OSCAR GUIDE: Best Visual Effects

Posted by · 1:30 pm · February 5th, 2010

Star TrekThe field of visual effects contenders didn’t seem to need the annual bake-off reduction to know which way the wind was blowing this year.  Three films seemed to be headed for recognition from the outset, and on nomination morning, the category made for one of the least surprising collectives of the day.

Furthermore, it has also become something of a foregone conclusion which film will ultimately take the win, and that hasn’t changed for months on end.  At the end of the day, I think few will argue with the fact that this will be the least compelling “race” of the night.  But each nominee is incredibly deserving of their invitation to the big dance and we are happy to spotlight them here.

The nominees are:

“Avatar” (Joe Letteri, Stephen Rosenbaum, Richard Baneham and Andrew R. Jones)
“District 9”
(Dan Kaufman, Peter Muyzers, Robret Habros and Matt Aitken)
“Star Trek” (Roger Guyett, Russell Earl, Paul Kavanagh and Burt Dalton)

Most interesting to note of this year’s nominees is that the work serves drastically different functions under the same “blockbuster” umbrella.  Character, spectacle and the immersive cinematic experience are all well-represented.  I might be inclined to call this the most handsome field of contenders in the category since 2003, maybe even since 1994.

In “Avatar,” Joe Letteri and his Weta crew managed so many things that the breathless accolades in this arena never seem to feel over-served or tired.  There was, first and foremost, the creation of an entirely new world, Pandora.  But it wasn’t just creativity and manifestation that made this land sing, it was the attention to detail and realism, everything from gargantuan strip mining machines to floating mountains appearing just as we might imagine it would in reality.  Then there was the performance-capture technology, a field dominated by Weta that took a quantum leap forward here.  Photo-realism was the goal and most would agree it was a goal reached.  I imagine few would argue that the forthcoming Oscar is well-deserved, but it’s certainly not worth anticipating an upset, regardless.

Weta was so busy working on the steadily inflating workload 0f James Cameron’s film that the New Zealand-based effects house didn’t have as much time to work on the Peter Jackson-produced “District 9” as the genre filmmaker would have liked.  But the work still stands as exemplary and an intriguing foil for “Avatar” in the field.  While Cameron and Fox were printing money to push the limits of the medium, Neill Blomkamp and his effects squad, led by Image Engine’s Dan Kaufman, were doing quite a lot with much, much, MUCH less.  When a modest $30 million budget yields creativity such as this, it demands recognition and reward.  From an ominous (and eerily realistic) floating alien vessel to the intricacies of a slum community of alien “Prawn” beings, the film ran the gamut of possibilities.

One of the summer’s biggest critical and commercial hits was J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” which sprang from a time-bending screenplay that allowed for some creative and awe-inspiring CG visuals.  The effects team, largely ILM with some Digital Domain thrown in here and there, was headed up by former nominee Roger Guyett and managed to represent space on the screen in a way I don’t think we’ve really seen before.  It wasn’t a vibrantly creative new vision but one that nevertheless blended authenticity with spectacle for entertainment value, and that’s before we even get into the CG additives on a number of characters and creatures throughout the narrative.  Since the work doesn’t stick out as particularly revolutionary, it will likely be bringing up the rear on Oscar night, but it deserved the consideration.

Will win: “Avatar”
Could win: “District 9”
Should Win: “Avatar”

Should have been here: “The Lovely Bones”

(from left) Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington in Avatar

What do you think deserves to win this year’s Oscar for Best Visual Effects?  Have your say in the sidebar poll!

→ 29 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: Daily

29 responses so far

  • 1 2-05-2010 at 1:41 pm

    Craig said...

    The only award I think Avatar deserves.

  • 2 2-05-2010 at 1:46 pm

    Adam Smith said...


  • 3 2-05-2010 at 1:51 pm

    red_wine said...


  • 4 2-05-2010 at 1:55 pm

    aspect ratio said...

    The ultimate winner is already decided, of course, but I’m glad the three most deserving films were the ones nominated.

    It deserved however to be expanded to five films, like the animated film category. There was easily enough quality work this past year for five deserving nominees.

  • 5 2-05-2010 at 2:27 pm

    Lars said...

    Yeah, 5 nominees would have been nice. If that would have happened, I guess 2012 and TF2 (or HP) would have rounded up the group.

  • 6 2-05-2010 at 2:41 pm

    T.S. said...

    Nothing new to say “Avatar” will win, and apparently as far this comment thread is concerned, it’s also nothing new to say it’s the only award “Avatar” truly deserves to win. But hey, I’ll say it anyway.

  • 7 2-05-2010 at 2:48 pm

    Lars said...

    Allow me to shatter your illusion of agreement, then, T.S. ;-)

    I certainly think Avatar deserves more…

  • 8 2-05-2010 at 3:08 pm

    Bryan said...

    Wild Things and Watchmen are underrated and would be my 4 and 5 picks

  • 9 2-05-2010 at 3:28 pm

    Morgan said...

    If the Oscar were being voted on by only the visual effects people, District 9 might have stood an outside chance. It’s a movie whose effects were achieved by on-the-fly ingenuity through a variety of approaches, both high-tech and more old-fashioned. A “visual effects man’s visual effects movie.” But since it’s not only being voted on by them, sadly I think it hasn’t got a prayer. In any other year…

  • 10 2-05-2010 at 3:38 pm

    JTag said...

