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The biggest 3D movies of 2017 and what they teach us

Let’s face it, the biggest 3D movies of 2017 are never going to be subtlest ones. To make back the multi-millions of dollars invested means appealing to a broad global audience through spectacular visual effects and high-impact action.

But many 3D movies are actually surprisingly sophisticated in a number of ways, and can teach designers from other disciplines a thing or two.

In this post, we look at five of the year’s biggest 3D movies, and discuss the five lessons they can teach poster designers, logo designers, artists, 3D artists and VFX specialists.

01. Logan: How to make a poster 

Poster by Dave Rapoza for the IMAX screenings of Logan

Poster by Dave Rapoza for the IMAX screenings of Logan
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After the backlash the Spider-Man: Homecoming poster received, in June we asked “Are movie posters in a design crisis?” But if you want to know exactly how to pull off a movie poster design, then here’s a great example.

Released in March, Logan was an X-Men film unlike any other X-Men film. Less a standard superhero caper and more akin to a Western, this film is intense, gritty and graphically violent in a way that’s totally unsuitable for small children.

With a more mature story aimed at a more mature audience, it was fitting that this poster design by Dave Rapoza (opens in new tab) for the IMAX screenings harked back to an earlier era of classic movie posters. And the reaction from the design community was overwhelmingly positive, as we reported.

Okay, so this movie poster is purposely retro. But with so many movie posters of the 21st century looking like hastily and amateurishly knocked-up Photoshop composites (you’ll find some typical examples of the worst on Games Radar (opens in new tab)), a return to the epic, character-led, painterly posters of the 1970s and 1980s would be no bad thing in our opinion. 

Lesson learned: When it comes to poster design, looking to the past isn’t just about being knowing and ironic. It’s about understanding why the classics work, and drawing on those same principles to create something beautiful and alluring.

The Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 logo is a beautiful mess of colours and styles

The Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 logo is a beautiful mess of colours and styles

There was a time when it was only readers of Creative Bloq and the Brand New (opens in new tab) blog who were excited by the release of a new logo. How times have changed. Nowadays, new movie logos get glitzy launches at events like Comic-Con, and mass coverage in the mainstream press.

As a result, perhaps some movie studios are upping their games in terms of logo design. We certainly think this logo for the 2017 sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy hits the sweet spot.

With this quirky franchise being firmly centred around 1980s nostalgia and a sense of anarchic fun, Marvel has wisely stepped away from its standard silver-and-red approach to superhero logos and produced something much more original and enticing.

It artfully combines a hotchpotch of different colours and approaches to create something that’s both chaotic and messy yet fun and appealing... much like the characters and storylines of the movies themselves.

Lesson learned: A logo that expresses what’s distinctive about a movie sells it far more successfully than taking a generic and predictable approach. See our 7 key typographic trends in Marvel movie logos article for more Marvel logo tips.

03. Alien Covenant: How to make in-movie art

One of Dane Hallet’s charcoal drawings for Alien: Covenant

Most movie concept art is used as the basis for the sets, costumes, environments and so on. But for the latest movie in the Alien series, Dane Hallett was asked to create art that actually appears in the film.

That’s because in the story, Michael Fassbender’s character David draws nature studies of extraterrestrial wildlife. So Hallett and his colleague Matt Hatton were asked to become ‘the hand of David’... and director Ridley Scott pretty much left them to their own devices.

“We just got let off the leash,” enthuses Hallett. “It was awesome; I haven’t had this much fun since Mad Max. We got the language down and it was leash off, go beserk, draw as much as you can draw. I think it was nine months straight, we didn’t have a day off. It went from 30 fine art finished drawings to about 600.”

The work the two created is quite astonishing: you can see more of the work by Hallet here (opens in new tab) and Hatton here (opens in new tab). You can also read our full interview with them and fellow Alien: Covenant artist Wayne Haag in issue 151 of ImagineFX

Lesson learned: When artists have a true passion for a project, giving them free rein can lead to a productive avalanche of mind-blowing art.

04. Spider-Man: Homecoming: How to make CG believable

For Spider-Man: Homecoming, director Jon Watts was restrained in his use of CG

For Spider-Man: Homecoming, director Jon Watts was restrained in his use of CG

A common complaint about 3D films is, “There was too much CG”. But almost everything we watch these days uses CG, so what viewers really mean is that there was too much unconvincing CG that detracted from their suspension of disbelief. Making special effects in a superhero movie look ‘realistic’ may seem like an impossible task, but that’s just what the director of Spider-Man: Homecoming, Jon Watts, set out to do.

Achieving this goal came down to a high attention to detail from the main VFX vendors, who included Sony Picture Imageworks (opens in new tab) and Digital Domain (opens in new tab). But it also stemmed from a strong use of practical effects on big set pieces. For instance, for the scene where the ferry splits in two, the film-makers used a combination of a big set that cleaves in half, and the actual ferry in New York.

You can learn more about the CG secrets of the movie in our article The CG secrets of Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Lesson learned: Only use CG when you absolutely have to. The more practical footage you can capture in camera, the more convincing and compelling your storytelling will be for the audience.

05. Transformers: The Last Knight: How to create a convincing world

Building a convincing CG world takes a staggering amount of thought, planning and time

Building a convincing CG world takes a staggering amount of thought, planning and time

If you go to see a Transformers movie by Michael Bay, you know exactly what you’re getting: a ton of high-octane, fast-paced and frequently ridiculous action. But even if it’s not your cup of tea, you can’t dismiss a franchise that’s generated almost a billion dollars per movie as being without merit. There’s an incredible level of craft to these CG-fuelled blockbusters, and part of that lies in the astonishing amount of effort that’s gone into creating convincing, believable worlds.

For the latest in the series, Bay brought in ILM (opens in new tab) to create Cybertron, the planet of the Transformers, and as associate VFX supervisor David Fogler told 3D World magazine, they didn’t rush things. “We asked ourselves: What it should look like? How should it behave?” he explains. “We spent a year and a half figuring out what it should look like and that's not an exaggeration." 

But although it was “dauntingly complex” for the team to spend time detailing and modelling the design and physics of this imaginary world, their efforts certainly paid off, both in the believability of the environment itself and in the convincing way the scenes of destruction take place near the end of the movie. 

You can read more about how ILM went about creating Cybertron in our interview: Behind the scenes on Transformers VFX

Lesson learned: Crafting an entirely new world from scratch can’t be rushed. It takes time, effort and a willingness to deal with mind-numbing levels of complexity, not to mention developing a technical setup that can efficiently handle all that data.

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Tom May is an award-winning journalist and editor specialising in design, photography and technology. Author of the Amazon #1 bestseller Great TED Talks: Creativity (opens in new tab), published by Pavilion Books, Tom was previously editor of Professional Photography magazine, associate editor at Creative Bloq, and deputy editor at net magazine. Today, he is a regular contributor to Creative Bloq and its sister sites Digital Camera World, and Tech Radar. He also writes for Creative Boom and works on content marketing projects.