2023 Oscars: Has ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Done Enough to Win Over VFX Voters?

Source: IndieWire
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“Avatar: the Way of Water” is too much of a juggernaut to lose the VFX Oscar — and senior VFX supervisor Joe Letteri from Wētā FX made a persuasive case for why it’s the frontrunner during Saturday’s “bake-off” at the Academy Museum, where Visual Effects Branch members watched presentations and Q&A sessions that will help determine the five nominees set to be announced January 24. Instead, the big question surrounding the category has been whether or not the high-flying “Top Gun: Maverick” has the right stuff to get nominated: Its VFX team, led by production supervisor Ryan Tudhope, was under a strict press blackout until the bake-off.

That’s because the marketing campaign (per actor-producer Tom Cruise and director Joseph Kosinski) has stayed on message about the revolutionary practical aerial stunts featuring Cruise flying in the cockpit of Navy fighter jets. The intention of Paramount and the “Maverick” team was always to wait until the shortlist submission to finally provide the compulsory three-minute behind-the-scenes reel (with before-and-after comparisons), 10-minute clip reel, and effects descriptions to qualify for Oscar consideration. This prevented Tudhope from doing any interviews explaining the crucial role of the supplemental VFX — which totaled 2,400 shots (principally from Method, now part of Framestore) — and how it was seamlessly integrated into the thrilling aerial sequences. Any reported stories from the filmmakers on the role of the VFX or detailed BTS footage have been highly anticipated, yet entirely absent; before Tudhope’s bake-off presentation, the best source for information on the scope of VFX work within “Maverick” — from CG aircraft to the digital removal of the jets’ pilots — was this Reddit thread.

This kind of lengthy embargo is very unusual, particularly for a summer blockbuster with its eye on making the VFX shortlist, and IndieWire has learned that it frustrated not only the “Maverick” VFX team, but also some members of the VFX industry at large. Of course, the immersive photographic work — led by Oscar-frontrunning cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who spearheaded the use of the innovative Sony Rialto Camera Extension System — should take precedence for putting us in the cockpit with Cruise and his co-stars. But this notion that everything was practical is purely a myth.

When Tudhope’s big moment arrived on Saturday, he raised the curtain: The BTS reel contained lots of aerial plate photography, air-to-air tests, digital re-skinning textures to make one fighter look like another, g-force shots, and examples of the digital pyro. This was followed by a well-edited clip reel that encapsulated the high degree of photographic realism and IMAX-level spectacle in the training maneuvers and seemingly impossible bomber mission.

Then Tudhope and his team took questions from Visual Effects Branch chairman Rob Bredow (executive creative director and head of Industrial Light & Magic), Visual Effects Branch governor Brooke Breton (co-producer of “Avatar”), and Visual Effects Branch governor Paul Debevec (director of research at Netflix). They addressed shot design for frenetic energy and clarity, camera path lighting, plate photography, CG explosions, and simulations in more detail.

Was it enough to convince voters to nominate “Maverick”? The consensus at the post-bakeoff reception appeared to be yes. One member told IndieWire that “for mostly photographic work the effects were effective.” Another member said the clips reminded them “how exciting it was seeing the film last summer with a paid audience that hollered throughout.”

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