Oscar Predictions 2014: Visual Effects

The horse race! The great question! The draw of history! Is there anything more exciting than the uncertainty of not knowing who will take home gold on Oscars’ big night?

Of course there is. Lots of things are more exciting, and there’s no uncertainty here because Gravity is going to win the crap out of this award. So instead, let’s talk briefly about magic.

Because that’s what visual effects are. Ever since the first days when a train scared people by pulling into the station, film itself was magic. The idea that you can capture the world around you and preserve it on a chemical strip has an air of sorcery to it, as it should, but we’ve had a century to get used to the mechanism, so visual effects have taken on the hefty mantle of casting spells.

Like making us believe we’re in space, or fighting a dragon, or fighting an exploding foe, or fist-fighting on top of a train, or returning to space.

Here’s a look at all five nominees with behind-the-scenes VFX videos to make up for my totally unsurprising predicted winner (which is in red)…

 Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton and Eric Reynolds, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Why They Were Nominated

The work is astounding. Both the sheer amount of labor and the demanded level of artistry combine to make a gargantuan task that Weta (as usual) rose to complete. This particular awards category is often dominated by movies that exist solely on the backs of VFX artists, and Smaug is a perfect example. It’s a story that demands computers bring a fantasy to life.

Why They Might Win

If there’s a spoiler in the bunch, this is it. Led by Jim Rygiel in the ’00s, and later joined by Joe Letteri, the Lord of the Rings visual team won three consecutive awards, plus Letteri would go on to win for King Kong and Avatar. The specific brand of effects work they do is peerless, and the Academy members are fans of handing over awards for that.

Why They Might Not Win

Gravity. Although it’s nearly impossible to parse whose art is better on this front, the one-woman Lost In Space show gets the upper hand for innovation. Like last year with Life of PiThe Hobbit is destined to go home empty-handed (except for the swag bag and the honor of being nominated).

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Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk and Neil Corbould, Gravity

Why They Were Nominated

Remember when that reporter asked Alfonso Cuaron what it was like to shoot in space, and it turned out he was kidding, but we all thought for a moment he wasn’t, and it seemed understandable that someone would be fooled? That’s why.

Why They Might Win

They will. Gravity won the BAFTA, it won the Visual Effects Society Awards, and every Oscar voter who was in his or her late forties when we first went to the Moon will undoubtedly be starry-eyed for this.

Why They Might Not Win

Smaug? Maybe. But pretty much there’s no chance that Webber, et al. leave the building without hardware on Sunday. This is as guaranteed as it gets.

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Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Erik Nash and Dan Sudick, Iron Man 3

Why They Were Nominated

Digital Domain, Legacy Effects and others did some outstanding superhero work here, aiding a stellar airborne stunt and building a lot of flying suits for a fighting finale. Also, every other Iron Man movie has been nominated for this award, making it the only Marvel property other than The Avengers (which, you know, has Iron Man) to score on this front. Apparently Captain America and Thor don’t have what it takes VFX-wise?

Why They Might Win

All three Iron Man movies have been nominated…and none have won. They were all built by different personnel (with Dan Sudick as the connective tissue), but none have ever taken the top prize home. So while I understand what the header says, the team behind Iron Man 3 simply isn’t going to win the Oscar.

Why They Might Not Win

Not only is this Gravity‘s award to lose, the work here — while towering and mostly impressive — is also muddied in what should be the biggest showcase of the digital talent. That final fight is a blur of suits all fighting nameless goons, and whether you lay blame on direction, editing, VFX or all three, it was a massive missed opportunity for CGI greatness. It’s not Wolfman bad, but it’s still confusing enough to devolve the effects work into a cartoon.

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Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich, Edson Williams and John Frazier, The Lone Ranger

Why They Were Nominated

Say what you will about the movie, there was some breath-stealing action sequences whose success ILM contributed heavily toward. Unlike Iron Man 3, the climax of The Lone Ranger was a damned feast of CGI adrenaline that gave the middle finger to physics and engine grease.

Why They Might Win

Not to bring back a broken record act, but there’s simply no chance here. While other awards have been the refuge of poorly-received movies to receive accolades (Norbit!), the Visual Effects Oscar is typically given to a successful movie with successful CGI. Strange as it may seem, the story is what might keep The Lone Ranger from being memorable enough on the tech side. On the very off chance that they win, it’ll be because the artistic merit of the visuals rose above the movie’s overall issues.

Why They Might Not Win

Just continue chanting “Gravity” like a mantra. The Lone Ranger and to a certain extent Iron Man 3 both do some strong work, but it’s strong work that’s all par for the course now. It’s what’s expected of a CGI-heavy movie. They’ve met the benchmark, but failed to rise above it or push the boundaries.

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Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Ben Grossmann and Burt Dalton, Star Trek Into Darkness

Why They Were Nominated

Another no-brainer nominee purely for the amount of CGI involved and how overt it is, the CGI job here deserves credit for execution, but also for scope in a way that something like Oblivion doesn’t. As we get more and more movies that rely solely on CGI to build the universe for them, the field will get crowded with more “snubs,” but for now, Star Trek Into Darkness is the kind of candidate that earns a nomination because of how obviously the CGI stood up the project as a whole.

Why They Might Win

They won’t, but if they did, it might be because of the destruction of future London and some of the tricky stunt-aids that they provided.

Why They Might Not Win

See all other entries above. Then re-watch Gravity.

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Who Should Win

The team for Gravity, of course. Although I’m a big believer that Zodiac should have been nominated back in its day for hiding CGI in plain sight, Gravity is about as overt as it gets before you suspend disbelief and simply float along in space with Sandra Bullock. The tech advancement is a big edge here, but Webber, Shirk, Lawrence, Corbould and a team of thousands have made magic here, and that what this award comes back around to. They’ve tricked us into thinking we were in orbit, and that takes a heady combination of overt effects (unless you believe Cuaron truly shot in outer space) and sorcery that goes unnoticed. The bar has been raised.

Can you imagine what we’ll see next?

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Oscar 2014

 


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