star Wars Trilogy, the Indiana Jones Trilogy, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", "The Abyss", 'T2', the Jurassic Park movies, and "Forrest Gump" have already secured the company's legacy. The early buzz I've heard on both Pirates 3 and "Transformers" indicates that ILM has produced some of the greatest FX work they've ever done.

#2 Weta Digital: This company can coast for years just on their triumph of the LOTR trilogy, but they continue to push the visual envelope. While their overall effort in "King Kong" was surprisingly under-whelming, Kong himself represents (in my opinion) one of the top five best CG creations ever brought to the screen. The crew at Weta are currently working on the FX for the Fantastic Four sequel, as well as James Cameron's upcoming "Avatar".

#3 Sony Pictures Imageworks (SPI): Thanks largely to their work on the Spider-Man franchise, SPI is considered the one of the top houses in the industry. While their accomplishments on the Spidey flicks (namely the second film) and "Superman Returns" are solid efforts, I was most impressed by their work on "Hollow Man". The early word is that "Spider-Man 3" represents the best work the company has ever done.

#4 Rythm & Hues: SPI has some serious competition for that third spot because this FX house has been very consistent in the last five years with their work in 'X2', "X-Men: The Last Stand", and 'The Chronicles of Narnia'. They will provide the FX on the next two 'Narnia' adventures, as well as the upcoming 'His Dark Materials' franchise.

#5 Digital Domain: Once the go-to company for Jim Cameron, things have been a little quiet for DD since winning the Oscar for "Titanic" ten years ago. The FX house is now under new leadership (one of the owners is Michael Bay) and looks to launch themselves back into the conversation of greatest FX house in the industry. The work the studio did on "I, Robot" was grossly underrated in my opinion. Look for Bay's upcoming 'The Prince of Persia' epic to put them back on the map.

My Top Four fave (100%) CG characters for live-action movies...
(listed alphabetically because I consider them all A+ work)

Davy Jones "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" (ILM)

Gollum "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers"/ "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (Weta)

Kong "King Kong" (Weta)

Yoda "Star Wars: Episode III- Revenge of the Sith" (ILM)

My fave FX sequences of the last ten years...
(ranked by year movie was released)

1997 Planet P. Outpost Attack "Starship Troopers" (ILM)

1998 Taking the Beach "Saving Private Ryan" (ILM)

1999 The Pod Race "Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace" (ILM)

2000 The Storm Sequence "The Perfect Storm" (ILM)

2001 The Pteranodon Attack "Jurassic Park III" (ILM)

2001 The Cave Tomb Battle "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" (Weta)

2001 The Pearl Harbor Attack "Pearl Harbor" (ILM)

2002 The Times Square Fight "Spider-Man" (SPI)

2002 The Battle of Geonosis "Star Wars: Episode II- Attack of the Clones" (ILM)

2002 Yoda vs. Count Dooku "Star Wars: Episode II- Attack of the Clones" (ILM)

2002 The Warg Fight "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" (Weta)

2002 The Battle of Helm's Deep "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" (Weta)

2003 Nightcrawler's White House Attack "X2: X-Men United" (Rythm & Hues)

2003 The Freeway Chase "The Matrix Reloaded" (Manex)

2003 The Zion Attack "The Matrix Revolutions" (Manex)

2003 The Final Neo/Smith Fight "The Matrix Revolutions" (Manex)

2003 Shelob vs. Sam "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (Weta)

2003 The Battle of Gondor "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (Weta)

2004 The Train Fight "Spider-Man 2" (SPI)

2005 The Battle of Coruscant "Star Wars: Episode III- Revenge of the Sith" (ILM)

2005 The Jedi Purge "Star Wars: Episode III- Revenge of the Sith" (ILM)

2005 The First Attack "War of the Worlds" (ILM)

2005 The Final Battle "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe" (Rythm & Hues)

2005 Kong vs. the V-Rexes "King Kong" (Weta)

2005 Kong vs. the Planes "King Kong" (Weta)

2006 Dark Phoenix vs. Professor X "X-Men: The Last Stand" (Rythm & Hues)

2006 The Battle on Alcatraz "X-Men: The Last Stand" (Rythm & Hues)

2006 The Plane/Shuttle Rescue "Superman Returns" (SPI)

2006 The Final Kraken Attack "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest"

This is a list I definitely plan on re-visiting after this summer. These represent my opinions so be kind. Posted Image
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#2 of 97 Scott D S

