So why the Oscar win? Considering the category nominees; Avengers, Christopher Robin, Star Wars and Ready Player One, it was a controversial win, no doubt. It’s likely that each of the nominations had well over 1500 VFX shots, several being full CG. Compared to maybe only half of that in First Man. Maybe it wasn’t judged on scale or complexity, perhaps, this year, people relied on traditional values; Is it a good story? Does it engage?And, are the effects a seamless part of the narrative?

A quote from the First Man Cinefex article by the production designer, Nathan Crowley, “We called it new technology for old techniques”.

Great visual effects should serve the story. They provide a way to visualise what is impossible or not practicable to capture on the day of filming. First Man used a range of in-camera techniques that are decades old. They modernised those methods with an injection of technology, which is why I think they were so successful.

If you deal with VFX, you’ve probably had experience with a green screen, either on the day or in post-production. They provide a quicker way to create a matte; sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. The biggest downside to a screen is that they represent a world that isn’t there. Perhaps an impression exists in a few peoples minds, but mostly it’s a giant invasive wall that offers nothing more than a solid block of colour. Probably, the most significant disadvantage is for the cast because they need to convince us that they are there – exprienceing a real envronment.

Being able to experience a fantastic scene while we film, surely has to yield better results all around? Perhaps, First Man’s giant LED screen, which immersed the performers in the world, did just that. Maybe it enabled all departments to benefit from ‘being there’ after all, seeing is believing. Being able to review and tune the action as its captured provides the tools for better storytelling and more believable scenes, removing the post ‘guesswork’. I believe more onscreen mystery creates a stronger emotional bond to the scene; I’m more engaged if I don’t know how it was created, deepening my suspension of disbelief. This was the case when I watched First Man.

Rear projection (LED’s are a modern variation of this) has it’s own complexities and requires much work before the shoot to get it right. In my experience, using a hybrid of practical and digital effects, there on the day, enables everyone to engage, not only the audience. When you can’t see it, more complexities can be introduced, which get offset into post-production. It can create more artistic choices, which reduce believability. Keeping the decision making on set (which breeds good accidents) naturally improves realism. But it’s essential the filmmakers are behind the ideas and don’t have a ‘fix it in post’ attitude, which would defeat the intention. For my money, First Man achieved realism and skillfully pulled off some beautiful in-camera environment work.

Bringing back miniatures to tell the story of the vessels in orbit was another success that I think they executed with fantastic realism. When I’m watching extraordinary vehicles, my eye is drawn to several attributes. In particular, the nuances of surfaces and the interaction of light upon them. Small details that sell objects can be a timely process in CG, as procedural methods are an easy fallback. Detailing in the practical world is still done by hand, which enables natrual realism. The art department used modern rapid prototyping to build the vessels, quickly and efficiently, providing more time to detail. This approach possibly made the miniature work a viable option from the costly days when everything was meticulously hand built. I thought it worked very well and their combination of practical and digital work for these scenes made it seamless!

The pièce de résistance was arriving on the Moon. As far as I was concerned, they did. They built a craft, loaded it with cameras and went into space in the name of entertainment. Well, they didn’t, they went to a quarry and they nailed it!

A 70mm experience as Neil leaves his lander and makes the first step. The most impressive element of these scenes wasn’t just the costume and how authentic it felt, not the believable weightlessness they had as the astronauts bounced along the surface or the replica lunar lander but the quality of light. For me, this sold the imagery — the fall off of the shadows, the flares, the sheer power of the sun. How did they do it; they built their own bulb; a very, very, big one.

I’ve advocated in-camera techniques over pure CG for most of my career as a VFX supervisor. I started in the Art & SFX departments, so I’m aware of what’s possible with old school techniques in combination with newer digital methods. I’ve also witnessed how film crews react to something when it’s there, on the day, contrary to something that’s not, like a green screen. When the subject is present, it’s this moment when every department is working together, when craft and creativity hit the roof and capture great, realistic, work. Modern methods of shooting, it’s all too common to create large portions of the story in post-production. Sometimes it looks great; sometimes it seems computer generated.

Perhaps visual effects have become so grand and form a considerable part of films visual content; it’s time to create a sub-category. Something along the lines of Best Emulated Film? Either, way if I were an Oscar voter, First Man would have got my vote.

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