Update: The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button was nominated for an Academy Award for Achievement In Visual Effects. Congrats to Digital Domain, Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton and Craig Barron
If you haven't seen Benjamin Button and hate spoilers, stop reading now. Just go read Bob Cesca's column - it's always good.
Still here? Okay...
The Holy Grail of computer animation has long been to create a computer generated human character that fools the viewer into thinking they are watching a real person. I've been an animation and visual effects professional for about twenty years, I've seen David Fincher's film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and I'll tell you this; the effects team at Digital Domain did it.
They get the Grail and very possibly this year's Academy Award for visual effects.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not dumb. I KNEW I was looking at visual effects. A bunch of them. I figured there was some 3D animation, some bits with Brad Pitt in makeup and some composite shots that combined different elements. I was wrong.
Until I spoke to the film's Character Supervisor - Digital Domain's Steve Preeg - I had no idea that after a small piece at the beginning, the entire first section of the film had zero real Brad. That's 0.0% percent real Pitt for an incredible 52 minutes. No Pitt in makeup, no 2D compositing of real footage. All computer generated performance while Pitt's Benjamin Button character appears to be in his 80s, 70s and 60s.
Preeg is a vet of films with pretty impressive character CGI work, like Lord Of The Rings parts II and III, Final Fantasy and King Kong. Preeg, Visual Effects Supervisor Eric Barba, and a few others at DD worked with director Fincher for a couple of years before the film started shooting to develop the techniques used in the final movie.
After I'd realized I'd been tricked by Button's digital performance, I spoke to a number of other working visual effects people and almost all of them were fooled, too. The ones that weren't fooled personally knew people who'd worked on the production, so they went into the movie knowing the trick they were seeing.
And so that's why I gave the spoiler warning. Once you know it's computer generated, you'll watch the film with different eyes. Maybe you're the kind of person who loudly brags to their friends, "See that?!? He twitched a little weird there and the head movement didn't exactly match the shoulder! OBVIOUSLY all CGI. Big whoop, I could do it on my laptop!"
But if you do that, then you're probably the kind of person who makes kids cry in the line for Santa with 'the truth' or who bugs their pals with theories about how Penn and Teller do their 'Bullet Catch'. In other words, your friends secretly hate you and you're going to hell or being reincarnated as a bug or whatever negative long term fate your spiritual system allows.
But for the rest of us who like to suspend our disbelief, the Digital Domain team may have pulled off the film illusion of the year in Benjamin Button.
For a technical article that goes into the specifics of how the effects in the film were done, read this excellent interview with Eric Barba by FXGuide.com
Lee Stranahan is a writer, filmmaker and founder of The 48 Hour Visual Effects Academy, an affordable two day program designed to help develop careers for animators and effects artists. You can reach Lee through his website at LeeStranahan.com