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Best Effects

2/15/2012 2:28 AM Eastern

 Digital Content Producer's and Millimeter's coverage of past and present award nominees/winners

 Web-Expanded Version

Experts agree the three films nominated for the Visual Effects Academy Award—War of the Worlds (above), King Kong, and Chronicles of Narnia—were worthy of the honor. But should more films have the chance?
War of the Worlds image courtesy ILM. TM and © 2005 Paramount and DreamWorks. All Rights Reserved.

In late December and early January, some of the top names in the visual effects industry engaged once again in an annual ritual — preparing highlight reels for presentation at the Visual Effects Award Nominating Bake-Off event. The bake-off took place last month, designed, as always, to whittle down seven invited projects to three official nominees for the Achievement in Visual Effects Academy Award. Those nominees were announced shortly before press time — King Kong, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and War of the Worlds.

Since Millimeter last examined the bake-off's rules and regulations (see the March 2002 issue or go to millimeter.com/mag/video_beyond_bakeoff_2), little has changed in terms of those rules or the presentation process itself. There has been, however, a growing discussion over the importance of visual effects to the filmmaking equation and how the Oscars should best recognize that growth. The conclusion of many is that perhaps the time has come for there to be more than three films nominated for the Visual Effects Oscar.

King Kong images courtesy Weta Digital/Universal Studios.

Five Nominees?

Some experts point to the fact that War of the Worlds earned a nomination this year over, say, Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith or Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire as an illustration of the need for more nominees. War of the Worlds' subtler, more limited visual effects work obviously impressed enough industry experts to earn its nomination, but many people suggest virtually all seven bake-off films were worthy of a nomination, so picking three nominees was especially difficult this year.

The experts who spoke with Millimeter suggest that all the invited films (King Kong; Star Wars: Episode III; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Batman Begins; War of the Worlds; and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) successfully employed visual effects to move along complex stories and emotionally affect audiences, while simultaneously breaking new technical ground and/or taking existing techniques to new heights — more or less the general criteria Academy rules ask them to consider. This, of course, leaves the judges a great deal of leeway, depending on personal tastes, technical considerations, and the industry politics that always affect such equations.

“In the past, there were not always even three films that legitimately warranted inclusion in the process, but this year showed that ‘big’ visual effects films are now at the forefront of the industry,” says Roger Guyett, visual effects supervisor on Star Wars: Episode III and a nominee last year for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. “Look at the seven movies at the bake-off this year: Financially, they are among the most successful films of the year — perhaps the seven most successful. I think that illustrates the fact that the impact of visual effects on the industry as a whole is very substantial — not only in making movies, but in determining their success and profitability. I'm not saying that's good or bad, but I'm saying that visual effects are now part of the fabric of moviemaking as a whole.”

Contrast this evolution with the original thinking about how many nominees were appropriate for the category.

“The prevailing idea seems to be that limiting the nominees to three films makes sense because not every movie has visual effects as a major part of the mix,” explains Richard Edlund, the outgoing (due to term limits) chair of the Visual Effects Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “After all, every [live-action] film eligible for an Academy award needs a director, actors, a cinematographer, an editor, sound people, etc., but only a fraction of them have a significant amount of visual effects. Since a larger number of movies couldn't be made without visual effects, however, the idea of having five nominees, which has been talked about quite a bit lately, is something a lot of us would like to see. I'm sure it will be seriously considered in the near future. Visual effects have become important enough that many people believe it's time for that to be reflected in the number of nominees. If that happens, though, that would also mean we would likely have to have more movies at the bake-off, and with each movie getting to show a 15-minute reel and doing a presentation, that would necessitate changing the event. We would have to have more than seven movies in the bake-off — perhaps 10. To be fair to the entrants drawing the later showings, we would have to make it a two-day event. But there is also a feeling among many on the executive committee that, in order for the Academy's recognition to have real significance, you may not want to over-nominate.”

Chronicles of Narnia images © 2005 Disney Enterprises and Walden Media. All rights reserved.

Still, many of Edlund's peers strongly feel the change should be made — and the sooner, the better.

