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HomeAwardsAcademy 2007 StandAlone - Visual Effects

Academy 2007 StandAlone – Visual Effects

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“Visual effects have gotten so sophisticated that sometimes even visual effects professionals cannot tell what they are seeing.” That quote, from VES Awards founder Jeff Okun, suggests that more and more, an astute FX vote award might be akin to being Orson Welles at the end of The Lady From Shanghai, blasting away at fun house mirrors, desperately trying to figure out what’s really before his eyes.Though we hasten to add that that particular sequence was all done mechanically, on a practical set.But sets, explosions, suits, hair, fire, water—even characters themselves—exist more and more as collections of ones and zeroes racing around a printed circuit board; what do the pros do when they have to figure out what a “good” piece of FX work is, as opposed to something that we might term as “functionally illusory?”Well, when the going gets tough, the tough get baking.We refer, of course, to the Academy Awards bake-off, wherein reels of FX highlights are culled and shown to eligible award voters, an event that Okun says “serves to showcase the work in a less distracting environment than within the entire film. There has been more than one case where seeing the bake-off reel has changed my mind, and those of my friends, about the work in a show.”ILM’s Scott Farrar says “the bake-off experience is different from the film-going experience,” and sometimes, at the end of one of the 15-minute reels, he’ll be left thinking “this is dazzling,” when viewing effects that didn’t dazzle nearly so much during their original theatrical run.But while the hothouse atmosphere of the bake-off may give neglected work a chance to shine one more time before balloting, by altering the context in which the work is viewed, you “still have to go with your gut instinct about what hits you at the bake-off.”It’s not only the “execution and presentation,” but “did it hit you emotionally?”Farrar notes that he started his career working behind an actual camera, and wants FX work—his own and the films he nominates—to “look real,” noting that “if you shoot it, texturally,” there’s something that happens “photographically when light gets exposed on film.”So he doesn’t necessarily favor one technique over another; any mix of miniatures, mechanicals, and CG work, especially the latter that avoids the “telltale” sterility that can still tip off an image made of digits, that serves to reveal “the eye of the artist,” and is “ultimately satisfying,” will grab his attention.Since Farrar works so extensively with CG effects himself, does it matter to him if, while watching a “great magic trick” on the screen, he knows precisely how the magician in question read the cards or yanked the rabbit?Farrar allows that a certain “wow” factor doesn’t hurt, especially if you can be familiar with all the available tools—from green screens to the latest iteration of Autodesk’s Maya software—and still look at a colleague’s work and say, “I don’t know how you did it.”But then again, Farrar also honors the “constraints” of working under specific budgets, time frames, and with the limits of even the most vaunted FX technology: “software and computers,” he avers, “are still in the stone age,” compared to what they may be capable of in years to come.Dean Wright worked with Farrar on the first Narnia installment, each as FX supervisor—Wright for the whole movie, and Farrar for ILM’s work therein.Considering the role the bake-off plays in deciding what even gets nominated, he agrees it’s fair to ask “if a film didn’t find an audience, will that hurt it?,” but ultimately says a movie’s box-office or critical success is “not as key to your vote.”Nor is the “quantity of shots”—a bar that might determine whether a movie is perceived as an effects film at all—the determining factor (though Wright hastens to add that the 1,500-ish shots he oversaw for The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe makes it a small film compared to Peter Jackson’s King Kong or the most recent Star Wars.The measure of a good effect, he says, is whether it helps the “director realize a vision that he can’t do without effects.”Citing the recent Kong again, he notes there’s no movie there if the chief effect, Kong himself, doesn’t pull off a sympathetic or interesting performance (a bar many human actors have failed to clear), all of that the work of “50 people creating one performance.”So when it comes to the increasing proliferation of entirely digital characters, is there a “nuance of performance there?” FX supervisors, in other words, now find themselves asking questions once relegated to the acting branch’s nominations.Wright also cites work supervised by Dennis Muren, though in this case his work on behalf of Steven Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds, which was not only nominated, but grabbed an Oscar in the special effects category.While there were less than 300 shots in this particular case, there was clearly “no movie without them,” and ultimately, the film was “nominated because of how well done those effects were.”Again, he emphasizes the combination of techniques, and the fact that all the FX shots were in the service of the story. Asked whether, by contrast, a shot that was astonishing for the mere sake of astonishment would be likely to attract votes for a nomination or an award, Wright considers, “it might backfire if it’s a little too showy.”But what about that other “wow” factor—scenes or sequences that show tools being pushed beyond places they’ve been taken, digitally or mechanically, before? “That certainly doesn’t hurt,” he agrees.So, do all the criteria work? Does Wright find himself in synch with his colleagues—in the VES and in the Academy—about what gets chosen to compete for the winner’s circle in the first place? “Typically, they get it right,” he says. “I’ve agreed with the picks for the last few years.”

Written by Mark London Williams

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