Wednesday, January 28, 2015

One Category at a Time: Visual Effects

I am pleased to report that for the first time in six -- count 'em, six -- years, the Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects and Best Cinematography will NOT be going to the same film. Huzzah!

A lot of that has to do with this being the first time since the Best Visual Effects category expanded to five, that a Best Picture nominee has not been represented. This means we can't fall back on the reliable 'Best-Pic-nominees-never-lose' rule that has held in this category since the 70s.

But then what yard stick do we use to assess the chances of the five films recognized this year for their sensational illusions?

That 'Best-Pic-nominees-never-lose' rule got me thinking about the directors who have helmed the most recent winners in this category, going back as far as the 2008/09 season:

-David Fincher
-James Cameron
-Christopher Nolan
-Martin Scorsese
-Ang Lee
-Alfonso Cuaron

Guys, that's an impressive list... in fact, that list is more than impressive.
That list is amazing.
That list is better than the list of the six most recent winners for Best Director!

In a Best Visual Effects race in which no Best Picture nominee is present, could it be that the name of the director behind the film holds enough clout to make the difference? If so, then it certainly bodes well for one nominee, whose director is already on that more-than-impressive list...
Indeed, Christopher Nolan's Interstellar seems like the one to beat. In a roster populated with summer blockbusters, this prestige-courting science-fiction would be the obvious alternative to any voter who can't stomach the usual popcorn entertainment. But let's not reduce this merely to a matter of the lazy voting habits of older Academy members, because the effects in the film are tremendously well accomplished. Oscar winner Paul Franklin (Inception) and the good folks at Double Negative have done a wonderful job at tying together all the miniatures/practical effects (Nolan insists on doing things as old-school as possible) with eye-popping CG creations. The black hole is a particularly interesting story, as it led the effects team and their scientific consultant Kip Thorne to actually learn some things about gravitational lensing that we hadn't known before (This is way cool). Still, I think it's the prestige factor that gives Interstellar the edge. While the Academy may not have embraced the film as a whole, its five nominations indicate that there's no lack of admiration for the sum of its parts. This category is the natural place to honour it.

The competition is still fierce, though, and occasionally the Academy does reward box-office successes from the summer months. Far and away the biggest hit this year was Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy. Effects supervisor Stephane Ceretti had a challenging job in maintaining consistency between shots completed across multiple effects houses; namely Framestore and Moving Picture Company, who animated Rocket and Groot. Those super appealing CG characters could siphon off some votes, as could the fantastical outer-space worlds. Not only are they skillfully rendered, but they have something that Marvel movies haven't had for a while now: Novelty. Still, any voter desperate to reward Guardians for its success may instead throw it a bone in Best Makeup & Hair, which it has a stronger chance at winning.
For one Marvel movie that doesn't feature an Iron Man suit to make it in is strange enough, but two?... Now you're just being silly. But not so fast! We do have another Marvel non-Iron-Man entry on the ballot, and I'm delighted to see it here. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was, for me, the year's most enjoyable action movie, owing a lot to its deft combination of stunts, pyrotechnics, and ILM's CG embellished set pieces. Project supervisor Dan Deleeuw must have been surprised to hear the title of his film called in lieu of something more predictable like The Hobbit, which was unexpectedly snubbed (but I guess it goes to show that every franchise has a shelf life). It's more surprising given that sequels whose predecessors weren't nominated have an even tougher time getting recognized. I'm sure it has no shot at winning, but just to call this swell actioner an Oscar nominee is a treat.

But if Captain America faced an uphill battle because the first one got passed over by the effects branch, imagine how hard it must have been for X-Men: Days of Future Past, the seventh(!) film in a series that had been completely ignored by Oscar until now. Obviously, the branch must have been mighty impressed with the calibre of the graphics, and just by looking at this great fx reel by Digital Domain, you can see why. Richard Stammers and his team have invested a great deal of time and energy into improving Mystique's chameleon-like skin morphing, but apparently it was the Quick Silver kitchen scene that dropped the most jaws at the effects branch bake-off. Congrats to all involved, although I believe there is only one viable challenger to Interstellar.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes not only represents the very best of what Hollywood special effects can do, but it also represents an opportunity for the Academy to atone for past wrongs. Who can forget in 2012 when, in a sweep of lazy voting, the ground-breaking motion-capture of Rise of the Planet of the Apes was trumped by Hugo? Joe Letteri and his team of Weta wizards really deserved to win that contest, just like they deserve to win this contest for their continued boundary pushing of the technology. We know that AMPAS doesn't give 'make up' Oscars to anyone but actors (or sometimes a director), but any voter who thought the first film should've won is unlikely to shun its terrific sequel. It'll be a tough fight, though. There is some precedent for sequels winning this category where their predecessors failed (Spider-Man 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest), but it's a rarity.

Will win: Interstellar
Runner-up: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Should win: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Should have been nominated: Godzilla


  1. Any idea why Exodus didn't get nominated? I thought the VFX were nomination worthy.

    1. Never stopped the effects branch before. Probably because there were at least ten other films with vfx that they thought were slightly better.

  2. An impressive list indeed. I'm glad that X-Men got recognized (I am not a fan of the franchise, but I was able to enjoy Days of Future Past every much), and even though I am not a fan of Captain America, I can see how it got nominated.

    It would be a dream to see Dawn win, but I think Interstellar has this in the bag, and deservedly so too.