Design hits the Oscars red carpet for Best Visual Effects


Oscar Season is around the corner. Or, dare I say it, it’s here! It’s time to start thinking about the nominees and who will win the coveted statuettes for 2013. But where does design fall into all of this (because it most certainly does)?

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Graphic designers are key in filmmaking, although sometimes called the silent artists of the cinema. A designer’s role includes anything from graphic storyboarding to prop design, set design, promotional art such as posters, and sometimes even creating the film’s personalized typography. Much like the logo designs created here on 99designs, design in the cinema works to create an identity and a full world for each particular film.

Graphic design in the cinema is growing exponentially in a variety of categories, and one area we are particularly interested in is the realm of Visual Effects (aka VFX). In order to be a successful member of teams such as VFX, each artist and designer must understand the material, atmosphere and tone they are trying to communicate throughout the film.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at the 2013 nominees for Best Visual Effects. And don’t forget to tell us who you think should win!

Nominees for Best Visual Effects

Marvel’s: The Avengers

One of this year’s films nominated for best VFX is the visual effects masterpiece: Marvel’s The Avengers.

Marvel at the Screens

The Avengers is a case where extreme fantasy reigns, through the genre of science fiction. Those screens Robin Scherbatsky is pressing were all designed by graphic designers like yourselves. They were even using Adobe Illustrator!

Another impressive feat from this film was Jayce Hansen’s creation of the HUD, a certain highly technical device that Iron Man (aka Robert Downey Jr.) utilizes to do some hi-tech stuff. Pretty much a ton of planning went into this ‘prop’, even though it only enjoyed a short amount of screen time.


You can read more about the creation of this HUD, and see some cool preliminary and intermediate designs here.

Here is an image of the final design as it was seen in the film:

HUD final


Prometheus was another of this year’s sci-fi epics that allowed graphic designers to take full force of the creation of futuristic worlds. In this case, with the screens which comprise the spaceship that is the namesake of the film.

Prometheus Screen

You can see from this image, the similarity between the graphic design skills needed for both Marvel’s: The Avengers and Prometheus. Both involve brightly colored screens and alot of technical mumbo-jumbo that, if you are anything like this here blogger, goes quite over your head.

The similarities continue as you can see the designers Lee Fasciani and Nick Glover of design company Territory created in this HUD display. However, you can also see the different utilizations. This one is for some sort of DNA machine. Crrrazy!

Prometheus HUD

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Another popular entry this year is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. While the film received flak for being almost too-extensively visually based, you can’t deny they did an excellent job of creating a Middle Earth that looks like we really can climb the Misty Mountains.

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This sketch by John Howe, the illustrator for the film as well as the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, created illustrations like this and others to fully visualize the world that was to be created onscreen. Without his designing work, it would be hard for production to begin their creation of the goblin cave under the Misty Mountains. This clearly took some imagination!

Part of the challenge of creating a universe so radically different from our own is the production crew (i.e. those nominated for Production Design) who must decide whether or not it would be more profitable to create real sets or to design things digitally. With the case of the goblin cave above, the choice was digital. Here is the result of a scene as it appeared in the film:

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Life of Pi

Our third feature is Life of Pi. In making this movie, many wondered how it would be possible to make a film about a boy and a tiger (dangerous) on a boat in the middle of the ocean (also dangerous, difficult to capture on film, and difficult to make in Computer-Generated Imagery — CGI). But despite all the dubious critics this technical feat occurred, and it left viewers wondering how they made an entire film with a boy and a real tiger in the same boat.

But here’s the trick, it wasn’t! It was created by a series of intensive graphic design and CGI maneuvers that allowed the crew to keep the safety of their young star intact and their animal rights activist angering intact (earning them nominations in both Visual Effects and Production Design). Check out this process work:

Life of Pi

Not only was the tiger the result of graphic design, so too was the boat that is the setting for a large portion of the film. It became in fact, a boat tiger combo of graphic design mastery.

Here is an image of the design skeleton of the boat:

Pi Boat

And here’s an image of the finalized tiger on the boat. The design looked so real that many moviegoers have refused to believe it was accomplished with CGI. Thats some complex work on the part of Bill Westenhofer and the rest of his VFX team.

Pi Pi

Snow White and the Huntsman

Say what you will about Kristen Stewart (me, I’m a fan), but this film created a full and creative visual world for a Snow White story very different from Walt Disney’s early animation. One other thing they also created was their very own font for the title and credit sequences.


The font created, named Ravenna after the Evil Queen played by Charlize Theron, was intended to create the dark atmosphere elucidated by the rest of the film, continuing to set it apart from its G-rated background and the preconceptions that much of the audience must have about the story. By creating a custom font, graphic design has once again helped to create the atmosphere of a film. In the case of credits, completely setting the feel for the experience to come.

The experience to come was one that featured computer generated images, many of them highly complicated in order to create this dark fantasy world so different from our young memories of whistling while we work.

While much of the CGI in the film was used to create huge animations (i.e. a giant troll that looks to be made of sticks and stones that do seem to be able to break your bones), this particular effect looks to be very similar to graphic design.

garden pre

Much of the sets were based on castles, cathedrals and forests in Wales. However, the costs implied in actually shooting onsite caused the VFX leads to make some creative adjustments.

Here is an image of Charlize Theron’s Ravenna in the set physically crafted by the set designers. With the use of the Maya CGI technology, this hallway of snow and hedges turned into this:


While perhaps under appreciated in the cinema, design clearly plays a role in many categories of filmmaking. So don’t put your dreams of being a Hollywood star on hold just yet! As design’s role grows, so too will its recognition in the cinema. Until then we’ll just have to wait with baited breath to see which of these obviously hardworking designers will go home with the coveted gold.

(If you wonder who I think will win. I originally wanted to say Marvel’s: The Avengers, but noticing the thorough similarity to the work of Prometheus, I’ll go ahead and award the Maya Award to Life of Pi. To create an entire film, and entire character so fully based in VFX, and have it work so seamlessly is an accomplishment in filmmaking perhaps not yet seen).

Who do you think should win the award for Best Visual Effects? 

Design hits the Oscars red carpet for Best Visual Effects | manda | 4.5
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