As I approach my 40s, I find myself turning more and more into what the kids call a “grandpa,” even though I don’t even have direct children of my own. And one of the areas where I’m at my “Old Man Yells At Cloud” best is when it comes to the Oscar for Visual Effects.
If you’ve followed this blog for the last four years, you kind of know where I’m going with this, but for the newbies, allow me to explain. Many of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters have VFX staffs in the hundreds, if not thousands. Tens of millions of dollars are spent across numerous contracted companies over hundreds of thousands of man hours to create the visual spectacles seen in what are often the most popular and profitable films every year.
So why does it all normally look like shit?
To me, there are three crucial components in good effects, or dare I say, special effects. First, by the sheer definition of words (another of my curmudgeonly leanings), it has to be an “effect” applied to a “visual.” Far too often we get these CGI gluts that are literally just cartoons. There is no actual shot or scene that has been filmed for the VFX crew to then alter. It is simply a full-on piece of animation. And if you want to do that, fine, I’m all for it. I love animation. But to pass it off as an effect is an out and out lie. The most egregious recent example of course was the in-no-way live-action Lion King remake, but it’s a disease that pervades the entire industry. Just looking at the Academy’s shortlist of 10 films illustrates how far this problem goes, as the likes of Black Widow, Godzilla vs. Kong, and Eternals rely on multiple sequences that involve no human characters, no set pieces, no locations. It’s ALL computer-generated. Not one frame passed through an actual camera.
Second, it has to look real, or at least real within the context of the larger world you’re creating within the film. And as a subsection, quality is more important than quantity. Godzilla vs. Kong was a perfect example of how to do this completely wrong. It doesn’t matter if you had someone in a motion capture suit for Kong if the finished product looks completely fake. And in any scene where he or Godzilla got wet, there was this weird, moist, shiny effect that looked ugly as sin. How do we distract from the eyesore? Throw a bunch of missiles at it, even though we’ve had four movies proving how ineffective they are! But hey, boomie booms! Michael Bay’s jacking off in the corner! This is entertainment?
Contrast that with some of the best examples of effects over the years. From the creative use of wind and mirrors to make the tornado in The Wizard of Oz to the dinosaurs of the original Jurassic Park, you feel like you could reach into the screen and touch it. Even though we know dinosaurs no longer exist, and the science to clone them was pure fiction, you watch that movie and get genuine scares because the combination of animatronics and rudimentary CGI makes them feel tangible (sadly, a technique the powers that be decided to never employ again in the sequels). And as mentioned, as long as things feel realistic within context, that’s fine. We’re going to go over some entries with our five nominees that are completely fantastical, but inside the limited world created by their respective movies, they work.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, there has to be a point to the effect. Just throwing shit on the screen for the sake of spending your budget or showing off is utterly meaningless. The effects have to be in service to the story, characters, and environment that the overall film creates. It needs to enhance what we’re seeing, not define it. This is where the overuse of CGI drags a project down even further, because if there’s a practical way to create the same visual, you’re opting for fakeness to the detriment of whatever intent you were trying to get across. It comes off as gratuitous, not to mention lazy, and while that may be fine for mass audiences who want to turn off their brains when going to the theatre, it doesn’t serve any purpose when you’re vying for the top honors of the industry.
So let’s bear these three (admittedly arbitrary) rules in mind as we go over the films that were given the chance to collect some hardware. If nothing else, as long as this category exists, and hopefully improves itself, the longer we can avoid a Best Popular Feature category.
This year’s nominees for Visual Effects are…
Dune – Paul Lambert, Tristan Myles, Brian Connor, and Gerd Nefzer
This is the obvious front-runner, as Dune is up in basically every technical category this year. And that’s for good reason. Denis Villeneuve’s team did something fairly amazing with this version of Frank Herbert’s story. Not only did they craft an absolutely dazzling world, they did so on a massive scale, giving the audience a real sense of the enormity of this universe, both figuratively and literally. Even more impressive, they did it for about half the budget of any of the Marvel movies that came out in 2021, and they still churned out a more realistic, salient product.
As I and I’m sure many critics have argued, the real “star” of the film is its own sense of size and proportion. As ships full of Harkonnen soldiers land on Arrakis, you get a real impression of just how fucked House Atreides is. When the sand worms fully rise from their desert depths (themselves an amazing visual metaphor, as the mouth is shaped like a hollowed out eyeball, so even though they can’t see their prey, they can still find them), you can see the contrast to the relatively miniscule figure that Paul represents.
