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    What Makes an Award-Winning Visual Effect?

    This story originally appeared on the Cinefex blog on 2/2/2016 and is republished here with permission. Learn more about Cinefex magazine here.

    The Oscars are just around the corner. The 14th Annual VES Awards will be presented later today. Among the memorable movies nominated for extraordinary achievements in visual effects this year are Ex Machina, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

    But just how do you choose between a sexy robot, monumental vehicular carnage, extra-terrestrial super-science, trials and trauma in the North American wilderness, and an entire galaxy filled with beeping droids and exploding spaceships? In an age where seamlessly-integrated, photoreal effects are taken completely for granted, what constitutes a "good" visual effect?

    Actor John Krasinski (left) and Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced the nominees for the 88th Annual Academy Awards in the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

    In search of some answers, we asked an international panel of visual effects professionals this simple question:

    "How do you go about judging award-winning visual effects?"

    It's a question that could take us into some rocky territory. Luckily for us, Randall Smith, visual effects supervisor at Pixomondo, has sketched out a road map to help us on our way:

    "I judge visual effects based on three criteria. First I'm looking for accuracy and photorealism — visuals so realistic that the viewer accepts what they are seeing, and their disbelief is momentarily suspended. Secondly, I'm looking for pure, artistic expression. The best effects stand out when the artists aren't held back by the limitations of a cost-effective solution, and instead aim towards new discoveries within their art. Last — and most importantly — the measure of a great effect will always be its success in storytelling. It's amazing that a Muppet, with a team of artist's hands shoved up its backside, can create a compelling story with a huge range of emotion. In comparison, some of most expensive effects shots often fall flat, losing the narrative and thereby losing the viewer."

    Parallel to Smith's three basic criteria, Marque Pierre Sondergaard, texture artist at Atomic Fiction, suggests studying visual effects through two different lenses, which he describes as the "yin and yang of visual effects":

    In Brief: Bryan Fuller To Helm New Star Trek Series!

    This is great news for Star Trek fans. CBS had previously announced that it's in pre-production for a new Star Trek television series for its All Access digital subscription service, and that Star Trek (2009) writer Alex Kurtzman was producing it. Today, Bryan Fuller announced that he would also be producing and showrunning the series, which is to be set in the rebooted Star Trek universe from the J.J. Abrams films. Fuller, who is also currently producing the television adaption of Neil Gaiman's American Gods, is best known for his shows Hannibal, Pushing Daisies, and Wonderfalls--all of which share great writing and vibrant visual style. But Star Trek fans should know that he began his TV writing career on Deep Space Nine and Voyager. The new show is scheduled to have its pilot premiere on CBS next January.

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    "Frank on Frankenstein" - Episode 28 - 2/5/16
    On this episode of CreatureGeek, it's a solecist with just Frank and Len. Frank wants to go on a rant. And rant he does! We chat about the classic monster Frankenstein in all his iterations including the book by Mary Shelley, the James Whale movie and the newer versions including Kenneth Branagh's 1993 version and the new I, Frankenstein and Victor Frankenstein. Support us on Patreon! Head on over to and throw us a few bucks!
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    Adam Savage Meets the Original Blade Runner Blaster Prop!

    One of the holy grail props in movie history is Deckard's PKD Blaster from Blade Runner. This iconic pistol has been intensely studied by replica prop builders, including Adam Savage. Adam finally meets the real hero prop--in the collection of Dan Lanigan--and bring his own storied replica to compare with the original!

    In Brief: Smithsonian Begins USS Enterprise Model Restoration

    Last week, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum announced the team that has been tasked with restoring the original television filming model of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701 (no bloody A, B, C, or D). Restoration is lead by John Goodson, who is joined by ILMers Bill George and Kim Smith (now of Creature Art & Mechanics Digital). The team is analyzing not only the aesthetic details of the model as it appeared on the show (circa August 1967, during the filming of The Trouble with Tribbles), but also the original materials and construction methods to understand its aged state. The Enterprise isn't just getting a new paint job, it's getting a paint job that represents the same pigments and plastics layered on the model over its production lifespan. The Smithsonian blog post has many more details about how the team is achieving this, along with the restoration roadmap for the model to be ready for display in by this summer--Star Trek's 50th anniversary. (h/t Gavin Rothery)