“We do need more nominees, and I have thought so for years: It should be five nominees,” insists ILM visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren, supervisor on War of the Worlds, an 11-time nominee for the Visual Effects Oscar and six-time winner, not to mention his additional two Special Achievement Oscars and Sci-Tech Award. “After all, this is a huge part of movie-making in all respects. Look at the effects budgets of most of the films at the bake-off: Most exceed the budgets of most average films in their entirety. And there are more people involved in making them happen than any other category—far more than just the four people who get nominated for each film. Personally, I would be willing to sit [at the bake-off] all night, if it would mean more nominees, and I think most people would.”

“The point is, the influence of visual effects warrants the change,” adds Dean Wright, visual effects supervisor on Chronicles of Narnia. “We're not just adding missing bits of scenery or space ships or explosions or whatever — we are now adding dramatic characters that are central to the story. We did that in Narnia with Aslan [the digital lion character], and the quality of the work in that regard on King Kong and Star Wars speaks for itself. In Narnia, half the cast was created in computers. That's an important change in the role of visual effects: We are directly helping the director propel the story to create drama that would not exist otherwise. Now more films will be doing this, so I think that should be reflected as far as the [Academy Awards] are concerned.”

Facial capture on actor Andy Sirkis to drive the ape''s face in King Kong was among a slew of 2005''s innovations and improvements to existing visual effects techniques seen in major films.

Scott Farrar, supervisor on ILM''s Narnia work, a three-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner, adds, “Those of us in the visual effects business are probably under-represented in terms of the Oscars, so it might be time to look at having five films nominated. Effects are called for in lots of scripts now, and the amount of work, not to mention the quality, is way up—the demand is there in such a way that effects should be viewed as a major part of filmmaking. I''ve been with ILM almost 25 years, and we used to do a couple, or maybe four movies a year, and the whole company usually worked on the same movie. Now, we have at least eight to 10 pictures chugging through the company. And the amount of shots is up in all these films. So perhaps it could be looked at as a matter of fairness.”

What Criteria?

Speaking of fairness, this rising visual effects tide in modern studio films also illustrates the central problem with picking award winners in the category: how to differentiate between the quality and importance of the work, and what criteria to use. This year, for instance, many inside and outside the visual effects community were surprised that Robert Rodriguez's Sin City was not invited to the bake-off despite its innovative, digitally stylized look, achieved almost entirely in postproduction. Contrast that to 1998 when the unique, painterly, stylized effects used in What Dreams May Come were not only honored with a bake-off invitation, but also a nomination and, eventually, the Oscar, beating out more traditional, big visual effects films such as Mighty Joe Young and Armageddon.

Edlund and Farrar, both members of the executive committee, say Sin City was seriously debated for a bake-off selection this year, right up until the final vote took place. But they emphasize that the decision-making process on such matters, even for the world's leading visual effects experts, remains primarily a matter of private taste. Some members were perhaps influenced by the fact that there was another slam-dunk greenscreen film to consider — Star Wars: Episode III — and, in the the interest of diversity within the category, decided only one of the two should be selected. Others might have felt Sin City's effects were largely the result of sophisticated color correction advances more than traditional visual effects techniques.

In fact, the influence of the digital intermediate process, generally, and the unification of the color correction pipeline with the visual effects pipeline, specifically, became quite clear this year on major effects films, including Star Wars, King Kong (see January 2006 Millimeter), and Harry Potter, as well as Sin City. How to factor that change into the equation is another element in the debate.

“On [Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire], we had our own digital grading system at [the film''s editorial offices], and others, like King Kong, had an even more ideal [pipeline] for extending compositing and digital effects through color correction by doing the DI inhouse,” says Jim Mitchell, Harry Potter''s visual effects supervisor and a former Oscar nominee. “It''s a great approach, and I expect it to be the norm for big effects films from here on out, because of the advantage it gives you in terms of achieving continuity for the images. But I don''t know that I would want to see color-grading be considered part of the effects work in the context of these awards. For now, I would consider grading separate from effects—after all, the colorist''s tightest connection remains with the DP. But I suppose there are exceptions to that, and some people might have considered Sin City such an exception, or that might have been why some people did not vote to include [Sin City at the bake-off]. Certainly, it is true that certain things we used to do in an effects suite we now do in a grading suite. So times have changed, but what hasn''t changed is that everyone has different opinions about such things.”

And everyone has a different opinion about what constitutes impressive visual effects. This year, while Sin City and Jarhead were passed over for bake-off invitations, for instance, Batman Begins, a project that proudly relied primarily on traditional techniques, was invited.

