Oscar Gold 2020 – Visual Effects

I mentioned this earlier in the Blitz, but I would absolutely love to attend a “Bake-Off” presentation for the Academy, mostly because I just want to get inside the heads of both the Academy voters (in any number of branches), and the marketing teams of the various films and studios making their cases for nomination.

This is especially the case in a category like Visual Effects, one of the few where high-grossing, blockbuster films get a chance to shine. There’s a lot of hard work and artistry that goes into making special effects, especially if they look realistic. Hundreds of thousands of man hours go into the process, which if nothing else has the effect of stretching the end credits into an affair lasting as long as 20 minutes. There’s just that huge of a number of people involved.

At the same time, though, a lot of visuals these days don’t look all that real. CGI has become the standard over the practical effect, because it’s advanced technology and at this point is probably more economical. But at some point you have to wonder if we’re cutting quality by cutting costs. We’ve had a slew of films that use facial technology that ends up dipping the whole production into the Uncanny Valley. We have sophisticated animation techniques that can create photorealistic animals, but robs them of their personality at the same time. We have assholes like Michael Bay that get so into their tech that they substitute fake explosions for plot.

So yeah, I want to sit in on a “Bake-Off,” basically so I can scream, “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU PEOPLE THINKING?!?!?!?!” But you know, in a nice way.

This year’s nominees for Visual Effects are:

Avengers: Endgame – Dan DeLeeuw, Matt Aiken, Russell Earl, and Dan Sudick

This is what I’m talking about when I mention CGI lessening film quality. The climactic battle at the end of Endgame is as epic as advertised, but because there’s so much going on, and almost all of it is animated, it’s hard to get engaged. I will admit that I teared up just a bit when I heard “On your left.” It was the culmination of a decade of buildup, and the conclusion was beyond satisfying, save for the fake fan service of having all the women heroes appear for an audience applause shot.

But even before we hit that moment, the CGI was a bit too overpowering. I don’t know who made the decision that Mark Ruffalo basically wouldn’t be in the movie in favor of a perma-Hulk, but they should have been fired. Similarly, even though the MCU built up Thanos for nearly 10 years as a threat, when you see a giant purple thumb, it’s pretty hard to be intimidated. I applaud the decade-long effort to bring these comics to the big screen, and the saga was more often than not rich. But the CGI for the most part just looked fake.

The Irishman – Pablo Helman, Leandro Estebecorena, Stephane Grabli, and Nelson Sepulveda

There’s basically only one visual effect in The Irishman, but it gets used over and over again, and to great effect. That effect is facial aging technology. This bit of computer makeup has been used a lot over the last few years (basically since Benjamin Button), and it has been almost universally awful. Nearly every time it’s been used, it has resulted in some downright horrific ventures into the Uncanny Valley. It’s almost as bad as using a CGI skin of Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher in Rogue One. It just looks terribly cartoonish and fake.

But in The Irishman, I can honestly say that not only does the effect succeed for what may be the first time ever, but it succeeds so well as to look 100% realistic. I was sincerely worried that Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro would take their places in the Valley, but throughout the entire film, they looked exactly as old as they were supposed to. Whether it was younger adult, middle age, autumn years, or straight up elderly, I never once questioned the procedure. That alone is worthy of serious consideration for the award.

The Lion King – Robert Legato, Adam Valdez, Andrew R. Jones, and Elliot Newman

This is a rarity for me, because I am normally loathe to call shenanigans, but I am calling this one a sham. There are no visual effects in this movie. It is 100% animation. In order for there to be Visual Effects, there has to be an actual shot of something live action to be affected. This can include animated films, as Kubo and the Two Strings was nominated in this category a few years ago. But in that case, Kubo was a stop-motion film, which meant there was always a camera present, with real, physical things on film where effects could be added in post around it.