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    Behind the Scenes of Stop-Motion Animation

    Two great videos I saw recently diving into the intricacies of the stop-motion animation process. The first is an Academy Originals production, following Laika animator Daniel Alderson as he explains how he collaborates with the director, fabricators, armaturists, schedulers, and production team to animate one shot in a film. The giant scheduling wall they have set up to coordinate production is impressively daunting! Next up is this behind-the-scenes featurette from Cartoon Network, showing the making of a stop-motion episode of Adventure Time, directed by the amazing and talented animator Kirsten Lepore.

    Meet Gordon Tarpley, C-3PO Suit Builder

    Meet Gordon Tarpley, a prop builder and cosplayer who specializes in C-3PO. He's one of the few C-3PO cosplayer and performers, and has been working on his suit and performance for years. We chat with Gordon about his build process, how he's improving his suit, and what it takes to perform as this iconic Star Wars character.

    "The Amazing Joel Harlow" - Episode 27 - 1/22/16
    It's a brand new CreatureGeek! Today, we welcome award winning makeup and visual effects artist, Joel Harlow to the show. In 2009, Joel took home an Oscar for best Makeup and Hairstyling for JJ Abram's reboot of Star Trek and was nominated again in 2013 for his work on The Lone Ranger. It's a great conversation, you don't want to miss! Do you love CreatureGeek? Support us on Patreon! Head on over to and throw us a few bucks!
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    Adam Savage Inspects the Spacesuit from The Martian!

    Adam Savage gets special access to one of the spacesuits from The Martian to study and document it for his personal replica project! Here's Adam's gleeful first impressions after opening the suit's shipping crate and appreciate for some of the fine fabricated details seen in person. (Bring home The Martian, nominated for 7 Academy Awards®, on Blu-ray™, DVD & Digital HD today.)

    The Millennium Falcon Flies Again

    This story originally appeared on the Cinefex blog on 1/12/2016 and is republished here with permission. Learn more about Cinefex magazine here.

    What's your favorite movie starship? If Han Solo's Millennium Falcon isn't on your shortlist, there's something wrong with you. And if you haven't yet enjoyed the crazy aerobatics of the galaxy's most iconic hunk of junk in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there's something really wrong with you.

    For the latest film in the staggeringly popular space saga – featured in the February issue of Cinefex – the Falcon gets a new pilot in the form of Rey, a lonely scavenger from the desolate planet of Jakku. However, just as Rey isn't the first person to sit behind the controls of this much-loved spacecraft, so the Falcon seen in The Force Awakens is hardly the first version of the ship to have graced cinema screens over the years.

    So just how many Falcons have there been?

    The very first Falcon of all was created for the original Star Wars in 1977. To begin with, she didn't even have a name – Lucas and the rest of the crew referred to her simply as the "pirate ship". What's more, she didn't look one bit like the retrofitted saucer now familiar to fans around the world.

    Constructed by the model department at Industrial Light & Magic, that first Falcon was long and thin, with a cluster of chunky engines at the back. Late in the day, when the lovingly-created six-foot miniature was more or less ready to go in front of the camera, director George Lucas decided the ship looked too much like the Eagle transporter from TV show Space: 1999. Suddenly, it was all change on the Falcon front.

    Building a Star Wars Shadowtrooper Helmet Kit!

    We've had the Shadowtrooper armor kit from Anovos completed since last year, but one addition kit that we wanted to build was the helmet. Over the course of a day, Frank and Norm tackle the helmet build, showing you how to clean up the vacuum-formed parts and put them together. With only four plastic pieces, this is a great place to start on your own Stormtrooper kit!

    TRANSCRIPT: We Got This Podcast--Star Wars vs. Star Trek

    An Internet search for "Star Wars vs. Star Trek" yields 8.1 MILLION results. That's because for the last 40 years, the two franchises have dominated pop culture, developing passionate fan bases in the process. But which one is "better"?

