Monday, February 9, 2015

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Visual Effects

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is up for Best Visual Effects at the Oscars.

Each day as we make our way to the Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 22, Last Cinema Standing will take an in-depth look at each of the categories, sorting out the highs, the lows, and everything in between. Check back right here for analysis, predictions, and gripes as we inch toward the Dolby Theater and that world-famous red carpet.

Best Visual Effects

The nominees are:

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy
X-Men: Days of Future Past

I am willing to bet this is the category for which the highest percentage of you have seen all the nominees. Just statistically, that must be true, as these are all multi-million-dollar blockbuster hits. Christopher Nolan’s space-set epic had the lowest domestic gross of these with a hefty $186 million. Guardians of the Galaxy was a surprise breakout hit for Marvel Studios, which also had a hand in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and a smaller part in bringing X-Men: Days of Future Past to the screen.

On top of gigantic budgets and huge box-office totals, the other thing these films have in common is that they are effects-driven pictures. They are stories about events that could only be told through the use of special effects – though an argument could be made for a much lower budget version of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but we will table that discussion for another day.

Missing from this list are films such as Birdman or The Imitation Game, in which the effects are more seamlessly integrated into the visual experience of the film, effects meant to go unnoticed. In each of these nominated films, the effects are part of the draw, part of the spectacle, part of the experience.

Ultimately, this comes down to what “best” means in the context of visual effects. Is it the film with the most effects? Best integration? The one that pushes the medium forward? I tend to lean toward a combination of the last two, while the Academy often chooses the highest quality film that also happens to feature a great deal of effects work. For me, those are one in the same this year, so we will begin our analysis there.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Visual effect supervisor Joe Letteri has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards, mostly for his work with Peter Jackson on the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. He also won this award for his groundbreaking work with James Cameron on Avatar. To me, however, his office will always be one Oscar short. Unbelievably, in 2011, Rise of the Planet of the Apes lost to the crowd-pleasing but nowhere-near-as-revolutionary effects of Hugo. This is the Academy’s chance to make up for that oversight and reward a series that is pushing the very boundaries of visual effects.

The hurdle it faces is that actors – the largest voting body in the Academy, a theme that will come up more than once as break down each category – are mostly afraid of motion capture technology. To their minds, what good are actors when a performance can be created digitally? It is flawed logic at best, and there is no better argument against that than the work of the immensely talented Andy Serkis as Caesar in these films. If his performance is not acting, then they need to change the definition of the word. The computers convincingly make him an ape, but Serkis makes Caesar a character.

Everything Letteri and his team touch is absolutely gorgeous, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of the most beautiful films of the year, effects-driven or not. Letteri will not be hurting for Oscars. His four other statues can keep him company, but the Apes series deserves recognition for pushing forward the worlds of performance capture and visual effects.

Interstellar – The chief competition to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the probable winner is this Nolan misfire. I am on the record as not being of fan of this film, which is a mild way of saying Interstellar is utter nonsense. However, it is nonsense that is more often than not impressive to look at. It is big, it is flashy, and thanks to Nolan sitting in the director’s chair, it has the air of prestige about it. It is the exact kind of film the Academy likes to award.

Effects supervisor Paul Franklin and his team mix computer and practical effects to create a wholly imagined visual landscape, taking us to new worlds light years away. The problem – and this is Nolan’s problem as well – is that these new worlds are so boring and unimaginative. With a literal universe of possibilities, they invent an ice planet, a water planet, and a desert planet.

More intriguing is the climatic tesseract sequence, in which Franklin and Nolan concoct a setting that exists outside of space and time. If only the rest of the film had as much creativity, it could have been a much different experience.

Guardians of the Galaxy – Despite all that, one can never count out a well liked box-office hit in this category, and Guardians of the Galaxy certainly qualifies in that respect. Like Interstellar, much of the film is set on extraterrestrial worlds, but unlike Interstellar, visual effects supervisor Stephane Ceretti and his crew seem to have some fun with their designs. Bouncing from operatic space battles to stunningly rendered interiors, the visual effects help sustain the joy ride that is Guardians of the Galaxy.

In addition, the character animation is a marvel to behold, if you will forgive the pun. Rocket Raccoon and Groot are characters that have entered the cultural lexicon, and a large part of the reason is how believably brought to life they are by the character animators. Guardians of the Galaxy is a fun movie that people enjoyed, and that experience cannot be underestimated when it comes to voters looking at a list and checking off a box.

X-Men: Days of Future Past – The only real knock against this picture is that it does not quite stand up to the level of the above-mentioned films or to the previous films in its own series. The major effects set piece is the moving of a baseball stadium through the air, a feat which does not have the visual flare of something like the Bay of Pigs invasion in X-Men: First Class or the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge in X-Men: Last Stand. It is fine work but will not stick in audience’s minds after they leave the theater.

The flipside of that is the character work on the mutants, which has always been this series’ bread and butter. Visual effects supervisor Richard Stammers, who helped create the Oscar-nominated effects on Prometheus, including the look of that film’s engineers, and his team have a blast with each of the mutants here, particularly with the shape-shifting Mystique and massive sentinels. This is good work. It just is not the best work of the year.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – This is the most surprising of the nominees, especially given directors Joe and Anthony Russo’s stated intention to use as little CGI as possible. In viewing the film, that dictum seems mostly adhered to, save for a climactic final battle aboard floating warships. Most impressive are the little details, including some high-quality computer screen work, a small thing that often goes unnoticed but adds so much when done well.

Undoubtedly, visual effects supervisor Dan Deleeuw and crew are able to put that effort into details due to the lack of extreme character work throughout the film. Unlike the Hulk or Thor or Iron Man, Captain America does not really have traditional superpowers. He does not transform into anything. He does not fly. He is a man whose natural human abilities are enhanced to super-human levels. The result of this is that there is not a lot of opportunity to use big, flashy effects – at least as Marvel Studios films go – which will hurt it in the voting.

The final analysis

This probably comes down to the film with the most overall Academy support, which is Interstellar, given its five nominations total. The only other film here with a nomination in multiple categories in Guardians of the Galaxy, which is also nominated for Best Makeup. Interstellar, however, has nominations in both sound categories, in production design, and in music, which suggests broad support from a number of Academy branches.

Will win: Interstellar
Should win: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Wish it had been here: Birdman

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