War for the Planet of the Apes took the upper hand – or, perhaps paw – heading into the Oscar VFX showdown with Blade Runner 2049, as it won the evening’s top prize at the VES Awards, for “Best Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature.”
Indeed, the evening was marked with many instances to wonder what “photoreal” now means, since that term was used in numerous categories, including the TV side, where Game of Thrones won almost every award (except for the one snagged by Black Sails in the “Supporting Visual Effects in a Photoreal Episode” category).
Clearly, the emphasis is more on “photo” than “real” – in other words, making something look like it’s happening, even if it’s zombie dragons mowing down massive ice walls, or light saber battles in galaxies far, far away, rather than recreating events more plausible, regrettable, and familiar to human audiences – like, say, a war, or the evacuation of troops, a recounting of which won Dunkirk one of the Georges Melies statuettes in the feature film “supporting effects” category.
If the evening’s big winners weren’t entirely a surprise (though the latest Blade Runner appeared to have pretty good odds going into the night), the evening’s last presenter certainly was: Mark Hamill, who showed up to present the last two awards, after joking about doing pretty well under the film biz’s current “Jedi retirement program.” Though Luke Skywalker’s swan song, The Last Jedi, failed to net a single statue during the show. But his standing ovation certainly let you know how his work has influenced this particular group of filmmakers and digit-wranglers.
Another name mentioned throughout the evening was that of Ray Harryhausen, whose influence popped up in several conversations with other pioneers in the field. Even Game of Thrones VFX supervisor, Joe Bauer once remarked to us, on the occasion of a previous Emmy nomination that included a sword-battle with skeletons and White Walkers that season, that “every skeleton fight owes a debt to Harryhausen!”
And Ray’s name came up again, when Lifetime Achievement winner Jon Favreau, director of Iron Man, The Jungle Book, and the upcoming live (or “photoreal!”) version of Lion King, recalled watching Jason and the Argonauts on his grandmother’s black and white television. He spoke of technology “being indistinguishable from magic,” and also cited Joseph Campbell, of A Hero’s Journey fame, as another prime influence.
But there were other influences along the way that brought people into the Beverly Hilton ballroom this night, as Soyuz and space station astronaut Col. Terry Virts found out while talking with honoree Joe Letteri after the show.
Besides winning the Apes award with his Weta digital team – who’ve been with that franchise the past several years, and now will be busy with the new group of Avatar movies, over the next several – Letteri was given the VES’ Georges Melies award, for his own pioneering work with motion capture and other techniques.
And yet, in talking with Virts, Letteri let it be known that as a kid, he’d wanted to be an astronaut. Yet both both Colonel and award-recipient wound up talking “polygons” together, hinting, perhaps, at the kind of practical magic spoken of by Favreau earlier.
The winners list is impressive. A list, by the way, that VES Exec Director Eric Roth wants to see more women on, in years ahead, when he began the show by saying, “we not only need more women in the entertainment industry at large … we need more women in visual effects. And we need more women in positions of power. Women must have a real voice in our industry and while I realize that as a white male, I’m an imperfect messenger for this task, I want to thank a very talented woman—Brooke Breton, visual effects producer and VES Board member—who will take the lead in dealing with this issue.”
Breton will come up with ideas and initiatives moving forward – a little more practicality (and overdue) behind the magic yet to be honored.