In the Lion King remake, no matter what Disney said, it’s not live action. Everything is animated. There are no actual shots to alter. There is nothing physically real in any scene. Now, credit where it’s due, the animals look photorealistic. They really do look like lions and hyenas and such. Unfortunately, the more real they look, the more the personalities of the various characters are robbed by the process. Congratulations, you made a realistic looking hornbill. But in the process, it looks all the more absurd for it to talk, and when it does, it has no expression whatsoever.

This is why I want to see a “Bake-Off.” I want to see what case Disney et al made to the Visual Effects Branch for them to basically lie about their own craft and give this a nomination. This is fraudulent. I don’t discount the work that the artists and animators made, but it’s a cartoon. Call it a cartoon.

1917 – Guillaume Rocheron, Greg Butler, and Dominic Tuohy

Any war film is going to have its fair share of effects. Pyrotechnics alone are gonna blow that budget sky high. There has to be a solid mixture of practical effects on set and digital ones done in post to create a vivid mixture that also looks realistic and lived in. I’m happy to say that 1917 accomplishes the feat quite admirably.

But the real task with a film like 1917, with its highly-choreographed sequences and simulated one-shot format, is making sure you don’t see the wires. A lot of the camera movements in the film are literally impossible given the directions the camera is moving. Some shots are done on a crane, others on a dolly, while still others are handheld, depending on the needs of the scene. That requires a ton of moving parts and equipment, and the core task for the visual effects team is to remove all of it so that this looks as seamless as possible. It’s not just a matter of panning at the right moment to create shot breaks that can be linked together; that’s the editor’s job. The effects department had to incorporate all the usual bells, whistles, and bombs into each shot, but also digitally remove any sign of the actual production in the process of multiple takes and angles blended together into a singular whole. It’s not as flashy as some of the other nominees, but arguably their job was the most crucial to the success of the film.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – Roger Guyett, Neal Scanlan, Patrick Tubach, and Dominic Tuohy

First off, congrats to Dominic Tuohy for getting nominated twice. Second, it’s worth noting that while the new Star Wars trilogy had its flaws (one-dimensional characters, recycled plots, Space Vegas, Rose, etc.), one of the things that I think we can all agree that they got right was creating a blend of practical and digital effects that evolved from the original trilogy, as opposed to the prequels, which George Lucas just overloaded with CGI to the point that the saga’s “past” looked more technologically advanced than its “future,” and yet still looked cartoonish and fake as shit.

To that end, where The Rise of Skywalker excels best is when it plays to its own sense of nostalgia. While it’s not exactly original, there’s inherent value already in place for the Death Star, Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing, the Millennium Falcon, and other artifacts from the original trilogy. The film smartly updates those images to give them a slightly more realistic sheen, but also creates its own limited original effects using those familiar and beloved objects as a template.

Take Palpatine’s fleet of planet-killing Super Star Destroyers for instance. We know what Star Destroyers look like. We know how awesome it is seeing them get blown up. We also know what it looks like when the Empire/First Order/Final Order straight up nukes an entire planet. So the film gives us an updated, darker look at the ships, shows off a few extra bells and whistles, puts the destructive force on them rather than going for another planet-sized base – thereby slightly subverting audience expectations – and then sets the climactic battle on the freaking hull of one of the ships! For all the times that we’ve seen people fighting inside a space station or blasting ships in the air, this film found a way to give us the best of both worlds in an entirely new manner, letting the saga (hopefully) finish with a taste of something we hadn’t seen, while still feeling familiar and comfortable. It doesn’t necessarily make for the best cinema, but it’s the perfect formula for box office success while still innovating the tech that launched the franchise into the cultural zeitgeist to begin with.

My Rankings
1. The Irishman
2. 1917
3. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
4. Avengers: Endgame
5. Literally being mauled by actual, live action hyenas
6. The Lion King

Next up: A fantastic slate of stories make us laugh, cry, and most importantly, think. It’s Documentary Short!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Which film do you think had the best effects? Should animated films be eligible for this prize, especially when there are no actual shots being affected? Are your dreams haunted by Billy Eichner doing a Lumiere reference as a meerkat, or is that just me? Let me know!

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