Oscar Breakdown: Best Visual Effects

By  · Published on March 4th, 2010

Visual effects are an often overlooked and under-appreciated aspect of film making. It’s surprising that VFX has traditionally been one of the last things considered in budgeting/schedule and VFX houses often get the bad end of the money stick when it comes down to the last minute studio changes. But this year’s VFX Oscar nominees (Avatar, District 9 and Star Trek) are all great examples of how being mindful of the importance of VFX can gain your film box office and Oscar success.

Let’s break it down:

Avatar (Joe Letteri, Stephen Rosenbaum, Richard Baneham and Andrew R. Jones)

Why it was nominated: Say what you will about the so-so story of Avatar but it clearly is a game changer in how filmmakers can utilize visual effects. From the inception of James Cameron’s idea, it was clear that the only way to accomplish Avatar’s epic scale would be through top-notch visual effects. It took many years for Cameron to feel confident enough in VFX technology to actually start production. It took a lot of money (rumored $500 Million) but the VFX crew on Avatar obviously nailed the digital characters, futuristic technology, an entire alien planet and the creatures which inhabit it. More importantly the film relied heavily on VFX throughout production rather than just in pre and post production.

Why it might win: Really it should be “why it will win”. Avatar has set a new benchmark for how visual effects are used in films and it would be a real surprise if it didn’t win.

Why it might not win: It’s a long shot but Avatar’s iffy story could taint Academy voters’ minds about giving the film a best VFX win. But considering VFX Oscar wins don’t always have ties to great story telling (see Golden Compass) it is unlikely that Avatar will lose.

District 9 (Dan Kaufman, Peter Muyzers, Robert Habros and Matt Aitken)

Why it was nominated: The District 9 VFX crew had the difficult task of making us viewers feel sympathetic for big, ugly CG prawn aliens. And let’s face it: at the beginning of the film the creatures just seem creepy, eating cat food and generally causing trouble. But by the end of the film you can’t help but love Christopher Johnson and his cute little son thanks to their incredibly emotive eyes and gestures. Plus how awesome is the last 20 minutes with Wilkus’ mech battle?

Why it might win: Compared to Avatar, the visual effects in District 9 feel very subtle. It’s truly a testament to how VFX can be successfully employed as a tool for storytelling rather than spectacle. One could argue that with a relatively modest $30 million budget, Neil Blomkamp made a much more emotionally interesting story than Avatar’s (rumored) $500 million behemoth.

Why it might not win: If it were any other year, I’d say District 9 would have the VFX Oscar in the bag. But the fact remains that Avatar is just more revolutionary for the field of visual effects.

Star Trek (Roger Guyett, Russell Earl, Paul Kavanagh and Burt Dalton)

Why it was nominated: Star Trek is the traditional popcorn actioner we are used to seeing in the Oscar race. The VFX crew did a fine job of creating the space battles, creatures and technologies we would expect from a Star Trek film.

Why it might win: Perhaps traditionalist Oscar voters could choose Star Trek’s tried and true technique over Avatar’s potentially overwhelming scope and District 9’s atypical visual style.

Why it might not win: Despite being a fun film with solid VFX, Star Trek is clearly the long shot for the VFX Oscar. It just doesn’t have the VFX clout of Avatar or the uniqueness of District 9.

Who Will Win?


It’s the biggest films in history (not counting inflation, higher 3D prices) and it was built almost completely on visual effects. Avatar set a new bench mark for VFX involvement and importance thus it would be incredibly surprising if it didn’t win the Oscar.

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