    It is this question that Mark Gagliardi and Hal Lublin, hosts of the We Got This podcast, set out to answer definitively. To help them, they called in two friends and experts -- Adam Savage and John Hodgman. After an hour of debate, a conclusion was reached.

    Courtesy of Michael B. Johnson

    To listen to the FULL podcast (which includes some pretty funny non-sequiturs, including a conversation about the potential dating life of the actor who played Chewbacca's son Lumpy in the Star Wars Holiday Special), go here or to iTunes. And check out some of Mark and Hal's other We Got This subjects, which range from sweet vs. sour pickles to the best James Bond film.

    In the meantime, enjoy, and feel free to chime in with your opinion in the comments.

    Lighting and Color in Hotel Transylvania 2

    I've been impressed with the work of Sony Pictures Animation ever since their work on 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs', and love this featurette showing the thought process behind lighting and color in the recently released Hotel Transylvania 2. The film, which just hit Blu-Ray this week, was directed by Genndy Tartakovsky, best known for Samurai Jack and the Star Wars: Clone Wars series. Particularly interesting are the use of animation color scripts to picture a sort of visual roadmap of the film.

    In Brief: The Force Awakens' VFX Supervisor on Balancing Digital and Practical

    In an interview with Studio Daily, ILM's Roger Guyett talks in-depth about the digital effects work that his team put into Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Because of J.J. Abrams' championing of practical effects (especially in preview reels like the one shown at Comic-Con), there's a bit of a misconception of how much digital work actually ended up in the film. Guyett explains that 2100 of the 2500 shots in TFA had visual effects, and the goal was to use them in a way that sustained believability, complementing the practical camera work on location. They saw success in convincing shots that were entirely digital, like Rey's speeder zipping across Jakku in the first teaser, as well as long sequences like the Millennium Falcon chase. For that scene, the trick was to ground the digital camera movements in real-world physics, as well as capture terrabytes of photographic and video reference for the artists to create the digital desert environment.

    "Everett Burell's Optic Nerve" - Episode 26 - 1/8/16
    Happy New Year from CreatureGeek! We kick off the new year with a wonderful interview with the original owner of Optic Nerve, Everett Burrell. Everett talks about the history of Optic Nerve and how it fits in the wider echelon of the visual effects history. Also, Frank and I launched a new Patreon for the show! Head on over to and you can make an ongoing pledge for the show. If you love the show, help us make more of it! More details on the show and at the Patreon. Finally, rate us on iTunes so more people can find the show.
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    Norm's Favorite Collectibles of 2015

    We have one more favorite things video to kick off the new year! We've shared our favorite tools, gear, and tech from 2015, but here are our favorite collectibles from the past year. These are the figures that are going to live on our set in future videos!

    Star Wars: The Force Awakens SPOILERCAST - Still Untitled: The Adam Savage Project - 12/29/15
    It's finally here! Adam, Norm, and Will discuss Star Wars: The Force Awakens in this extra-long Spoiler-filled episode of Still Untitled. We talk about our favorite scenes, theories about the characters, and things that surprised us. Let us know what you thought about the movie in the comments!
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    The Story Behind This Star Wars: Attack of the Clones Photo of Me and Tory Belleci

    As many of you know, I worked on Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones. This photo is of Tory Belleci and me working on Attack of the Clones, and I thought I'd explain it a bit.

    This job, the making of the buildings of Tipoca City, was super fun and difficult. It was staffed by maybe one of the best teams of model-makers you could wish for: John Duncan, John Goodson, Tory Belleci, Dave Fogler, supervised by Brian Gernand. I'm sure I'm forgetting someone. If that's so, I'm sorry.

    The big hero tower building I'm working on here was a mad three-week dash to finish. I came in late to the project but had the same end-date as everyone else, so I had to scramble. Once I was done, and all the buildings were finished, the incredible painters had their way with the models for a couple of weeks. The photo of Tory and me is actually one we call a "model shop reach." These models are completely done, yet it looks like Tory and I are still doing model-making with tools. In reality, we were asked by the ILM photographer to come back over to the set and make it look briefly like we were working on the models, when in reality our job was done two weeks before the painters did their thing.