Sooner or later, the Academy is going to have to address the spectacle aspect of modern cinema. As George Lucas and Steven Spielberg said, it’s really only moving in one direction: bigger and better visual effects to draw people out of their caves and into the theaters. There will probably always be room for niche dramas — indies, dumb comedies, torture porn and adult dramas. But the real money is in the tent poles, especially if there is that tell-tale nod to the greatness of the Chinese people buried in it (see: The Martian, San Andreas, Gravity, etc.) The Oscars, however, remain in a time warp and refuse to acknowledge this inevitable shift.
Either way, there are a few tech categories that could theoretically be used to honor the visual effect driven films that make Hollywood all of its big money, especially if those movies cross over to the Best Picture category. Sound, Sound Effects Editing, Production Design, Cinematography, and even Editing could be dominated by the big effects films, but really, it comes down to Best Visual Effects.
Just one measly category at the big show (the Scientific and Technical awards the Academy gives out honor them more specifically off site) seems an inadequate response to the way things are going. The most recent concession the Academy made was expand the category from three to five nominees. Since the number of visual effects films are going to grow they will likely never go back to three and may have to eventually go up to ten.
Either way, this year, the Visual Effects category is already packed. Let’s run them down in order of likely winners.
The strongest contenders for the prize
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens – ILM, sight unseen, probably has this sewn up for a variety of reasons, the least of which is the history of Star Wars and the Oscars. Industrial Light and Magic reinvented the wheel where visual effects are concerned. When we think visual effects pioneers — or those of us who don’t know much about it – we think ILM, we think George Lucas. We also think Jim Cameron and Peter Jackson but they aren’t in the game this year. Still, Star Wars will probably knock it out of the park and then some. Industrial Light and Magic? Forget about it. Might as well collect their Oscar now.
- The Revenant – ILM Best Picture heat COULD drive this film into this category and bring in a win. But as of yet, no one really knows how much of it will depend on visual effects and how much on real scenery. This isn’t a green screen movie at all — that’s kind of the point. Still, there are things that have to be digital so.
- Mad Max: Fury Road – Andrew Jackson (practical) Iloura (digital). Jackson crafted more than 2000 visual effects shots with help from Iloura. It just isn’t done this way these days and the result is dizzying and real enough to reach out and touch. The thing people are talking about more than anything with this film are the practical visual effects.
- The Walk – Atomic Fiction – Robert Zemeckis likes to play with toys, that’s for sure, and one can count on his movies to have at least one major effects sequence, even Flight with Denzel Washington (totally underrated). The effects in The Walk are beyond what anyone has ever really done in a film — to put you right there at the top of the World Trade Center.
- Jurassic World – also ILM, with other companies contributing. The dinosaurs. It’s all about the dinosaurs. The effects leave the original Jurassic Park movies in the dust. The film made $650 million domestic and $1,009,470,082 internationally. It sits right behind Titanic as the 3rd highest grossing film of all time (not adjusted for inflation).
- The Martian – the effects are great, though not quite on the level of Gravity. What The Martian will have going for it is that it will have Best Picture heat – and that usually helps a film win in this category more than any other thing.
- Crimson Peak – Though it has yet to be released/reviewed, Guillermo Del Toro is always a force to be reckoned with in this category.
- Ex Machina – it isn’t on the level of visual effects that most films in the race are because it’s “small.” But the film itself is so good that could give it a boost in this category.
- Everest – the one thing everyone keeps talking about is how real the effects are, how they put you right at the top of Everest, similar to The Walk.
- Ant-Man – general likability plus groovy visual effects make it seem like a potential nominee in this category.
Other films in the race would include:
The Avengers: Age of Ultron
Animation and visual effects are not that separate in the academic world. Artists see them as similar but people in the film industry do not. Hence, a movie like Avatar seems like a hybrid of animation yet no one refers to it that way. This explains why animated films are never in the Visual Effects category — though if they were Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur would likely be honored in that category.
The way the Academy works, it would seem that they would prefer the practical effects of Mad Max: Fury Road to anything else. They are made up of mostly actors, writers and directors who like working with people, not animation. Most of them are frustrated with the course Hollywood has taken and would prefer things go back to the way they used to be, when visual effects driven films were more marginalized than they are now.
The Revenant still needs to be seen to decide this category but I feel like it’s down to three right now if you leave it out for the time being: Star Wars (sight unseen but probable), Mad Max: Fury Road (old school), The Walk (unbelievable). How about you, readers?