Oscar weekend has arrived and our TV sets will soon be filled with glamorous celebrities, Hollywood power players, and long red carpets full of Beautiful People.
But with all the glitz and glamour, it’s easy to forget that the Academy Awards are also a celebration of an entire industry. Thousands of artists, technicians and other film industry professionals endeavor throughout the year, and around the world, to make those movies we enjoy at the multiplex. The Academy Award ceremony tends to spotlight celebrities, but it also honors achievement in categories such as film editing, cinematography, sound and visual effects.
Daniel Brimer, recent California expat and new Apex resident, was a key player — the visual effects producer — on one of this year’s Oscar-nominated films, Steven Spielberg’s film “Ready Player One.” The film has been nominated for an Academy Award in Best Achievement in Visual Effects. For Brimer, it’s the latest in a long list of films he’s worked on over the years, including previous Oscar nominees “The Avengers,” “Iron Man 3” and “Real Steel.”
(This article and headline have been corrected to clarify that Brimer, himself, is not up for an Oscar, although he worked on the visual effects. He explains in an email: “Only the four primary creatives, such as the Visual Effects Supervisors, Animation Supervisors and Special Effects Supervisors, are allowed to be nominated for the Visual Effects Academy Award. Visual Effects Producers are not eligible.”)
After more than 20 years in the industry, Brimer moved to Apex just a few months back.
“We’d vacationed out here quite a bit and we loved it,” he said. “It’s a great family place.”
Brimer still works part of the time as an executive producer for the company Digital Domain, a major Hollywood player. That’s the visual effects company founded by James Cameron, which revolutionized the business with “Titanic” in 1997.
It isn’t all computers
Brimer said that people often assume visual effects, these days, are entirely computer generated — but that’s not the case. In fact, most of the effects in films are built from tried-and-true techniques that have been around for decades.
“A visual effect is really just anything you see on screen that is not possible just by pointing and shooting a camera,” Brimer said. “It might include model work, miniatures, animatronics, puppeteers, matte paintings ...”
Digital effects are a kind of subset of visual effects, and are often used to stitch together the various other techniques used in a particular shot.
For example, “Ready Player One” — adapted from the book by Ernest Cline — imagines a future where most people spend their time in the virtual realm as the planet falls apart. Brimer’s work as visual effects producer involved creating the future “real world” of overpopulation and ecological neglect. Working with his collaborators at Digital Domain, Brimer used multiple different techniques to create the future dystopia.
“The iconic image in the book is this idea of The Stacks, where people live in RVs and mobile homes that are stacked up in giant structures,” he said. “The first couple of levels were built on the set, then it was our job to make that expand into the sky and off to the horizon.”
Visual effects are often associated with science fiction and fantasy, but actually all movies have some form of optical trickery, Brimer said.
For example, consider this year’s Best Picture nominee “The Favourite,” set in 18th century England. “One of the challenges of period pictures is making the environment onscreen match the history, so that the scene looks like how the world looked in that age,” Brimer said. “For the visual effects team, it might mean actually removing things instead of putting them in. We might have to get rid of contrails in the background sky, or take out rooftop satellite dishes from a location that’s supposed to be old London.”
A visual effects crew might also work with background matte paintings, although that effect has largely moved into the computer realm, Brimer said. In recent years, digital matte paintings have evolved to improve the illusion.
“It’s not quite 3D, but its a way to convey a sense of dimension and perspective that wasn’t possible with old matte paintings,” he said. “We call it two-and-a half D. The actors can be walking in front of the castle or whatever, and the perspective moves with the camera.”
Brimer said a single sequence in a film that might last for five seconds can take months to complete and involve dozens of people. As such, visual effects workers can get pretty attached to a single piece of footage.
“These are people that spent a huge part of their lives to make these films, often away from their families,” he said. “And they really do this in order to tell these stories, to make films, to create an emotion or an experience for somebody.”
So keep this in mind when you’re watching the Oscars, or next time the credits roll at the movie theater.
“When I was in high school and college, I was always the one guy who would sit through the credits because I was interested in that,” Brimer said. “Who are the people that actually make these movies?”
Oscars on TV
The 2019 Oscars will air at 8 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 24, on ABC. The channel is available for live-streaming at ABC’s website.