Ten years ago, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. In almost every respect, the visual effects work in that movie stands the test of time. One of the award recipients, John Knoll, is again nominated this year for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. So apart from the growth in nominees (from three in 2007 to five in 2017), you might be forgiven for thinking that the visual effects industry had a quiet decade. Far from it.
The last ten years in filmmaking has seen digital technology do away with one hundred years of film history by usurping analogue film stock, becoming the de facto medium for cinematography. So if movie making is now a purely digital process, how will visual effects develop over the next decade?
Out with the analogue and in with the digital
'Visual effects' (aka VFX, things made in post-production) is considered distinct from 'special effects' which sees practical things done for real on set. Over the years, the visual effects industry has invented digital tools which increasingly factor into other phases of film-making, not just in the post-production phase. For example, it's now commonplace to 'pre-visualise', digitally, how a film shoot might work on set, by using the same tools that might later be used in post-production. The cameras on set are digital, so it's become common to use those 'pre-visualisations' live on set too, where what is being filmed can be seen in the context of the digital additions. It's also the norm to find visual effects tools and artists on set, validating the shots coming off the camera. There's no film laboratory to wait for any more.
The potential of these purely digital workflows was highlighted in the 2009 Oscar-winning visual effects masterpiece Avatar, where director James Cameron's on-set work mixed live actor performances with computer generated material. It gave the director and crew an immediate sense of how the virtual world being 'filmed' would appear after post-production.
New strides in performance capture technology
Avatar is also a milestone on another trend, further highlighted by the stunning visuals of 2017's Oscar nominee Jungle Book. Not only mixing live and virtual work on set, both films demonstrate the gradual advances in 'performance capture' of bodies and faces; digitally recording the three-dimensional motion and expressions of real actors, to create computer generated characters later. In a wider context, Jungle Book is also a modern showcase for advances in the way the industry handles muscles, skin and fur in computer-generated characters.
Tackling the uncanny valley and photorealism
One highlight in the last decade was the 2009 winner "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", and a hot topic in this year's nominations is the 'digital resurrection' of Peter Cushing for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Audiences have been here before with Fast & Furious 7, but Rogue One comes even closer to finally crossing what the industry refers to as the 'uncanny valley'. Typically the more accurately we try to pass a digital human character as 'real', the more disturbing the audience finds it. Anecdotally, a lot of the younger audience weren't perturbed by Peter Cushing's 'performance' - so arguably visual effects technology has reached a point where we have finally crossed that barrier.
Visual effects across the big and small screen
Over the past decade, visual effects work has become ubiquitous across all film work. This year's hot pick in the Oscars visual effects category, Kubo and the Two Strings, is a proud integration of stop-motion combined, seamlessly, with computer-generated imagery. While we focus on the visual effects category, most (if not all) movies in other categories will also have benefited from visual effects technology. La La Land's acclaimed five-minute opening sequence is carried off by the careful integration of 'invisible' visual effects.
It's not just on the big screen that visual effects have won over audiences; they're incorporated into 'blockbuster' television shows too, as we saw with Boardwalk Empire's launch in 2010. It truly set the trend for other television shows. Now the small screen is starting to rival big screen visuals with world renowned series like Game Of Thrones, following the trend set by Boardwalk.
The drive for efficiency
Movie-making - particularly around awards time - may seem glamorous, but the world of visual effects production is in practice a very risky business. The 2013 visual effects category was won by Life of Pi, but the main creator of visual effects for the movie (Rhythm & Hues Studios) simultaneously filed for bankruptcy.
The industry is globalised, driven by a now entirely digital process. It depends on distributed workflows, and a highly mobile workforce, and it alternately suffers and benefits from the ebb and flow of government incentives. Consequently, there is a growing demand for technology that helps to drive efficiency through the increased use of analytics, better workflows, and the dynamic use of cloud computing. Just as visual effects continues to push the boundaries of what can be seen in film, visual effects companies will continue to find new ways of streamlining the complex VFX process, enabling filmmakers to continue thrilling us with fantastic and extraordinary visuals for the next ten years and beyond.