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Posted April 19 2007 - 04:12 AM

My friend and I were talking about this recently. I say ILM is still number 1. He says Weta. We decided to compromise and wait until Avatar comes out to make a final judgment. Posted Image

#3 of 97 Kevin Grey

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Posted April 19 2007 - 04:21 AM

I would probably go with ILM with Weta slightly behind but, honestly, computers seem to have equalized the field to the point where it feels like any house, given enough resources, can do state of the art work. Indeed, with so many effects houses working on the same film it's often not apparent who contributed what.

This is a far cry from fifteen to twenty years ago where there was a pronounced gap between ILM and still quality houses like Boss Film Studios and Dreamquest Images and a much, much larger gap with houses like Fantasy II Film Effects and Apogee.

Personally, I'm more interested in the stuff being pulled off on the small screen these days by houses like ZOIC where the limited resources and tight production schedules mean there can be more differentiation in the quality and scope of the work.

#4 of 97 TerryRL

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Posted April 19 2007 - 04:31 AM

In terms of small screen FX, the work on "Battlestar Galactica" is pretty damn impressive.

While ILM still reigns supreme, I'm in complete agreement that the field is a lot stronger than it used to be.
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#5 of 97 Cory S.

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Posted April 19 2007 - 04:44 AM

Excellent thread, Terry.

For me, ILM is still the best of the best, without question. And to me, the gap, while smaller, is still pretty wide between ILM and the next house, which is Weta. A lot of my reasoning is because of the subtle things ILM does in their films...ie, digital doubles and the cloth simulation they pretty much perfected (in my eyes) since Episode II Attack of the Clones.

There is no doubt that Weta did bring stiff competition over the last 8 years but after witnessing the brilliance of Davy Jones, I just personally feel ILM has and will remain on top for a good long while.

I am most curious with the work they're doing with Transformers.

As for digital characters go, I'd go in this order:

1. Davy Jones (ILM)
2. Kong (Weta)
3. Hulk (ILM)
4. Yoda (ILM for Episode III Revenge of the Sith)
5. Gollum (Weta for Return of the King)
"Because he's the hero Gotham deserves.  But, not the one it needs right now.  So, we'll hunt.  Because he can take.  Because, he's not a hero.  He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector.  A DARK KNIGHT."

#6 of 97 TerryRL

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Posted April 19 2007 - 05:24 AM

From what I've been hearing, "Transformers" has it's "problems", but that ILM has completely "knocked it out of the park" in terms of the movie's FX. I've also heard the same in regards to their work in Pirates 3. The end battle in particular has been said to be spectacular in regards to the FX work.

In terms of high-profile contracts, no one really comes close to ILM. Second to ILM would be Rythm & Hues. These two FX houses have a pretty full plate over the next few years.

Here's an interesting question, with the falling out that New Line had with Peter Jackson, who is going to handle the FX work on the two 'Hobbit' movies? I seriously doubt Bob Shaye wants to put any money in Jackson's pocket by making a deal with Weta. Within the industry, "The Hobbit" and the upcoming "Clash of the Titans" are two of the most sought after contracts among FX houses.

I don't know about any of you, but it would be weird if an FX house other than Weta were bringing Gollum to life.

And Cory, I completely agree with you. Hulk is a fantastic CG character. What really blew me away was how real his facial expressions were.
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#7 of 97 Sam Davatchi

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Posted April 19 2007 - 06:23 AM

For me Weta is number 1 and let's not forget James Cameron's choice to pickup Weta for his next movie Avatar which is supposed to be "revolutionary".

#8 of 97 Cory S.

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Posted April 19 2007 - 08:31 AM

Terry,

I'm quite curious about how Transformers...and how it'll all work. I was pretty much convinced that ILM had done a supreme job with the visual effects after seeing that teaser trailer (one of the best teaser trailers of all time). I have no worries about the film on the visual side. With any Michael Bay film, you have to worry about the rest....but this film seems to be right up his alley, when it comes to what he really knows how to do as a director.

As for the entire Bob Shaye vs Jackson thing, I think you're right in the fact that Bob Shaye will distance himself from Jackson's company on all sides when it comes to the Hobbit and that will be the downfall of the film. Without Jackson behind the lenses, I just don't see that cast coming together again. Their bond is tighter than anyone can imagine. A paycheck won't come their loyalty for Jackson.

As for the Hulk, totally underrated CG character. I mean, if you seriously think about it, ILM had a harder job with Hulk than Weta with Gollum because Hulk is essentially human...even if he's humanoid but we have a every day reference to what that looks like. Second, he's completely green. Green isn't the best CG color to work with. And yet, with the dog fight and the desert battle, ILM aced the visual effects for that film....especially the daylight scenes with Hulk. I don't know how they do it, but for me, the difference between ILM and the rest is how they composite and light their CG elements to match live action elements. They almost never get it wrong and it's completely seamless. That was one of my major problems with Gollum in the Two Towers. As a CG character, he's brilliant but Weta never really got it right when it came to compositing him within the live action elements. They got much better with him in Return of the King.

Either way, I hope ILM gets more recognition with Hulk in the future because I think it's an outstanding achievement...one that lead to the great Davy Jones.....
"Because he's the hero Gotham deserves.  But, not the one it needs right now.  So, we'll hunt.  Because he can take.  Because, he's not a hero.  He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector.  A DARK KNIGHT."

#9 of 97 TerryRL

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Posted April 19 2007 - 09:04 AM

I agree, Hulk's look often gets tied up in the whole the movie-was-a-disappointment thing (I know I'm in the minority, but I loved it and Ang Lee's take on the material). ILM did a great job with the FX in that movie, as well as the Hulk vs. "demon" dogs sequence.

I also agree that ILM does a fantastic job lighting their characters. The daylight sequences of Davy Jones are, for me, why I really put ILM in the top spot. To this day I see people argue over if he was a 100% CG creation rather than Bill Nighy in full makeup with CG elements added. Davy Jones represents the best of photo-realistic CG FX.

With "Transformers" ILM is definitely looking for Oscar #16, although I seriously doubt anyone at the company will come out and admit it. Regardless of how good a movie Bay delivers, you can expect the visuals to be top notch.

While Gollum was an amazing CG creation, I've always considered him to be a milestone in terms of his performance rather than how well he was rendered, but that's just me.

Cameron is a huge fan of Weta's work on the LOTR movies, particularly what they did with Gollum. From what I understand, this (as well as what Weta did with "King Kong") was why Cameron chose them to bring the characters of "Avatar" to life. The project is considered such a sure-thing that some in the FX community are already considering Weta a lock for the 2009 FX Oscar. What's funny is that the film's main competition that year could be "The Hobbit", talk about irony.
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#10 of 97 Chuck Mayer

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Posted April 19 2007 - 09:32 AM

I agree with Terry's listing with the caveat that I'd tie WETA with ILM for artistic reasons. Technically, I find ILM superior. Artistically, I find WETA superior.

That said, Avatar will end the debate if WETA delivers (well, until the next milestone). Avatar is why I can't see ILM as the lead for the foreseeable future, Cory. If WETA can pull it off (and I am certain they can), then there is the crown.

All fanboyism aside...if Pixar was an effects company, they would leave ILM AND WETA in the dust. Pixar is so fricking ahead of the curve, it's not even close.

As for Gollum, he had his ups and downs (as did ILM's digi-Yoda), but the scene of him pulling Frodo out of the Dead Marshes was seamless. Absolutely incredible work. That was where the tide shifted for CG characters.
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#11 of 97 Darcy Hunter

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Posted April 19 2007 - 09:32 AM

Terry already gave a pretty comprehensive list of all the "big guns" in the spfx industry. The one effects house that I'm constantly impressed by is Matte World Digital (http://www.matteworld.com). They have been providing constantly great "invisible" effects for over 20 years. From their work on the original "Vacation" (that iconic reveal of Wally World), to Casino and most recently Zodiac (along with Digital Domain), their work always elevates the believability factor in the atmosphere of most films.

#12 of 97 Cory S.

