The visual effects category at the Academy Awards has historically been more genre-friendly than the others. From 1976 to 1993, every winner of that award (including Star Wars, Aliens, ET the Extra-Terrestrial, and Logan’s Run) had some genre-tilt that required special effects to bring its elements to life. But what made their achievements differ from modern Best Visual Effects winners is that before 1994 the nominees primarily featured practical effects.
Today, such elaborately physically built visual set pieces have fallen out of favor thanks to the incredible advancements of computer-generated technology. And it’s not without good reason. Arguably, utter realism is what artists have been working towards since the early days of film. To be able to craft something so life-like that it tricks the eye into believing it’s real. And we’ve come extremely close to that reality. But we’ve begun to realize that this reality may only exist deep in an uncanny valley.
Which is why I’m intrigued by three of the films that made it to the Academy’s shortlist for Visual Effects this year. While each film that made the early cut utilizes extensive computer-generated work, I believe First Man, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, and Solo: A Star Wars Story may be recognized primarily for their practical effects.
The shuttle effects in Damien Chazelle’s First Man look remarkably real because they were in part created through practical miniatures. These miniatures were designed at 1:30 scale by Ian Hunter, the virtuoso behind the Oscar-winning effects in Interstellar. The usage of these miniatures over CG give the effects a more realistic quality, according to Hunter,:
“You get these artifacts, these imperfections that are reality, and that you automatically get from shooting a miniature.”
Two films that have practical effects legacies that are vying for recognition are Fallen Kingdom and Solo. Steven Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park used cutting-edge animatronic puppets, alongside new CG wizardry, to bring his dinosaurs to life, while practical effects have always felt customary in the Star Wars franchise since the first movie premiered in 1977.
While that custom detoured with George Lucas’s Star Wars prequel trilogy, J.J. Abrams returned the space opera to its practical glory with the new spate of Star Wars releases. All the while, the Jurassic films have continued to employ practical effects artists for its myriad of Cretaceous creations, though CG effects became more dominant with each installment.
Both Solo and Fallen Kingdom feel like a cinch for nominations. But how they each used their practical effects still feels as inventive as when their respective series’ first launched. INSIDER has a fantastic video detailing 2018’s practical effects, from Solo’s use of in-camera projected imagery to Fallen Kingdom’s massive puppetry work. Watch it here:
After decades of computer-generated work, modern practical effects feel more unique and emotionally engaging than ever. Meanwhile, looking at the other films on the Best Visual Effects shortlist, it’s frankly hard to see a general differentiation between these CG spectacle blockbusters.
Ready Player One at times feels like an animated film with live action moments rather than the other way around. Although the immersive digitally rendered surroundings of The Oasis are eye-popping, have we ventured to the roof of how much more visual effects can improve? While Marvel’s work in Ant-Man and The Wasp are assuredly credible, these types of films are dangerously close to becoming the same big beautiful blur.
Hell, I’d venture to say that some of these shortlist films may have been improved with practical effects.
Welcome to Marwen, rather ironically, takes the physically tangible dolls that populated Mark Hogancamp’s 1:5 scale Marwencol Village and replaces them with motion-captured CG. While I believe mocap work is an incredibly important ligament between physical and computer-generated effects, we are so deep in the uncanny valley with Welcome To Marwen that there is no coming back. I foresee, like The Polar Express before it, that children could potentially get nightmares after seeing what is ostensibly a family film. Not to denigrate the actual art that was made, but perhaps we would have a more visceral connection to this world if it was told through a physical medium like stop motion.
Christopher Robin fairs much better as the artists captured the look of a love-worn stuffed animal impeccably. But if the goal is to look remarkably like a stuffed animal, why not use the real thing? Take a note from horror films and mix practical effects and CG. Give Ewan McGregor an adorable animatronic to act off of and let a CG Pooh fly around the streets of London with Piglet, Kanga, and pals. Trust me, we already know they aren’t real.
Will First Man’s miniatures or Jurassic Worlds’ puppetry bring back glory to a fading art form? Perhaps. But if anything, a nomination will be a testament to a craft that deserves a comeback. As our social relationship with technology evolves, as will our cinematic relationship, and I foresee a future where audiences crave a tangible physical presence in our big budget genre pictures.
Here are the movies shortlisted for the Best Visual Effects Oscar:
Ant-Man and the Wasp
Avengers: Infinity War
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Mary Poppins Returns
Ready Player One
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Welcome to Marwen