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Oscar contenders: vfx

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By Leonard Klady
One of the best special effects ever done on film flashed on screen for no more than 17 seconds. It occurred in Driving Miss Daisy and involved a shot of the title character’s house with the narrator explaining that it was a rare day in Atlanta when the snow started to fall. Watching it for the first time, it never popped into my head that I was watching an illusion. I bought it.
Though Daisy would win several Oscars, including best picture, the nominees in visual effects back in 1989 were The Abyss, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Back to the Future, Part II, with the deep-sea adventure taking home the statuette. Winners in this category tend to be muscular, eye-popping outings rather than movies with subtleties.
A lot has changed in the visual effects category in the intervening decade and a half. Not only has the manner of judging potential nominees been revised but the entire sector has been transformed, with digital technology replacing the multi-decade dominance of blue-screen techniques.
Of course, more than a handful of summer blockbusters already have the pedigree and panache for serious consideration from nominating committee members. That list includes Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolution, The Hulk, Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines, X2: X-Men United and Pirates of the Caribbean.
However, securing one of three slots on the final ballot can involve a rather arduous route. It begins with the appointment of a steering committee that goes over the year’s eligible movies. That group can select up to seven candidates on the basis of the contribution visual effects artists had to the overall production and the “artistry” involved in bringing those effects to life and to the screen.
This year’s selection may require a bit of Solomon-like consideration. Just last year a caveat was added that sequels—an increasing factor in the category—had to include significant and substantial new material not seen in prior chapters. It’s the sort of imprecise judgment call that’s apt to bruise egos and create resentments—both factors that have dogged the history of the branch.
The steering committee could well reject the third chapter of The Lord of the Rings, Matrix Revolution or possibly X2 on this basis prior to reaching the second round known as the bake off. Traditionally, the second phase that determines the final three is a crucible of fire. Producers must provide the committee with detailed written explanations of how effects were realized, a 15-minute showreel of material directly from the movie and the names of the individuals (no more than four) most responsible for creating the effects with a description of each individual contribution.
Another significant shift in the past decade is the growing tendency to have several effects houses working on different elements of the production rather than go for the convenience of one-stop shopping. Often the visual effects supervisor and the producer have no other option but to farm work out to different effects houses because of short postproduction schedules and hard-and-fast lab deadlines that have to be met to ensure opening-day print delivery.
Terminator 3, for example, relied heavily on the resources and artistry of Industrial Light+Magic, but another significant contributor was Stan Winston and his Creature Shop. Several other companies, both in the U.S. and Europe, were involved in areas from digital animation to model building. While visual effects supervisors Pablo Helman and Pat Sweeney worked hand-in-glove with the principal unit, there’s no arguing that they were also on a separate track with a larger and more physically dispersed crew.
ILM was even more central to The Hulk, with company stalwart Denis Muren taking on some of the producing duties in addition to supervising the myriad effects. As with the creation of Golum in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the title character was a deft combination of CGI and extensive movements tests with the actor. Both The Hulk and T3 labored over creating computer images with human nuance and in both instances developed methods that enhance and forward the craft.
Pirates of the Caribbean employs its special effects in more conventional ways, though it is no less effective in creating a size and scope that would be prohibitive to undertake in most instances today. Effects coordinator Terry Frazee conquered the challenge of giving the sense of a British fleet and a teaming island community. An even greater challenge was creating the special look of the “undead” pirates that required close work with both the camera and makeup departments.
Still to weigh in are the Oscar-winning teams behind the first two Lord of the Rings movies. The conclusion of the trilogy has to be one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the year and despite its past prizes and rules that confine consideration to the movie at hand, it will be hard not to view The Return of the King as a massive nine-hour spectacle. Director Peter Jackson has said that the concluding chapter is more story-oriented but it would be unthinkable to imagine that a significant part of the new movie would be devoid of the unique and magical visual quality that’s preceded the finale.
Regardless of the final composition of the ballot, it’s safe to conclude that the nominees will all possess both cutting-edge technology and innovative artistry. While many effects-laden films of the past have aged poorly, the current level of sophistication and execution should bear up well when seen for the first time by an audience in 2053.

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