VFX Pros Expose The Hidden Costs of Selling a Movie as “Real”

“Everything that we shot is completely practical” said Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1 filmmaker Christopher McQuarrie in a behind-the-scenes video about the film’s high-octane Rome-set car chase. Added star and producer Tom Cruise, “we’re doing it right.”

The comments continue the trend of filmmakers and studio marketing departments emphasizing how productions do things for real. But those in the visual effects field say this publicity strategy does not always paint a full picture. Visual effects make the impossible possible and thrill audiences, but the artists who toil over delicate and groundbreaking work don’t always get to take a bow—or in some cases, even acknowledge the existence of their work.

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“When you have a huge movie, you can kind of tell any story about the technology. [Publicity] doesn’t always want that to become part of the story,” says one veteran member of the Academy’s VFX branch. Due to the sensitivity of the subject, he and additional sources in the VFX community spoke to The Hollywood Reporter on the condition of anonymity. (These sources, it should be said, did not work on Dead Reckoning.) Adds another source, “In certain situations, they clearly are suppressing certain information about how a film was made while being extremely vocal about how other parts were made. Sometimes it’s subtle. Sometimes it’s overt. And it’s usually from a marketing or publicly perspective.”

The source adds that sometimes there’s a blatant directive that “there will be no discussion of VFX. … We don’t want to overshadow the actors [or] we don’t want to break the mythology that somebody did all of these stunts.”

It’s worth noting that McQuarrie has spoken publicly about the film’s 2,500 VFX shots when asked, stating that this included work in the Rome-set chase and train sequence. But from a messaging standpoint, the Mission franchise’s narrative has always been about doing things for real.

Christopher Nolan, the auteur behind summer hit Oppenheimer, is also famous for emphasizing doing things for real on set, so much so that he alluded to this reputation in a playful way as he accepted the Visual Effects Society’s Visionary Award in 2011. “I feel a little guilty receiving this from you guys as somebody who often appears in the press talking about my use of CG like an actress talking about her use of botox,” said Nolan, before adding, “I’m as dependent on visual effects —probably more so — than any other filmmaker out there.”

Given his reputation, Nolan caused a stir this summer when he asserted that there was no CG used in Oppenheimer, and some incorrectly took that to mean there was no VFX at all. Comments from Nolan published later in the press cycle clarified that there were VFX, with Nolan declining to be more specific in order to preserve the illusion. After the film opened, Oppenheimer VFX supervisor Andrew Jackson detailed his work in an interview with THR, saying this included 200 or so VFX shots.

But generally speaking, some in Hollywood have been talking up the practical — meaning in camera —work on movies, even though in some cases there’s more to the story.

Last awards season, the narrative surrounding one of the year’s biggest hits, Paramount and Skydance’s Top Gun: Maverick, initially centered on the actors’ training and live filming. Little was revealed of the visual effects when the movie was released, and last fall, THR’s request to interview the VFX supervisor was declined by its awards publicity firm.

But when Top Gun: Maverick made the shortlist for the visual effects Oscar—meaning that its potential nominees would participate in a branch “bake off,” a sort of show-and-tell for voting members—the VFX team revealed that the movie involved 2,400 VFX shots including the creation of fully CG aircrafts. (For context, Spider-Man: No Way Home included 2,500 VFX shots).

This all has consequences for VFX practitioners, including during awards season. “It’s to the degree that this costs people nominations, and this costs people Academy Awards,” asserts another veteran of the VFX branch.

Agreeing with this view, another admits that they find this practice perplexing, as production is a team effort and the various departments work as partners while making a movie. But sometimes when marketing begins, these collaborators “either downplay or downright misrepresent the work that is being done.” Continues the source: “It is most insulting when it comes from the creative leadership of the movie.”

While it’s impossible to say what the outcome might have been, one example might be Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu‘s 2014 film Birdman, which won four Oscars including for best picture, director and cinematography, but wasn’t VFX nominated. It was widely praised for being lensed with long takes, appearing as if the entire 119-minute movie was shot in one uninterrupted take. As Inarritu told THR during that awards season, “It’s like a live concert. You can’t fix it, so if you f— it up, everything goes nuts. Everything you see in the film is real.”

But when the Academy Awards were in the rear view mirror, Rodeo FX agreed to an interview with THR, during which it admitted that it crafted roughly 100 “stitches” to bring together the different performances and takes. In that interview, the VFX team said Inarritu shot various takes of each scene, but rather than just use one of those takes in the finished film, he often chose elements from different takes and combined them in the final, finished shot. “Alejandro would prefer different performance takes from different actors,” executive VFX producer Jordan Soles explained, “so it was not just stitching takes together, but stitching performances, in some cases morphing heads and torsos.”

In the nine years since Birdman was released, it has become increasingly difficult for audiences, and even seasoned VFX pros, to distinguish between the real and the synthetic.

“It’s harder and harder to know how a shot was made,” admits one source. Adds another: “The better we are, the worse it is for our profession.”

Hollywood history has earlier examples of work being downplayed, and it’s not limited to the narrative that everthing in a film was done for real. Legendary special makeup effects artist Rick Baker created a Kong suit and played the titular simian in the majority of Dino de Laurentus’ 1976 feature King Kong. According to Metamorphosis, a 2019 book chronicling Baker’s career, the Oscar winner was instructed not to talk to the press, with focus instead placed on a mechanical Kong, which according to the book, had far more limited use in the movie. In the end, the team behind the Kong robot earned a Special Achievement Award for VFX at the 1977 Academy Awards. Baker was left out, and according to Metamorphosis, two VFX branch members resigned from the Academy over the incident.

Beyond awards, VFX pros say this sort of practice has other repercussions. With the July release of Oppenheimer, Cartoon Brew reported that 80 percent of the movie’s VFX crew went uncredited, though lead VFX shop DNEG placed all of their names on its web site. THR reached out to Oppenheimer studio Universal for comment on this story.

Sources point out the impact on artists, who after the hard work are then unable to tell friends and family about their contributions to a film. One source adds that these strict directives that don’t permit VFX companies to talk about their work can also impact a VFX company’s ability to recruit top talent.

For many in the industry, the question remains, at what point could this sort of situation change. Admits one vet, “Hollywood mythology is extremely powerful.”

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