Tech Support: A tight race beyond 'Gravity' for Best Visual Effects features hobbits, Jaegers and men of steel

Posted by · 10:43 am · October 17th, 2013

Best Visual Effects has long been one of the most “mainstream” of the Oscar categories. It”s always filled with blockbusters and films which have made lots of money. This year, though, beyond the race for the win (it would appear), the race for nominations is fairly wide open.

In recent years, the category has moved more and more toward 3D, which is not surprising given that that is where spectacle tends to be most on display, and it is also where money tends to be invested. When top-tier talents such as James Cameron, Martin Scorsese and Ang Lee were jumping aboard 3D, it hardly seemed surprising that Oscar followed. The work, like the names involved, was that much better.

Another recent trend I have observed is the Academy picking a film that many may have thought forgotten and certainly not on its way to being an Oscar nominee. Examples in recent years would be “Snow White and the Huntsman,” “Real Steel” and “Hereafter.” I don”t mean to suggest that these nominations were undeserved – just unexpected.

Being a Best Picture contender doesn”t hurt, especially in the race for the win, but the vast majority of nominees in this category tend not to be contenders – or anywhere close to them – in the top category.

So, to say that a race is over in October may seem absurd. But I don”t really see how Alfonso Cuarón”s “Gravity” can lose this race. And indeed, many expected competitors are already squaring themselves with that fact. Anchored by Oscar winner Neil Corbould and Oscar nominee Tim Webber, this visual effects crew crafted a space odyssey that has mesmerized everyone from the highbrow film critics to mainstream audiences. Cuarón seems poised to join Cameron, Scorsese and Lee in having directed a 3D film to a win here.

The only other film that seems reasonably assured of a spot is Peter Jackson”s “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” Though this series is nowhere near the peak it reached in days of “The Lord of the Rings,” Joe Letteri”s crew seems too respected to miss out for this series and they continues to push the limits. That is particularly true for this film, with the new arrival of the (second) title character. Though nothing is a lock before it’s seen.

Beyond that, things become more difficult. In the realm of summer blockbusters, there were few outright failures but there were several titles that were at least mildly disappointing.

“Man of Steel” tried to reboot the Superman franchise to mixed success. The film’s reception was respectable, as was the box office, but it didn’t exactly set the world on fire. However, the effects were omnipresent, in a good way. If it finds a home anywhere, it”s here. The creation of Krypton was particularly remarkable. Allen Hall, Joe Letteri and Guillaume Rocheron have seven Oscars between them.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” tried to build upon the success of a particularly clever reboot, as J.J. Abrams reunited the cast and much of the crew behind 2009’s “Star Trek.” Most observers viewed this as a step down from the fantastic 2009 film. However, the reviews and box office remained quite respectable. So I’d reckon that this visual effects team, which includes Oscar winners Burt Dalton, Alex Henning and Ben Grossmann, and nominees Roger Guyett and Paul Kavanagh, is very much in the running.

“Iron Man 3” was considered a relatively disappointing entry into the world of Tony Stark. But “relatively” is the applicable word here. Both of the predecessors in this category scored a Best Visual Effects nomination and this film was still liked. Oscar nominees Daniel Sudick and Erik Nash may well find themselves going to Oscar night again.

Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” was considered a step back from his fantastic debut “District 9.” Even so, in an open category, I do not want to rule anything out. The effects were impressive. Peter Muyzers, Oscar nominee from “District 9,” is back on board, and the film has an aura of importance that other titles do not necessarily share.

“World War Z” got pretty good reviews for a zombie film, and was clearly a personal effort for Brad Pitt. But it still is a zombie movie and that leads me to doubt its chances even if it does have a fan base. Neil Corbould is on board this film as well, as is John Nelson, a staple in the visual effects industry.

Ultimately, I”d say Guillermo Del Toro”s “Pacific Rim” is the best bet of the summer blockbusters. The sheer scope of the work strikes me as difficult to ignore. Oscar winners Clay Pinney and John Knoll being on board cannot hurt matters.

I must say, however, that I would love it if “This is the End” could score in this category. Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg crafted a wonderfully engaging satire in which the effects were properly supporting but still integral and superbly done. Given the politics involved vis a vis effects houses, it could be a pipe dream, but stranger things have happened.

Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” recently unveiled to somewhat underwhelming response. But the film still features visual and special effects which are integral to the plot. Guillaume Rocheron won this category on his first nomination last year for “Life of Pi.” Perhaps he can score a second consecutive nomination, if not for “Iron Man 3,” then for this?

“Rush,” despite its top-notch reviews and rousing storyline, has not caught on to the extent that one may have thought. Even so, those top-notch reviews and rousing storyline still, to some extent, speak for themselves. The bigger problem is Oscar’s tendency to avoid box office failure, and the crew has yet to experience Oscar glory. But the effects were incredibly realistic and effective.

Perhaps it’s better to look way back earlier in the year for contenders? Sam Raimi’s “Oz the Great and Powerful” was divisive but it was an effects extravaganza (at least with respect to quantity – quality is another matter). John Frazier and Scott Stokdyk won this category for Raimi”s highly regarded “Spider-Man 2,” so they could well return to the race. Also, “Oblivion” may seem forgotten as the latest Tom Cruise flop. And perhaps deservedly so. But it invested a lot in its effects. Eric Barba deservedly won this category for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Perhaps he can return?

Finally, “The Great Gatsby” was, in typical Baz Lurhmann tradition, a grand spectacle. I totally expect its production design and costume design to feature prominently in the Oscar race. But what about the omnipresent visual effects? Color me skeptical — the film is not the sort that usually gets nominated here. But at the same time, surely a Lurhmann film will have to score here eventually?

So we”ll see. As I said, this strikes me as an extremely open category beyond “Gravity” and, to a much lesser extent, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” Who do you see in contention?

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