Oscar Gold 2021 – Visual Effects

I mentioned this briefly last year when discussing this category – specifically the abomination that was the Lion King remake. I think the eligibility rules for Visual Effects need to be updated. Currently, the Academy’s rules simply state that the criteria for the category are quote, “consideration of the contribution the visual effects make to the overall production,” and “the artistry, skill, and fidelity with which the visual illusions are achieved.”

That’s why a 100% animated film like The Lion King could get nominated. The effect on the production is that without all the CGI, there are literally no shots in the picture, apart from I believe the opening sunrise during “Circle of Life.” And because Disney animators essentially learned how to draw better, there was a high level of skill in creating photorealistic animals. As such, it could be considered, even though there’s one glaring flaw in the logic of this system.

That flaw is that in that movie, and several others that get consideration for this category, there is no piece of video that’s being affected. The visual itself is the effect, rather than making an illusory change to an existing shot. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a reason to disqualify a film from contention. If your so-called “visual effects” are just full-screen animations, then you’re not affecting anything, you’re just animating. And trust me, there’s nothing wrong with animation. I love it to death. But we need to remember that words have meanings and just be honest about what we’re seeing.

A production can use CGI as liberally as they want, so long as there’s something real and tangible in the shot for said CGI to exist around. That’s why the Jungle Book remake succeeded (and won this category) while The Lion King failed. It wasn’t much, but there was a human actor visible on screen pretty much in every scene, and a good deal of the actors providing voices were at least present on the blue screen stage with rudimentary motion-capture equipment so they could interact with the young boy playing Mowgli (or briefly in a flashback, the man playing Mowgli’s father). But in Lion King, there were no humans, no mo-cap, not even live action environments to draw around. From where I sit, that means you’re not eligible.

I’ve said many times that I want to attend a “Bake-Off” session by one of the nominating branches in these niche fields, because apart from the semantics of the rules, there’s another issue at the core of this process. It happens here a lot, but other similar categories like Costume Design or Makeup & Hairstyling aren’t immune. The Bake-Offs do their nominations via a process called “range” or “score” voting. For those unfamiliar with the term, essentially the system is that rather than a straight up vote for the best candidates (most branches simply cast votes for up to five different competitors), in ranged voting, every member votes for each submission by assigning it a score, usually 1-10 or 0-9. The scores are then tabulated and the highest cumulative grades get nominated.

You can see the obvious issue here. If enough people collude and decide to favor one film over another, they can not only vote their preference up by skewing their scores to the top of the range, but they can also denigrate a potential rival by scoring it incredibly low.

This became an actual controversy back in the 90s when it came to the Documentary Feature category. At the time, they used a range system as well, and members voted at special screenings. The rule was that the voters had to watch the entire film and grade it on a 6-10 scale. However, when it came to a film like Hoop Dreams in 1994, Roger Ebert divulged from what he considered a reliable source that voters were given flashlights, and when they had checked out of a film, they’d wave it at the screen. Once the majority did so, the movie was just shut off, with Hoop Dreams being jettisoned after about 15 minutes. Bruce Davis, at the time the Academy’s executive director, actually had Price Waterhouse turn over the ballots for review, and he found that in several cases, despite the defined range of 6-10, many films were given a zero, while the films that a cabal of members wanted nominated all got 10s, thus skewing the results. The film that actually got the most 10s of any submission ended up in 6th place because of all those illegal goose eggs.

These shenanigans eventually led to changes in the Documentary Branch’s nomination process, and while I have myriad other issues with their priorities, this one is crucial to at least maintaining an air of credibility. I believe it should happen for the Bake-Off categories as well. I can easily see situations where a bloc of Disney people and their friends exploit this very system to make sure that these terrible remakes always end up nominated for something, even when the target element is subpar. Let’s just have a regular vote where members pick up to their five favorites, and the most votes get in. It’s simple, it’s clean, and it’s logical. And then let’s go further, if nothing else than for my own satisfaction as a person who screams into the void that words mean things, and change the eligibility rules to state that a submitted film has to prove that they’ve affected a shot with a visual illusion rather than just creating an animated sequence. I may have harped on Disney here, but even films I like are guilty of this sin.

This year’s nominees for Visual Effects are:

Love and Monsters – Genevieve Camailleri, Brian Cox, Matt Everitt, and Matt Sloan

This was a fun movie in the vein of Zombieland and Warm Bodies, dependent on the mutations of cold-blooded animals to turn them into giant, man-eating monsters to make it hold up. As nice as the escapism was at points, the execution here is a little hit and miss.

There are some really great designs, particularly when it comes to the giant crab in the film’s climax and the friendly “boulder snail” we meet about halfway through. The team even makes sure to give the beasts realistic-looking eyes, as it becomes a plot point that one could determine the monsters’ level of hostility from their eyes.

On the other side, though, there are a couple that are just terrible. The biggest one that comes to mind is a frog monster found in an abandoned swimming pool. It’s way too shiny and fake-looking, and its overall design made me wonder if the animators’ marching orders were, “Think of the Hypno-Toad from Futurama, but make it a million times more ridiculous.” The sad thing is, given that I’m irrationally terrified of frogs, if this thing had looked convincing, I might have been legitimately scared for a moment. As it was, I found it comical, which robbed the first major obstacle of the adventure of any real stakes.

This is where an over-reliance on CGI can backfire. There were some opportunities where miniatures, puppets, animatronics, and forced perspective would have done wonders. In the more fast-paced moments, you probably want to stick to CG just for efficiency, but imagine how much cooler the boulder snail would have been if you felt like you could really walk up to it and touch it. It’s fine as is, but it could have been so much more without spending too much more money.

The Midnight Sky – Matthew Kasmir, Chris Lawrence, Max Solomon, and David Watkins

There’s not all that much to like about The Midnight Sky, which is basically the fourth straight misfire from George Clooney when it comes to outer space, but the visual effects are half decent. I’m not talking about the spaceship, which looks awful, or even the Avatar-esque new moon of Jupiter that we’re exploring for colonization. While the film is half set in space, the really good stuff is either indoors and/or on Earth.

The outside of the spaceship is comically bad, to the point that I was wondering if they were going to directly steal from Gravity when the crew had to fix a problem on the exterior and guarantee someone dies. And sure enough, just substitute asteroids for the low-orbit satellite debris, and you might as well call the scene a used band-aid, because they just straight ripped it off.

But inside, there’s some good stuff. The quasi-holographic video room where crew members get to live inside a memory for all intents and purposes is a nice touch. It’s not only a sweet idea that generates what little pathos the story has, but it’s just artificial enough for us to know it’s not really there. It’s a fine line that a lot of effects artists have to walk, and it’s great when they get it right. If someone is interacting with an effect, either make sure it looks real enough that we can imagine ourselves in the moment, or make it fake enough for the characters to acknowledge that there’s technology at work.

Similarly, back on Earth, as Clooney attempts to make contact with the ship, the computer equipment makes sense for something we might see in 30 years’ time, when the film takes place. Most of the built-in machines are touch screen or controlled by voice. There’s convincing holography where he can interact with a projection. Those are small touches, but they aid in making the film feel just a little bit more authentic. I can easily see these kinds of computers in 2049. Hell, at the rate we’re going, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them by 2029. The larger story and tech on display is largely a bust, but in these small areas, it works really well.

Also, if nothing else, you get some pretty gorgeous aurora borealis.

Mulan – Sean Andrew Faden, Steve Ingram, Anders Langlands, and Seth Maury

I’m trying to find something positive to say about every entry, even the ones that categorically suck across the board, like Mulan. Here’s the best I can come up with. In a few early fight scenes, the combination of parkour stuntmen with the editors rotating the camera frame to create a sort of Matrix-like angular change is pretty cool. I’ll give it that. I consider that more of a film editor trick than something for the effects team to do, but maybe they’re the ones who ended up doing it. If so, kudos. But even then, the bit gets overused before the end of the first act.

Everything else is utter crap. The stupid Phoenix stuff (using the Greek mythological bird rather than its Chinese equivalent is SUPER dumb) looks annoying and fake as shit. The flying projectiles (arrows, trebuchet boulders, etc.) do nothing for me because I know they pose no danger to our heroin. The little parkour jump that young Mulan does at the beginning to prove that she has no room to grow as a character because she’s already perfect is so poorly executed that I swear I could see the strings lowering the actress.

But worst of all is the witch Xian Lang, particularly her shapeshifting abilities, which are completely inconsistent and make no sense to the plot. But even beyond that, one of her displays is outright insulting to our collective intelligence as viewers. Early on, she apparently kills a messenger and assumes his form. Later, after reporting to the local leader that the invaders were coming, she goes outside, transforms back into her normal human woman form, takes like, two steps, and then turns into a bird and flies away.

