Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Visual Effects

JJ Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens is nominated for Best Visual Effects at this year's Academy Awards.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

Best Visual Effects

The nominees are:

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

What a strange and refreshing category this year. Normally the domain of big-budget action spectacles, the Academy has given over Best Visual Effects to some of the most critically acclaimed films of the year. It would be hard to overstate just how unusual this lineup is in terms of the recent history of this category, but let’s take it step by step. The history of Best Visual Effects at the Oscars is a little hard to pin down, but we will start in 1963, when it basically took the shape it is in now – give or take a few changes over the years.

In the entire history of the category, only four times has the Academy nominated more than one film in both Best Picture and Best Visual Effects (1995, 2003, 2009, and 2015). This year, there are three – Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, and The Revenant – which is a first. The difference in those three previous instances is that there were only two or three nominees in the category each time. In 2010, the Academy changed the rule to allow for five nominees in Best Visual Effects.

Since that change, last year was the only year in which no Best Picture nominee was nominated for Best Visual Effects. In every other year, a Best Picture nominee won this category over four non-nominees, while last year, Interstellar won Best Visual Effects and was the only nominee cited in more than one other category. This is a long way of saying: Having mind-blowing effects is great, but if you want to win, the Academy better embrace your film in a much bigger way.

Circling back around to this year, in addition to the three Best Picture nominees, we also have the new Star Wars film and Ex Machina, one of the lowest budgeted films nominated in this category in at least the last 20 years. So, I say again – how strange and how refreshing. The two most likely winners – and you will hear this a lot throughout this series, so get used to it – are Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant, but with voting split among five clearly popular films, anything could happen.

Mad Max: Fury Road – A visual feast in every way imaginable, the most remarkable thing about writer-director George Miller’s action extravaganza is how its effects work is both awe-inspiring and seamless. Of course, the stunts are the big draw, but the way those stunts are incorporated into the almost impossible world of the story is breathtaking. The film also features the kind of big, showy set piece that craftspeople appreciate in its sandstorm sequence.

The nominees are Andrew Jackson, Tom Wood, Dan Oliver, and Andy Williams, who are all sharing their first Oscar nomination, though Williams was a technician on the Best Visual Effects winner Hugo. What they all have in common is extensive work in the action genre, each having contributed to numerous films that blend the fantastic and the real in ways that engage the audience rather than distract.

The Revenant – Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s gritty western is the least fantastical of these nominees but also the most impressionistic. It takes us to a place and time we never knew but have long imagined, before our westward expansion drained the natural world of much of its beauty. Like Mad Max: Fury Road, it also contains a bravura effects sequence remembered even outside the context of the film in its horrific bear attack.

Richard McBride, Matt Shumway, and Jason Smith are all first-time nominees, while Cameron Waldbauer is a two-time nominee, having earned recognition last year for his work on X-Men: Days of Future Past. McBride, Shumway, and Smith, however, have all worked in the effects department on previous winners in this category. Most notable perhaps is Shumway’s work on Life of Pi and The Golden Compass, both of which prominently feature computer-generated animals that are stunning in their realism.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – The most conventional nominee this year is of course the big-budget sci-fi space adventure that features alien planets, alien spacecraft, and, well, aliens. JJ Abrams’ blockbuster is wall-to-wall effects with an admirable blend of CGI and miniature work likely to appeal to more traditional members of the Academy. In another year, this would be a good threat for the win. Of the seven Star Wars franchise films, six have been nominated for Best Visual Effects, and three have won. Working against it is the fact that all three of those wins came for the original trilogy.

This is a veteran group with 11 nominations and four wins among them. Chris Corbould is a three-time nominee who previously won for Inception. Neal Scanlan won for his only previous nomination, Babe (directed by Mad Max: Fury Road helmer Miller). Roger Guyett is a four-time nominee, and three of his nominations now have come for Abrams films – Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Star Trek. Pat Tubach’s previous nomination also came for Star Trek Into Darkness. It would be foolish to underestimate the Academy’s willingness in the crafts categories to vote for people it has voted for in the past.

The Martian – The other Best Picture nominee in this category, The Martian is also the other sci-fi movie here, along with the next nominee below. The Academy clearly loves this movie, evidenced by its seven nominations, third-most behind The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road. However, it is neither as beloved as those two films nor as adventurous as Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The effects are grand but probably not grand enough to win in this field this year.

Chris Lawrence is a previous winner for Gravity, Richard Stammers has been nominated three times, and Anders Langlands and Steven Warner are each enjoying their first nomination. No one would dispute the quality of their work on this film, but in a year with such a rich list of nominees, The Martian probably will not be a factor for the win.

Ex Machina – This is my favorite of these nominees and unfortunately the least likely to win, but for integration in the film and importance to the story, the effects in writer-director Alex Garland’s Ex Machina have no equal. Every shot with Ava (Alicia Vikander) is an effects shot, but none of them seems that way because the effects – and Vikander’s incomparable performance – make us feel as though we are watching just another human. This to me is the goal of great visual effects.

Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Sara Bennett, and Mark Williams Ardington are all first-time nominees, but despite the recognition for their subtle, self-contained work on Ex Machina, all have worked in departments on major blockbusters. Whitehurst, Bennett, and Williams helped bring various films in the Harry Potter franchise to life, while just this year, Ardington also worked as a character technical director on Ant-Man and Spectre.

The final analysis

There are three ways this category could go this year. The Academy could be head over heels in love with nominations leader The Revenant, and the bear sequence will stick in voters’ minds as reason enough to reward it; Mad Max: Fury Road will be a crafts juggernaut and sweep up Best Visual Effects along with a number of other below-the-line awards; Star Wars: The Force Awakens will earn the award for the sheer scope of its effects work, while also benefiting from those other two likely splitting votes. For now, I am guessing option No. 1 will rule the day.

Will win: The Revenant
Should win: Ex Machina
Should have been here: Everest

Tomorrow: Best Cinematography

No comments: