Monday, February 6, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Visual Effects

The Jungle Book, which is nominated for Best Visual Effects

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 leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Best Visual Effects

The nominees are:

Deepwater Horizon
Doctor Strange
The Jungle Book
Kubo and the Two Strings
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Coming off perhaps the most unusual winner in this category’s history, and indeed a refreshingly prestige-heavy lineup of nominees, the Academy gets back to business as usual – mostly. Last year, Ex Machina shocked the room by besting three Best Picture nominees and a Star Wars sequel to become the lowest-budgeted and lowest-grossing winner in recent history.

In addition, never before had three Best Picture nominees made it into the Visual Effects category. This time around, the Academy has course corrected with a lineup featuring no films that also are vying for the top prize. This is the just the second time this has happened since the category expanded to five nominees in 2010.

The Ex-Machina victory was an outlier in every way, and while it spurred one of my personal biggest cheers of the night, it does little to help us predict how the category will go down this year. If we toss out last year, these two rules of thumb generally apply: 1) If a Best Picture nominee is in the mix, it wins; 2) if not, the film with the most other nominations wins.

Unfortunately, neither of those rules really helps us this year as none of the nominated films caught on with the Academy in a meaningful way. This is the only nomination for Doctor Strange and The Jungle BookKubo and the Two Strings, the first animated nominee since The Nightmare Before Christmas in 1993, is nominated for this and Best Animated Feature. And Deepwater Horizon and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story have only a single sound nod each, Deepwater Horizon for Sound Editing and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story for Sound Mixing.

The biggest surprise was probably the exclusion of Arrival, which was among the 10 Visual Effects finalists and scored eight nominations overall, including Best Picture. The effects work may not be as flashy in Arrival as in these nominees, but given its strength with the Academy, it would have been a likely winner had it made it in, so its miss here has to be considered a snub.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – When all other stats fail, go big. If you are searching for a winner in this group, you could do worse than the well liked, well reviewed box-office smash from a beloved film franchise. Rogue One is the eighth film in the Star Wars franchise and the seventh to earn a nomination for Best Visual Effects. Only Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith missed out. The only bump on the road to victory may be this: While all three films in the original trilogy won this award, none since have taken home the prize. But in an unusual year, it still helps to look for the familiar.

It does not get much more familiar than the crew nominated for this film. John Knoll is a six-time nominee, including for The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, and took home the prize for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. He shared that award with Hal T. Hickel, who is enjoying his fourth nomination overall. Neil Corbould has five previous nominations and two wins, most recently for Gravity, and while this is Mohen Leo’s first nomination, he has worked in the visual effects department on a number of nominated films, including The Martian just last year.

The Jungle Book – Perhaps the real frontrunner, though, is this beautifully realized fantasy film that brings to life one of the all-time classic Disney animated features. Back-to-back losses for the superlative new Planet of the Apes franchise notwithstanding, photorealistic animal effects tend to be handsomely rewarded by the Academy, evidenced by recent winners such as BabeGladiatorThe Golden Compass, and Life of PiThe Jungle Book features wall-to-wall animal effects that are gorgeously rendered and wonderfully integrated into the film.

This is Robert Legato’s fourth nomination, and he previously won for Titanic and Hugo. Andrew R. Jones won this award in 2009 for Avatar and was also nominated for I, Robot. Dan Lemmon was nominated for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, meaning he could finally get an Oscar for all that beautiful animal effects work. Meanwhile, Adam Valdez is on his first nomination, though he worked as an animation supervisor and department head on the first two Lord of the Rings films, which both won this category.

Doctor Strange – The third Disney film in the lineup this year, this is the least likely winner of the three, despite the psychedelic trip that makes up much of the film’s final act. It is surprising to me Marvel films have not done better in this category. The Marvel Cinematic universe is 14 films deep by this point, and much of its success and entertainment value is built on its effects work. While the seven nominations the series has pulled are tied with Star Wars for the most in any series, the franchise has no wins to show for it, which has to be disappointing.

Stephane Ceretti and Paul Corbould, nominated against his brother Neil, mentioned above, were on the team that was nominated for Guardians of the Galaxy two years ago. Despite being the biggest box-office hit of that 2014 lineup, it lost to Interstellar, the more beloved movie within the Academy, which could be informative once again this year. Ceretti and Paul Corbould are joined by first-time nominees Richard Bluff and Vincent Cirelli.

Deepwater Horizon – Pete Berg and Mark Wahlberg’s first collaboration to be released in 2016, followed later by Patriots Day, was unfairly ignored by the movie-going public. Their previous true-life collaboration, 2013’s Lone Survivor, was a massive hit and was not better or worse a film than this. It stands to reason a Middle East war thriller is a much easier sell than an oil rig fire, though at their most basic level, both tell the story of man-made disasters. Whatever the cause for it barely breaking even at the box office, Deepwater Horizon deserved a better fate, using as it does the populist action film template to tell a critically important story about our world today.

The visual effects, in concert with the magnificent art direction and engrossing sound work, are crucial to that telling. The film’s highly detailed and carefully crafted recreation of the Deepwater Horizon disaster are a testament to the Berg and his crew’s dedication and talent. Craig Hammack, Jason H. Snell, and Jason Billington are all first-timers with the Academy, while Burt Dalton is a four-time nominee who won his first time out for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Kubo and the Two Strings – As mentioned above, this Laika Entertainment treat, directed by Travis Knight, is the first animated nominee since The Nightmare Before Christmas in 1993 and joins that film as the only two straight animated flicks to be nominated for Visual Effects. That earlier film was beaten out by Jurassic Park, which certainly was never going to lose, and Kubo and the Two Strings is likely to be bested by another big-budget fantasy-adventure movie. That, of course, does not diminish the power or the beauty of Knight and crew’s lovely stop-motion animation.

This is the first Academy recognition for each of Steve Emerson, Oliver Jones, Brian McClean, and Brad Schiff. All four men have worked on all four of Laika’s feature films – Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, and Kubo and the Two Strings – and only Emerson has any credits outside the animation field, mostly as a digital compositor on films like the Matrix sequels and Transformers. The nomination – and the history that comes with it – is probably the reward for this group, but as we saw last year, anything can happen.

The final analysis

The best of these is The Jungle Book, which seamlessly balances its naturalistic jungle settings with the its fantastical elements, particularly the gigantopithecus King Louie. Director Jon Favreau and crew create such an effortless flow the audience is simply whisked away into the film’s world. Apart from featuring the best visual effects of the lot, The Jungle Book is a massive worldwide hit from a huge studio reimagining one of its most famous stories. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is probably the only challenger, but the Academy seems to have Star Wars fatigue, at least in terms of giving it the win, and it will probably take something truly exceptional from the franchise to reach the podium once again.

Will win: The Jungle Book
Should win: The Jungle Book
Should have been here: Captain America: Civil War

Tomorrow: Best Sound Editing

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