Tech Support: 'Avengers,' 'Dark Knight Rises' and 'The Hobbit' lead Best Visual Effects race

Posted by · 9:09 am · October 18th, 2012

Every year, it seems as though summer blockbusters try to outdo each other in the realm of visual effects. The rise of 3D has made visual effects even more of a selling point for many films, with two of the last three winners in this category (“Hugo” and “Avatar”) employing such technology.

The Academy Award for Best Visual Effects awards up to four of the hundreds of individuals who create the these elements. More than any other category, being a blockbuster that has made a lot of money helps immensely (though largely that’s because blockbusters that make a lot of money tend to be effects-heavy). That said, being a Best Picture nominee certainly helps. And, as I pointed out last year, it helps even more at the win stage.

Until a few years ago, there were only three nominees in this category, chosen from a pre-announced list of seven finalists. This practice was changed effective 2009, and now there are 10 pre-announced finalists, from which five nominees are chosen.

A summer blockbuster — or two or three — is nominated in this category every year. Even so, I”m uncertain about what film is best placed to do that this year.

Everyone knew “The Avengers” was going to be a hit. Few predicted just how dominant the film would be among this year”s summer onslaught. Complete with 3D and multiple major superheroes, the film was a visual effects extravaganza. Despite a plethora of competition, I”d be surprised if it didn”t make the final five, and also expect Erik Nash and Daniel Sudick, who have six nominations to date between them, to be in contention for the win. My only reservation lies in the fact that “Iron Man” is the only one of the four base franchises of this film to have previously made the cut in this category.

“The Dark Knight Rises” may not have lived up to the impossibly high expectations set by its predecessor but had it done so, it would have been a miracle. Nolan continues his preference for having everything possible done by actual camerawork and while that may decrease the showiness of the effects, and be a particular obstacle when it comes to the race for the win, I still think the film is more likely than not to receive a nomination. Nolan has reunited his Oscar-winning crew from “Inception” of Chris Corbould, Paul Franklin, Pete Bebb and Andrew Lockley.

“The Amazing Spider-Man” attempted to repeat what “Batman Begins” did seven years ago, by rebooting a franchise based around a popular character. The effects were impressive and the crew is anchored by veteran winners John Frazier and Jim Rygiel. That said, the film”s reception was underwhelming. Granted, the obligation of all voters to see bake-off effects reels from all the nominees may eliminate this problem but I think “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises” are the likelier nominees in this category from the summer.

“Prometheus” looked back on a classic franchise and gave us a prequel of sorts. Ridley Scott”s film impressed different people in different ways. And some weren”t impressed at all. Even so, the effects were top notch and a nomination is certainly possible. Despite having a massive crew, I do not believe that any of the supervisors have been nominated to date.

Moving out of the summer, “Looper” is a rare example of a science-fiction/action movie that has got critics very excited. It is probably going down in film history with its high concept premise and group of rabid fans. It does not have a crew that has experienced AMPAS love to date, though that shouldn”t be viewed as a death knell in any way. The film has been extremely well-received by critics and audiences, and Rian Johnson and especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt are hot commodities these days.

Robert Zemickis”s “Flight” will try to bring Denzel Washington back into Oscar contention after more than a decade away. I”m not sure what sort of contender this will actually be, though it”s worth noting that Michael Lantieri has a long and established history with Oscar – five nominations, including a win. And the plane crash at the center of the film is a major set piece.

“Skyfall” has pulled out quite the cast and crew to bring James Bond back to us. Now, this series is frequently shortlisted for visual effects honors but seldom makes the final cut. And Chris Corbould is in contention already this year for both “The Dark Knight Rises” and “John Carter.”  Even so, I wouldn”t rule this title out, particularly with all the glowing, “best-of-the-series” notices.

On the note of “John Carter,” the effects were incredible and the crew was massive. So despite the massive bomb status, I wouldn”t dismiss it entirely. (“The Golden Compass,” anyone?)  That said, most of the crew (Corbould aside) is from Pixar and not the sort of people who are necessarily entrenched in this branch.

Ang Lee”s “Life of Pi” was always going to sink or swim in light of its visual effects. The sea, to say nothing of animals, will undoubtedly be very effects-based and/or complemented. By all accounts the film swims (so to speak). Bill Westenhof won this award for “The Golden Compass” and was nominated for “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” and that only increases its chances in my view.

“Life of Pi” is not the only film this year where the water will play an integral part. “The Impossible” features a massive tsunami at the center of its plot. No members of this largely Spanish crew have been nominated to date. Even so, that did not stop “Hereafter” from earning a nomination in this category three years ago for a much briefer tsunami sequence. That film was nowhere near as well received and also earned no other nominations. Admittedly, 2009 didn”t have as many strong contenders as 2012 appears to. Even so, I”d say Pau Costa and Javier Garcia should without question be considered in the conversation.

As for a December film I am confident will make the cut sight unseen? Peter Jackson”s return to Middle Earth in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” which will reunite Jackson with both J.R.R. Tolkien and the WETA visual effects workshop in an effects-heavy spectacle complete with trolls, hobbits and, of course, Gollum. While most of this has been done before, no one does it better than Jackson. I think the decision to divide this book into three films is madness. Even so, assuming the film receives at least a respectable reception, I”d be shocked if it didn”t score here. Then again, maybe it will be an epic failure.

Another epic adaptation is, of course, “Cloud Atlas.” And the Wachowskis, like Jackson, have directed a past winner in this category: “The Matrix.”  This category seems pretty competitive. Even so, the work that will be required in this film”s many fantastical scenes seems the sort that could result in a second Wachowski film finding a home here. Senior visual effects supervisor Dan Glass (“The Tree of Life,” “Batman Begins,” the latter two “Matrix” movies) is long overdue for a first nomination.

Those are the top dozen contenders as I see them from this vantage point. What do you see coming?

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