    In 2000, “The Matrix” beat “The Phantom Menace”. Obviously both were groundbreaking in their FX, but it was quite clear that people responded much more emotionally to “The Matrix”. It was considered an upset that “The Matrix” won. Maybe we see that with District 9 vs. Avatar.

  • 11 2-05-2010 at 4:08 pm

    Douglas said...

    Forget about an upset
    Benjamin Button wasn’t going to be beaten last year and neither will Avatar this year
    Nothing has ever been better than Avatar in this field and it’s as simple as that

  • 12 2-05-2010 at 4:33 pm

    tony rock said...

    Still reeling from Transformer’s loss in this category two years ago. Golden Compass? Blech.

  • 13 2-05-2010 at 6:01 pm

    T.S. said...

    @Lars: Ha ha, sorry. Didn’t meant to lump you in with Nos. 1, 2, and 3.

  • 14 2-05-2010 at 6:23 pm

    Kevin said...

    I’ve just never bothered to check, but I’m sure a lot of people can confirm this.

    For the nomination process, I understand that each branch votes on their own category and the Best Picture category. However, to determine the winners, does the whole Academy vote in each category? Morgan’s comment (#9) seems to imply this.

  • 15 2-05-2010 at 6:32 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Yes, the whole Academy votes for the winners in each category — bar some (including Best Foreign Language Film and Best Documentary) where it’s a prerequisite to see all five nominees.

  • 16 2-05-2010 at 6:42 pm

    THE Diego Ortiz said...

    I like to judge visual effects in two ways:
    1) How they look like at right now.
    2) How they look like in a few years.

    Right now, it’s Avatar. But I wonder how it will look like in a couple of years. District 9 will still probably look great in a couple of years. I hope Star Trek is the same way cause I thought it’s effects were awesome.

  • 17 2-05-2010 at 9:05 pm

    John said...

    Gotta echo the “why can’t they expand this past three” argument? Back in 1999, they let a fourth make-up nominee in to a field that usually has three. Back in 1979, they had five nominees for visual FX when there were five great visual FX movies. Given the size and scope of 2012, its omission was ludicrous. Although, the omission of any of the three movies that got in would also have been ludicrous.

  • 18 2-05-2010 at 9:46 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Best Visual Effects lineup ever, I think. And “Avatar” tops every movie that’s come before.

  • 19 2-06-2010 at 12:00 am

    david said...

    Like Star Wars (1977) before it, Avatar has raised the bar in the area of visual effects to unprecedented new heights, and like the Lucas film, has captured the imagination of millions of mainstream moviegoers around the world. The fact that it will probably bring home several Oscars in merely icing on the cake.

  • 20 2-06-2010 at 12:12 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    The historical significance of Avatar in this field cannot be ignored. No race.

  • 21 2-06-2010 at 1:45 am

    Movie_Dearest said...

    I agree, this category (and makeup too for that matter) needs to be expanded to 5 nominees. Heck, they did it a couple years ago for Sound Editing, why not these 2 categories too?

    Btw Kris, I really appreciate this day-by-day spotligiht on each category. The Oscars aren’t just about the big categories.

  • 22 2-06-2010 at 5:37 am

    JJ said...

    2 things:

    1) While I LOVED Star Trek, and consider it’s visual effects great … is it a surprise that 2010 or T2 didn’t get in? Did the critics kill it, or are the effects people not as well respected?

    2) Regarding Watchmen (who people mentioned earlier) – I still think that movie was excellent; and incredible in many facets (cin, art d, sound, fx, score). Underrated to me.

  • 23 2-06-2010 at 6:29 am

    Morgan said...

    If District 9 won, though, it would be one of the greatest Oscar upsets of all time.

    Avatar didn’t use its special effects very judiciously. After a while, the wow factor fades and it just becomes a typical onslaught of SFX driven stuff. When a movie is almost nothing but SFX, paradoxically the special effects start to become invisible and don’t wow you. It starts to feel like you’re simply watching Pixar hyper real animation (which doesn’t wow me any more either, sad to say).

  • 24 2-06-2010 at 12:25 pm

    Speaking English said...

    LOL. People just don’t cease to come up with ways to knock down big ol’ “Avatar,” even if it means criticizing its revolutionary special effects when there is clearly nothing there to criticize.

  • 25 2-06-2010 at 1:06 pm

    Leighton said...

    Avatar, no question. Gotta give a shout out to Where the Wild Things Are which I think should’ve been there.

  • 26 2-06-2010 at 3:01 pm

    Maxim said...

    This are the people who DIDN’T nominate (in the order of idiocy) Minority Report, Speed Racer, Matrix Revolutions. Oh and Revenge of the Sith, of course. Heck, even Transformers 2.

    Sometimes I wonder if they are purposefully fucking with ILM.

    I REALLY hope that District 9 guys REALLY enjoy their nod.

  • 27 2-06-2010 at 8:43 pm

    JP said...

    There’s no chance Avatar will lose this award. If it happens, I will change my name before jumping out of my window. And it absoloutely DESERVES TO WIN. No film in history has achieved something similar to Avatar in terms of Visual Effects. It is the most astonishing film VISUALLY ever. Star Trek’s and District 9’s effects look pretty much common when compared to Avatar’s.

  • 28 2-07-2010 at 11:44 pm

    Glenn said...

    Obviously “Avatar”.

    JJ made me laugh though. “2010 or T2”?

  • 29 2-17-2010 at 2:12 pm

    movieman said...

    Will win: “Avatar”
    Could win: “Star Trek”
    Should win: “District 9”
    Should have been here: “Drag Me to Hell”