I mean, what the hell was the point of that? That’s just showing off for the Bake-Off voters. There is absolutely no reason to turn into your true form when we already know who you are just to then turn into a bird and fly off. Just turn from the guy you were impersonating into a bird. We’ll get it. The kids will get it. Zygotes will fucking get it! This is just an effect for the sake of an effect, and quite frankly, I think it violates the nebulous “fidelity” clause of the category’s rules, because that illusion is true to absolutely goddamn nothing!

The One and Only Ivan – Nick Davis, Greg Fisher, Ben Jones, and Santiago Colomo Martinez

This is a very slight film with not all that much going on, but it’s good for the kids. For our purposes though, it’s one of the better entries in the category, mostly because it succeeds where Lion King fell oh so woefully short.

The movie is about a circus run inside a mall back in the 1970s, featuring the titular gorilla, elephants, dogs, and other animals. In private, the animals can all talk to each other in English, and Ivan can communicate through painting, which is what led to his fame. So in order for this film to work at all, the animals have to be convincing.

And honestly, they are. They’re not as lifelike as in Lion King or Jungle Book, though at times they do look photorealistic, particularly Danny DeVito as Bob the dog. But what they do have that the bigger budget fare lacked is personality. Because this film has much lower emotional stakes and is meant to be lighter children’s entertainment, less time is spent on rendering each individual hair and more is spent on given them expressive eyes and facial movements.

Further, since these animals interact with their human counterparts, we actually have a situation where we’re dealing with real effects, because there’s something for the actors to work with, a point of reference they can keep in mind when performing. And while the animals aren’t 100% realistic, they’re real enough (like, 85%) to let a child imagine they can touch them. A kid can feel like he can pet Bob or hold Ivan’s hand. That’s all the team needed to accomplish, and they did an admirable job.

Tenet – Scott R. Fisher, Andrew Jackson, David Lee, and Andrew Lockley

Do we really even need to break this down? If you saw Tenet, you know exactly why it’s nominated, and why it’s very likely going to win. The execution of the film’s central conceit – the idea of time converging with inverted time – is so well done as to be a template from which future effects artists will draw for years to come.

It’s not just the idea of people moving forwards and backwards in the same scene. Strictly speaking, that can just be done with well-trained stuntmen and background actors. But when the action begins, the high concept gets kicked into full throttle, and what results is nothing short of stunning. People run forward while bodies fly backwards from the shock wave of an explosion. Buildings topple and reassemble themselves based on whichever character’s perspective we’re seeing. Shattered windows appear back in place without a scratch. People fight each other while acting in their own time flow (that early hallway fight was so excellent). Cars flip backwards while driving in reverse. It’s astounding what the effects team puts together in these action set pieces.

But even in the smaller moments, the effects are mind-blowing. The first time the Protagonist “catches” an inverted bullet into his gun, your jaw hits the floor. Because it’s not just a simple trick of the eye. John David Washington could have just flinched his hands upward and with a brief sound effect of the bullet, Christopher Nolan’s team could have called it a day. But no, they didn’t stop there. They created this bullet-riddled slab of rock that the Protagonist can touch and show that it’s real, then raise the gun, then have a hole in that slab repair itself, complete with dust and rubble flowing in reverse, and THEN the bullet is seen going back into the gun, and it’s all done in a split second. THAT is a great fucking effect!

Nolan may be a lot of things, not all of which people enjoy. But what you can’t deny is that in the midst of all of his fuckery, he makes sure to be as detailed as possible about even the smallest of the effects, to make them as realistic and believable as possible, even when in service of a plot device that’s beyond belief in and of itself. From the largest to the smallest scale, he and his team of dedicated artists never half-asses it.

***

My Rankings:
1) Tenet
2) The One and Only Ivan
3) The Midnight Sky
4) Love and Monsters
5) Mulan

Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!

Next up, we’ve completed Week 4 of the Blitz, which means starting on Monday, we’ve only got three categories left. I’ve got at least one new movie review ready to go, and I might have another one or two over the course of the weekend. Then, on Monday, we creep closer to the finish line with the final short category before we hit the last big two. It’s Live Action Short!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Which effects did you like best? Do you agree with my assessment of what constitutes an actual effect? If you met a talking animal, what would you chat about? Let me know!

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