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Posted April 19 2007 - 09:59 AM

Terry,

I am curious about Avatar eventhough I know next to nothing about it. I was a tad shocked that he choice Weta over ILM but we'll see.

I still think Weta is a solid number two behind ILM but some of the work they did in the last two Rings films and the other visual effects that weren't Kong is what keeps them a solid number two behind ILM, in my book.
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#13 of 97 Chuck Mayer

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Posted April 19 2007 - 10:28 AM

I wasn't surprised he chose WETA. They managed to have their CG characters not just be comic relief or villains, they've carried major emotional arcs through the film, something ILM has only done with Hulk. Kong and Gollum certainly indicate a capacity to deal with the nuances of the emotion. I'm certain ILM could do it, but Cameron probably wanted to give WETA a chance, and their body of work was more suited to the task. More organic, which is certainly Avatar. Organic is a good word for Avatar and effects. And then some.

So WETA makes sense. And it is certain only WETA and ILM could do it. I think WETA had some intangibles. Getting Cameron is an admitted coup for WETA. We'll see what the VFX folks think in the early days of 2009 though. They'll be wishing for the salad days of finishing post of ROTK Posted Image

Actually, Cory, were it not for Pirates, I'd have made WETA 1a and ILM 1b. I thought Kong outdid ROTS.
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#14 of 97 TerryRL

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Posted April 19 2007 - 10:36 AM

I think had Peter Jackson chosen to make "King Kong" a summer '06 entry instead of a late '05 release than the rest of the FX in the movie would have been as good as those for Kong. The Bronto stampede was really bad compared to some of the other FX in the movie, largely because I don't think Weta had enough time to deliver better than average results on that sequence.

EDIT: Had Weta had enough time than I think they could've knocked it out of the park with 'Kong', instead a lot of the FX simply aren't very noteworthy.

ILM ran into this problem with "The Mummy Returns" when director Stephen Sommers sprang the new Scorpion King sequence on them in the 11th hour. Originally, The Rock was going to appear in that scene, but Sommers decided that a CG monster would look cooler and made the change, hence why that scene looks more like a work-in-progress sequence rather than a fully realized one.

There seems to be no debate that ILM and Weta are the top two studios, but the results of "Avatar" could see the bar raised even higher than it already is. That's what Jim Cameron is expecting anyway. On the flip side, Michael Bay also feels that what is about to be unveiled in "Transformers" will "completely blow the sh*t out of the bar".

Its a good thing these cats don't lack for confidence. Posted Image
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#15 of 97 Cory S.

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Posted April 19 2007 - 10:37 AM

Chuck,

See, that's the difference. Only recently has ILM given a chance to do the type of CG characters that Weta has done with Kong and Gollum. As you said, ILM probably could do, given that type of character. The only one they have done is the Hulk and because their fantastic work gets jumbled in with the critical response to the film, nobody really looks at what they did there.

At least we're all in agreement that essentially the top five CG characters of all time are Davy Jones, Kong, Gollum, Hulk, and Yoda...it doesn't really matter the order to which they go in. I'm sure Weta will add another one with Avatar as I'm pretty positive ILM will add another to the list if not now with Transformers but something later.

As for Kong vs. Episode III, I can't give Kong the edge. I just can't do it. While Kong the character and the cityscape of New York circa 1933 are truly spectacular, I feel it pales in comparison to everything ILM did with Episode III. I just feel Episode III is a much more polished work than King Kong on all fronts...

One thing bothers me though...and that's Superman Returns. I understand that with Spider-Man, SPI has been given this rep that they can do CG human beings and yet, they tend to always look rubbery in their appearance. I wonder why Singer didn't go to ILM or Weta for Superman Returns. The visual effects in that film are pretty outstanding save for a handful of Superman shots that just don't work. Still love the film though.
"Because he's the hero Gotham deserves.  But, not the one it needs right now.  So, we'll hunt.  Because he can take.  Because, he's not a hero.  He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector.  A DARK KNIGHT."

#16 of 97 Chuck Mayer

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Posted April 19 2007 - 10:49 AM

I agree ROTS is (mostly) more polished. I simply don't think it's better. Kong is better than anything in ROTS, in my opinion. Hulk was 2003, a year after Gollum. They didn't have the chance because they were going to town on the backgrounds of ROTS, filling the screen with tons of extraneous junk Posted Image When given the chance (by Verbinski or Lee), they do great focused work.

