TECH SUPPORT: Best Visual Effects — Volume I

Posted by · 11:51 am · August 6th, 2009

Avatar“How did they do that?”  Movie-goers often ask this in response to spectacular visual effects, one of few elements of a film, apart from acting, directing or story, that a studio might choose to sell a film directly on.

Not surprisingly, the Academy’s award for Best Visual Effects is definitely the most mainstream-friendly of all of all.  $100 million grosses and higher are the norm.

This branch also has a somewhat unusual process for choosing the nominees.  A shortlist of seven films will be announced in December or January and members of the branch will screen effects presentation reels of the films from that collective to nominate three contenders announced alongside the rest of the Oscar nominees.

Probably leading the field this year, sight unseen, is James Cameron’s “Avatar.”  Cameron’s last five films have all been nominated in this category…with four of them winning!  Moreover, “Avatar” seems certain to be, like most Cameron efforts, a showcase for the visual effects.  Of course, the film could also be an unmitigated disaster, but barring that I would be quite surprised if it did not find itself among the nominees.

On the other hand, we have already seen several films likely to end up in the running.   Michael Bay’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” was absolutely wretched in this viewer’s opinion.  But considering its massive box office take, not to mention the nature of the effects and the success of Bay’s films in this category in the past, I feel a nomination is quite likely.

J. J. Abrams’s “Star Trek,” however, was a pleasant surprise to many.  The well-reviewed reboot of this classic franchise is likely to receive some respect from AMPAS.  And while the “Star Trek” films have only received intermittent love from the Academy, I suspect this effort is likely to return the series the group’s good graces.

(from left) Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan in Night at the Museum: Battle of the SmithsonianThe “Harry Potter” films have had an even more rocky path to date.  While three of the five efforts have garnered at least one nomination, seldom have those nominations been predictable and only once has the series been cited in this category.  “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” was not only one of the better films in the series but also featured some of the better visual effects.  I’m sure it will end up among the shortlisted, but with a strong trio heading the pack already, it could be tough to muscle into the final nominees.

Other summer titles such as “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” and “Terminator Salvation” strike me as the sort that may, if lucky, be shortlisted to the final seven.  But I very much doubt they’ll be among the final three.

I have similar reservations about “2012,” a film set for release smack in the middle of the Oscar season.  I expect it to be very reliant on digital wizardry, so if it manages to strike something of a chord with the branch, it could very well end up in the running.

“Watchmen” was one of the year’s first big releases, and despite being a respectable critical and box office hit, and with the visual effects being pivotal to the movie, the work remains the sort of innovation that usually does not find a home among the nominees.  “300” and “Sin City” experienced similar fates in recent years.  Even so, I still think the title deserves a mention here.

“G. I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” is a film I had no faith in whatsoever.  But to date (and it admittedly does not open until Friday), it has received surprisingly positive word (from the online press, that is).  I’m not sure if it could manage a nomination over fellow summer titles “Star Trek” and “Transformers,” but one never knows.

I’ll finish with two efforts from directors who know how to use visual effects: Spike Jonze and Peter Jackson.

The Lovely BonesJonze is stepping onto dangerous territory with “Where the Wild Things Are.” Maurice Sendak’s beloved book does not naturally lend itself to a feature length film.  But it is a classic with Sendak’s blessing and Jonze knows how to make a good, innovative film.  The look will be pivotal to its success and Jonze knows how to blend effects into his movies.  Even so, I’m not convinced the effects will be showy enough for a nomination.

And I have no idea what Jackson will do in “The Lovely Bones.”  The trailer gave us some suggestion, but little else.  But Jackson is a master when it comes to visual effects.  His last four films obviously have won this category but even his earlier efforts cleverly used effects to both wow the audience and service the story.  We’ll see how this film plays out.  The trailer is intriguing but nevertheless somehow felt underwhelming to me.

Four categories down…five to go.  Toronto is just around the corner.  What are your thoughts on the Best Visual Effects category?

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11 responses so far

  • 1 8-06-2009 at 11:57 am

    Joel said...

    Avatar, Star Trek, and 2012, with Avatar winning for me. Transformers should be nominated, but won’t be, I don’t think. Hey, maybe so. But I dunno. Something tells me it’ll be the sound winner of 2010 but a complete snub in the F/X category.

  • 2 8-06-2009 at 11:57 am

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Hate this category. Always given to films with “most” visual effects rather than best. The only film this year that has actually made me wonder “how did they do that?” was Moon but it wouldn’t even crack a shortlist of 20. I have hopes that Avatar could be added to that and be a respectable nominee.

  • 3 8-06-2009 at 12:26 pm

    Brian said...

    No chance at all for “District 9”? Not even worth a mention?

  • 4 8-06-2009 at 12:28 pm

    red_wine said...

    Avatar probably has it in the bag. Sometimes it can be that obvious. 2012 FX in the trailer were awful I thought. Very surprised to read it cost 200 millions. Transformers 2 is 1 of the most hated films of the year but the branch will look past the hatred to maybe nominate it. Ditto G.I.Joe which might be slaughtered once the critic see it(the studio chickened out and refused to screen it). Heaven in The Lovely Bones looks like a cheesefest.

  • 5 8-06-2009 at 12:50 pm

    Jeremy said...

    Why, for the love of f-ing Christ, are there only three final nominees? I’ve never understood that. It’s not like the Original Song category, where there’s often a shortage of acceptable material. For better or worse, visual effects are becoming increasingly relevant (even necessary) in modern cinema. So why marginalize the category by limiting it to three selections? It infuriates me.

  • 6 8-06-2009 at 12:50 pm

    A.J said...

    Transformers 2 will have issues getting in because there is nothing new. It’s all rehashes of the first film. The first film lost all of its nominations which many thought it would win most of. Unlike Pirates 2 and 3, which offered different effects, Transformers 2, like I said, is nothing new or different. Star Trek and Avatar are pretty good bets, and I’m going to give the third spot to Where the Wild Things Are.

  • 7 8-06-2009 at 1:09 pm

    Edward L. said...

    Jeremy: I agree. I’ve felt that for ages, but especially since 2005, when there would have been strong arguments for Revenge of the Sith and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to join Narnia, King Kong and War of the Worlds in the category.

  • 8 8-06-2009 at 2:14 pm

    El Rocho said...

    I have a strong feeling it will be down to ‘Transformers’, ‘The Lovely Bones’ and ‘Avatar’. It will be a close call between to two latter, but ‘Avatar’ will come out the winner.

  • 9 8-06-2009 at 2:17 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Won’t there be a feeling of guilt because Transformers 1 got snubbed over The Polar Bears? I for one don’t hope so. I do think Star Trek really deserves a nod, if only for the gorgeous orgasm-inducing Jupiter shot.
    Avatar will win it though, I don’t think it can be beaten.

  • 10 8-06-2009 at 3:31 pm

    AmericanRequiem said...


    the only movies with special effects with a chance at a best picture nomination, and probly the only good movies of the lot at the end of the day

  • 11 8-09-2009 at 7:31 pm

    leocd said...

    amen to the last commentary (except for avatar… I don’t buy it yet xD)