“[Batman Begins] is a film that relies heavily on practical effects and miniatures,” explains Dan Glass, Batman Begins'' co-visual effects supervisor, along with Janek Sirrs. “We deliberately avoided making it feel like a CG film. The visual effects award encompasses a lot more than digital technology, and I think, perhaps, [the Executive Committee] recognized the strong engineering contributions of [special effects coordinator] Chris Corbould and his team, and the way we integrated those special effects. Maybe our work will get viewed the same way people looked at Gladiator in 2000. [In both films], the visual effects shots are less about volumes of ground-breaking eye candy, and are more importantly concerned with integrating into, and supporting, the main narrative, which is key to making a great film.”

In 2000, of course, Gladiator won the Visual Effects Oscar, defeating Hollow Man and The Perfect Storm. “[The Perfect Storm] was clearly a ground-breaking piece of work technically," Guyett says. "But maybe people didn''t think it worked as well in the context of the story as Gladiator.”

Thus, with so many issues that could be considered beyond technical excellence—budget, box-office success, critical acclaim, and so forth—industry veterans insist they primarily try to focus on the incorporation of visual effects into the story, and how the audience reacts to that story as a result.

“It's all linked — your impression of the story instinctively impacts your appreciation of the craftmanship,” says King Kong visual effects supervisor Joe Leterri, an Oscar veteran thanks to his work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy. “If the story is better, more enjoyable, people — even technical people — will naturally appreciate the effects better because they will view them in the context of the film. If the story is not as good, they will view them despite the story, and that won't normally leave them with the same kind of impression.”

Mitchell suggests that, despite this year''s group of huge effects films on the bake-off invitation list, one result of the rapid evolution of visual effects technology and accomplishments is a downgrading of the “wow” factor in terms of earning peer respect.

“After all, what does ‘groundbreaking'' mean anymore?” he asks. “That''s a tricky question these days. Basically, there is nothing you throw at us that we can''t put on the screen if you give us the resources. So, the only question is to what degree—how well we do it. That is the deciding factor. Maybe the first digital dinosaurs were groundbreaking, but now, it''s a matter of degree. King Kong, for instance, is a good example. It is groundbreaking, but mainly because of how much they did, and how well. The basic concept of uniting a digital character with live-action characters and plates wasn''t new. The lengths they took it to, and how well it served the story—that''s what is so impressive.”

The many digitally created and enhanced characters in Chronicles of Narnia, including the central lion character, Aslan, illustrate the ever-growing reliance of major feature films on visual effects.

Who Decides?

Still, there will obviously never be a perfect system for picking contenders, nominees, or winners for any creative award — particularly for a discipline as technically complex and manpower-intensive as visual effects. Many experts feel the award winners should not be selected by the entire Academy, but rather by experts from the Visual Effects Branch. Others would like to see a system similar to the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) approach in the United Kingdom, in which the entire academy selects the nominees and the Visual Effects Branch then chooses a winner. For the BAFTA Awards, five nominees are selected, sometimes including animated films, and the ultimate winner in the category periodically deviates from the Oscar winner.

There is also great debate within the visual effects community about whether animated films should be considered in the context of the visual effects award. There is no prohibition on including them, but, thus far, no animated film has ever received a visual effects nomination.

“Ultimately, there is no way to make this process perfectly fair, since it all boils down to individual criteria,” says Guyett. “Should peers — other professionals — make the final choice? Gladiator won the Oscar, selected by the whole Academy, and that same year, Perfect Storm won the BAFTA, selected by the peers. Either was perfectly legitimate. But I could certainly argue that if you are judging a technical achievement, it should be judged by peers. On the other hand, they are not the ones the movie is made for — it's made to entertain the general public. But then, how could the general public possibly understand visual effects work at the same level as visual effects professionals? So there you can see, the debate could never end. What is important is that we try to make the process as fair as possible. Certainly, the desire to be fair is there.”

Indeed, it is, Edlund insists. “We have a larger executive committee than other branches, since so many different disciplines are included under the heading ‘visual effects,’ and we have dedicated ourselves to making sure the cream of the crop gets nominated,” he says. “That nomination comes from your peers, so no matter how the final award turns out, you know your work was highly honored if it gets to the bake-off, or moves on to win a nomination. And besides, it should be hard to [get nominated or win an Oscar]. The Academy is like the Vatican of the industry, and should not be breaking things down into too many categories or too many awards. Overall, I think we've done a great job since we became an Academy branch.”

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