Tech Support: 'Apes' and 'Deathly Hallows' lead the way for Best Visual Effects

Posted by · 7:19 am · September 29th, 2011

Last week, I introduced Tech Support for the sixth year at In Contention, though the first here at HitFix. And I find the Best Visual Effects category to be an appropriate place to begin my field-by-field analysis.

Unlike many other crafts categories, which award talents that immeasurably improve a film’s quality but seldom attract a movie-goer for that reason alone, audiences will talk about films’ visual effects after seeing them, analyzing them, comparing them and talking about what could have been done better. Indeed, it is not uncommon for advertisements and trailers to use a film’s effects as its central selling point, over its stars, director and story.

The Academy Award for visual effects honors up to four supervisors of the dozens (at least) members of a film’s effects team. Blockbusters tend to do quite well in this category, better than any other. Big box office also helps, as do the effects being prominent in the film. Being a Best Picture contender and a well-reviewed film is also certainly of assistance, but perhaps not as much as in other areas. The category, like most, does tend to reward some favorites but multiple new nominees are welcomed to the club every year.

Visual effects is also not a bad category to start with because most of the leading contenders have already been released. The fact of the matter is that most “visual effects films” are released in the summer, where box office returns tend to be strongest. It is the rare year where more than half of the nominated films do not come from the year’s first eight months.

While this category expanded to five titles last year (it had previously only acknowledged three), it still retained a unique feature: before the nominations are announced, the Academy will announce a shortlist of 15 contenders, which will later be whittled down to seven. This will obviously make analyzing the category easier later in the year. B

The frontrunner this year seems to be the WETA team for their creation of the title characters on “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”  The apes looked incredibly realistic to the point that virtually everyone who has seen the film has gone “wow.”  Add an incredibly loud fanbase, very good reviews, a surprise revitalization of the series, and I think we have a favorite. Senior supervisor Joe Letteri is a four-time Oscar winner (“Avatar,” “King Kong,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”), and that doesn”t hurt matters.

Another extremely likely nominee, and probably the apes’ biggest challenger for the win, is “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.”  It is true that only two of this film”s seven predecessors managed nominations in this category. I haven”t found the effects of the series to be that extraordinary, but this film had better than average effects by the standards of the series, in my opinion. Plus, there are now five nominees and this is the last chance to award the effects crew. That sentimental factor leads me to believe that it is not impossible for Tim Burke and company to win this.

Beyond those two titles, things get murkier, but I”d wager that “Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon” is a reasonably safe bet. While its immediate predecessor in the series was not nominated here, this film has much better reviews and the category has since expanded in size. Its money-making status, and its crew boasting the likes of John Frazier, result in a fairly comfortable position in the race.

“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” is the fourth installment in a series where all its predecessors made the cut (“Dead Man”s Chest” won the award). I nevertheless feel it”s in trouble. The reviews were the poorest in the series, the effects added nothing to what had come before (there certainly is no Davy Jones) and everything feels stale. That having been said, it”s easy to vote for familiarity, and this film has it, spearheaded by former winners John Frazier and Neil Corbould.

“Captain America: The First Avenger” got far better reviews than I expected and also displayed some top-notch visual effects. Craig Barron won this category three years ago for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and this film also seems to have the package this category likes. The real question in my mind is whether it is liked enough on the whole and if it will be pushed and remembered in December.

I really enjoyed Kenneth Branagh”s often silly “Thor” – and I was not alone. While it did look a tad over-the-top in the effects department at times, I still feel the fun of the film, and the prominence of the effects, could help. Daniel Sudick is a four-time Oscar nominee. So I”d say this is in the running. Any awards traction that Branagh can gain for his turn as Laurence Olivier in “My Week With Marilyn” couldn”t hurt.

Before the film opened, J.J. Abrams”s “Super 8” looked highly likely in this category. However, while it performed reasonably well, I cannot shake the feeling that the Academy’s effects branch may find the effects somewhat underwhelming. That said, they certainly fit in with Abrams”s vision. Six-time Oscar winner Dennis Muren is the supervisor of this team, and Russell Earl, Stephen Trojansky and Kim Libreri have also been nominated in recent years. So while I have inclinations leading me to doubt, on paper this seems a good bet.

Other summer blockbusters, such as “Green Lantern” and “Cowboys & Aliens” shouldn”t be completely ruled out, but I don”t think the films were well-respected enough to sustain them. Of the films still on the horizon, I see only two as having strong potential in this category.

“Hugo” is the upcoming Martin Scorsese film that I feel will either be a major hit or a major miss. I”m torn. Robert Legato is the only Oscar winner on board (“Titanic”) but the crew will have the opportunity to show their stuff. If the film catches on, I”m confident it will show up here. But if it”s not reasonably successful with both critics and audiences, I”m doubtful. It”s worth noting that no Scorsese movie has ever been nominated in this category (not that he’s ever gone there).

The other big title coming up from an Oscar-winning director is Steven Spielberg”s “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.”  Now, 3D performance capture films have yet to really catch on in this category. As such, I am doubtful. But the WETA team (including Oscar winners Richard Taylor, Joe Letteri and Scott Anderson) is on board. And there”s a first time for everything, no?

I”ll end by discussing a film that certainly should find a home here, though I”m torn on its chances. Terrence Malick”s  “The Tree of Life” had some of the most effective visual effects of the year, bringing us truly in tune with the director”s vision (even if what that is remains open for debate). However, the effects are very subtle compared to this category”s typical contenders. The presence of Douglas Trumbull could be enough in and of itself to get it there. The movie”s fans are vocal so if this manages to make it to the bakeoff stage, watch out.

We”ll see how the rest of the year goes. The bakeoff will obviously be immensely helpful in reading the tea leaves. In the meantime, however, nine more categories need to be analyzed. Next week, we turn to Best Cinematography.

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