Oscar Gold 2018 – Visual Effects

Ah, Visual Effects, the category where the big budget blockbusters have the best chance to bring home some gold. Everything from CGI to animatronics to practical gore effects to explosions can be honored. It’s probably the only reason for Michael Bay’s existence at this point. Well, that and ruining everything I loved about my childhood; I’m still waiting for his take on Thundercats to kill the final remnant of my youth.

For the longest time this category only had three nominees, but starting in 2010 it expanded to five. The eligibility rules are pretty interesting. According to the Academy, a worthy film is considered for “the contribution visual effects make to the overall production, and the artistry, skill, and fidelity with which the visual illusions are achieved.” Oh, that’s why Michael Bay’s movies never win. The “contribution” is that explosions substitute for plot, and since he keeps recycling shots from previous movies, there’s not exactly any artistry or skill in the “illusions” (air quotes). Okay, I’ll stop ragging on him now. He makes a gajillion dollars with each movie, while I can barely pay my rent. Clearly he’s drying his tears from my super sick burns with $100 bills. Anyway…

This year’s nominees for Visual Effects are:

John Nelson, Gerd Nefzer, Paul Lambert, and Richard R. Hoover – Blade Runner 2049
Right off the bat, we’re looking at the front-runner. The world built in the original Blade Runner was impressive on its own, but the sequel takes that amazing futuristic version of Los Angeles and says, “Here, hold my beer.” The buildings, the flying cars, the amazingly life-like holograms, it all works to the most realistic degree. Really the only drawback is all the Sony product placement.

But aside from the exterior effects, there were two really impressive small scale moments. The first is K’s holo-girlfriend Joi. The way she phases in and out depending on signal strength, as well as how she melded with the hooker-bot, matching movement for movement, to the point that it was like looking at times like an original third character made from the other two? It was magnificent. Similarly, the CGI skin of Sean Young’s Rachael from the original movie was masterful. A year ago I was ready to wretch at the sight of CGI Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher in Rogue One, but the team here got it right. I’m guessing this is what the Academy means by “artistry, skill, and fidelity” in the effects.

Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Jonathan Fawkner, and Dan Sudick – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
I mean, damn, there are just a ton of effects in this one. And funnily enough, this is the only superhero movie apart from Logan to get a nomination this year.

I mean, let’s just run down the list. We’ve got the ships, the planets, the gold people with their video game-controlled drones. There’s Yondu’s flying arrow (I’M MARY POPPINS, Y’ALL!), Stan Lee’s cameo with the spacemen, Ego’s entire existence when outside of Kurt Russell form. And of course, there’s Rocket and Baby Groot, and Baby Groot is life.

But really, if you want to know why this film got nominated, you only need the opening sequence, where the Guardians take on a thousand-teeth tentacle monster while Baby Groot happily dances to “Mr. Blue Sky” and all the action takes place in the background. That alone was worthy of nomination, and that was just the first five minutes. It perfectly set the tone as far as action and comedy, and was a visual marvel (pun intended).

Stephen Rosenbaum, Jeff White, Scott Benza, and Mike Meinardus – Kong: Skull Island
Using a combination of motion capture and CGI, Kong: Skull Island throws an utter crap-ton of weirdo creatures at the green screen to see what sticks. Terry Notary was chiefly the mo-cap model for King Kong himself, while the Skullcrawlers and other random monsters were basically just cartoons.

To be honest, I had a hard time engaging with this movie. After the first half hour I could only enjoy it ironically. I mean, they literally separated a guy from the group for an entire act, making us think he was important, only to have a Skullcrawler chomp him unceremoniously. I will admit I laughed when the idiot tough guy tried to stand up to the big Skullcrawler with grenades only to get tail whipped into the side of a cliff. That was hilarious.

Anyway, as far as the effects go, Kong’s facial expressions were pretty decent, but apart from that, all the creatures were way too cartoonish. I know this is a fantasy, but given the post-credits scene that implies they’re trying to set up an entirely new monster franchise with Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, et al, you gotta make things look a bit more realistic, otherwise it’s just silly cheese. Also, the explosions of helicopters and giant spider abdomens looked fake as hell.

Ben Morris, Mike Mulholland, Neal Scanlan, and Chris Corbould – Star Wars: The Last Jedi
There are plenty of highs in the latest Star Wars entry, as well as a couple of lows. On the plus side, the space battles were pretty decent, Supreme Leader Snoke was a realistic-looking CGI character, and of course, LIGHTSABER BATTLES! Plus, in what seemed like an apology for the entire prequel trilogy, we got Force Ghost Yoda, but a Yoda that actually looks like Yoda from the original trilogy, and the CGI was almost realistic.

The best scene was towards the end, when the First Order charged the Resistance at their cave. The look of old, beat-up landspeeders cutting through the desert and kicking up red sand on a suicide run against a team of Imperial Walkers was awesome as hell.

On the other end of things we have way too many CGI aliens. I can honestly say I NEVER wanted to know where the blue milk came from. That was freaking traumatic. And, of course, yet again, I must bring up my unbridled hatred for the Porgs. Also, Space Vegas was an embarrassment.

Joe Letteri, Daniel Barrett, Dan Lemmon, and Joel Whist – War for the Planet of the Apes
So it turns out we have TWO motion capture monkey movies in this year’s set. Happily, unlike Kong, this one was actually good. I confess that I haven’t seen the previous two films in the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy, as I have a personal aversion for reboots and remakes in general (I’ll go into detail in a future blog). But thankfully there was text at the beginning of this film to give me the gist of the last two, so there were no logical gaps for me to try to comprehend. And as for the actual story, I’m honestly and pleasantly surprised that the film could wring that much pathos out of freaking chimps. The previous two films were also nominated in this category, and I’m actually going to make an effort to see them in the not-too-distant future.

As for the actual visual effects, the mo-cap is far superior to Kong. Andy Serkis has made a cottage industry out of crawling around a set in a capture suit and bringing real life to completely animated characters. Gollum, the 2005 King Kong, and now Caesar, the man knows what he’s doing. But it’s not just Caesar. All the apes looked genuinely lifelike, from baby Cornelius, to albino Winter, to the nightmare Koba, they all look incredibly real. That alone would have been enough, but then it turns out they can realistically ride horses and fight with weapons and shit. Well played, folks. Well played.

My Rankings:
1) Blade Runner 2049
2) War for the Planet of the Apes
3) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
4) Star Wars: The Last Jedi
5) Kong: Skull Island

Next up: Get out your pens and start thinking up new ideas. It’s time for Original Screenplay. And please, dear God people, start thinking up new ideas. I can’t take any more reboots!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Did you go apeshit for Kong? Are you one with the Force? Are you coming from Michael Bay’s office to blacklist me from Hollywood forever? Let me know!

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