But Avatar is well beyond the requirements of Kong, LOTR, or Star Wars. Trust me, Cory. Imagine a film where you need a Hulk element (flawless CG character mapped to a real actor...but only sort of) for 80-90 MINUTES of screen-time, as a real character. And it's set on one of the craziest planets in ILM's ROTS panoply. But photoreal like the crap in Pearl Harbor. With Cameron-level action scenes. And acting beyond what current CG characters have shown possible. It's an Oscar in the bag. Because Cameron is Cameron. And this is what he can do better than Scorcese (who's FX talent as a director is underappreciated), Scott, Bay, Lucas, Jackson, and even Spielberg Posted Image
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#17 of 97 Cory S.

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Posted April 19 2007 - 10:53 AM

Chuck,

We're in a wait and see situation with Cameron on Avatar but I don't doubt his abilities with CG. I mean, he's one of the best, if not the best.

As it stands, we're left with what happened the year before and what we're getting now and it seems that Transformers could be the new bar raiser, which I think shouldn't be a problem.

Still, as much as I hate Dead Man's Chest as a film, I still marvel at Davy Jones. He's the sole reason why I might still get Dead Man's Chest on Blu-Ray....

And I wouldn't call it extraneous junk, Chuck. Lucas, rightly or wrongly, loves to fill the screen up in the Prequels to make the entire worlds feel inhabited. Some see it as a distraction. I tend to think it completes the films.
"Because he's the hero Gotham deserves.  But, not the one it needs right now.  So, we'll hunt.  Because he can take.  Because, he's not a hero.  He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector.  A DARK KNIGHT."

#18 of 97 Kevin Grey

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Posted April 19 2007 - 11:33 AM

I've only seen Hulk once (didn't care for it at all) but I really wasn't impressed by the Hulk character. It certainly wasn't bad but I'd put it at the bottom by far of all the CGI characters we're discussing here.

And I'm glad someone brought up The Mummy Returns- ILM isn't infallable either and I think the Scorpion King sequence was worse than the Bronto Stampede when equalizing for the state of the art in their respective years. In fact I'd say the overall quality of the effects in The Mummy Returns was below that of The Mummy which is likely due to the increased number of effects shots combined with a shortened post.

#19 of 97 Chuck Mayer

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Posted April 19 2007 - 11:37 AM

I think it distracts personally. It's almost all irrelevant, and it often makes the screen feel cluttered, distracting from the story at hand. Again, you and I have differing philosophical opinions on the PT films and ILM vs. WETA. No big deal. Plenty of folks agree with you, and plenty of folks agree with me. I prefer FX used differently than GL prefers. But they are his films.

I'm not ready to say wait and see. It's Cameron and WETA (with a bigger budget, better FX director, and more complete timetable). I have no doubt the effects will be groundbreaking at time of release, and not in the gradual way we've seen in the last few years. It won't be slightly better than whatever big 2008 FX show is on display. I can't comment on the film. Maybe Cameron lost his dramatic skills. But I harbor no worries about the FX side.
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#20 of 97 Cory S.

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Posted April 19 2007 - 11:47 AM

Kevin,

It's interesting that the Mummy Returns is brought up because that's the same year, same summer that ILM delivered Pearl Harbor.

I mean, two sides of the spectrum from ILM. Obviously The Mummy Returns was working with the B team at ILM compared to what Bay had on Pearl Harbor....

Chuck,

What's Cameron's budget on Avatar?

Also, I think I'd be more high on Weta's work if they weren't given the timetable they had with the last two Rings films and King Kong. It's drastically shorter than what ILM did with the Prequels...and it shows in a lot of sequences they did. But, still pretty great, given that fact. Besides Gollum, I think Weta's greatest achievement in visual effects in the Rings films were Helm's Deep, Moria, Lothlorien, and Rivendell (pretty much the entirety of The Fellowship of the Ring).
"Because he's the hero Gotham deserves.  But, not the one it needs right now.  So, we'll hunt.  Because he can take.  Because, he's not a hero.  He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector.  A DARK KNIGHT."