But for me, the two best effects are the more intimate ones. First and foremost are the characters’ eyes, especially when they’re exposed to spice. The vibrant blue color their irises take on is a subtle, yet crucial aspect of the visual presentation. And as mentioned in my preferences, the effect is both realistic and germane to the plot. The other is the personal defense shields used in combat. I know the 80s movie had a lot of limitations as to what it could do with CGI for the time, but I’m sorry, those blurry, cube-like shields always looked clunky and impractical. Here they’re much more form-fitting, which feels more realistic given the hyper-futuristic setting, and the flashes of different colors when contact is made makes the danger of the battles (be they sparring matches or genuine fights with life and limb on the line) all the more palpable.
Free Guy – Swen Gillberg, Bryan Grill, Nikos Kalaitzidis, and Dan Sudick
Free Guy is a perfect example of what I mean by looking realistic within context (as is Dune, but I’m trying to spread the love around a bit). All the effects take place within the Free City video game rather than the real world, and as such, given that we’re in a purely digital space, we can play around a bit and bridge the gap between the real and the virtual. The film demonstrates this quite well by showing computer screens playing the game as a standard open-world 3D CGI environment, and then adds a literal human element to the in-world simulation taken from Guy’s perspective.
Because the film establishes these bounds in its world, we can suspend disbelief and directly engage with the silliness of cars flipping contrary to any and all laws of physics, or cartoonish avatars mixing with more human-looking ones, or any number of Matrix homages in the forms of enhanced “bullet time” effects that far outshined the actual Matrix sequel that came out last year (and was shortlisted for this award).
My favorite visual was the perfect encapsulation of this idea, the almost Uncanny Valley (but in a good way) melding of Ryan Reynolds’ face onto a tall, extremely muscular physique, to create the half-formed boss, Dude. Not only was the effect itself very convincing within this world, it made for a hilarious scene, one that would have been completely satisfying even without the lightsabers, Cap’s shield, and Chris Evans himself screaming, “What the shit?!” This is what I mean when I say “realistic within context.” Of course that’s not Ryan Reynolds, because we know what he looks like, and he’s standing right there fighting Dude. But the effect itself is believable enough based on the rules of this world to make us engage even further, rather than pulling us out of the moment like so many lesser films would do.
No Time to Die – Charlie Noble, Joel Green, Jonathan Fawkner, and Chris Corbould
I’m not gonna lie. Almost nothing stood out to me as a unique visual in this movie. It’s pretty standard James Bond action, full of explosions, fast cars, bullets flying everywhere, and Q looking at screens. I will give credit that some of the effects are practical rather than digital (the opening sequence destruction of Vesper’s grave, for example, at least looked like actual pyrotechnics), but that’s not all that much to go on.
The only effects I truly remember weren’t all that great, and they were fairly brief moments. The first is the effect of the deadly nanobot virus that our villain deploys against Spectre, quickly killing its victims in a poorly-lit show of blood and discolored veins. You can tell that’s a digital effect rather than makeup due to the speed at which the attack progresses. Other than that, the only other noteworthy moment was during a chase scene where Daniel Craig, using no discernible lifting apparatus, jumps his motorcycle from a rocky slope onto a bridge, clearing the obstacle by over a dozen feet. I only remember that because my immediate reaction was, “Well, THAT was some bullshit.”
Seriously, I have no idea why this was nominated. Honestly, my best guess was that by giving multiple nominations to No Time to Die, the various branches wanted to create the illusion that there was some competition for Dune, when in all likelihood, there is not. Can we retroactively rescind this one and substitute Ghostbusters: Afterlife as a quasi-tribute to Ivan Reitman?
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – Christopher Townsend, Joe Farrell, Sean Noel Walker, and Dan Oliver
While Shang-Chi made its way into the top half of 2021’s MCU output (a very LOW bar to clear), its major strengths were in the story, fight choreography, costuming, and the dynamic between Simu Liu and Tony Leung. Apart from the continued presence of Misspelled Bottled Water and the return of Trevor Slattery, the effects might actually be the weakest part of the movie.
There were two major bits that I absolutely hated. One is Morris, who looks like a furry butt with wings and legs. I’m sure it was included to sell plushies, but I’d sooner kill it with fire! The second is the climactic battle between two of the fakest looking dragons I’ve ever seen. Game of Thrones had a TV budget and blew those cheap lizards out of the water.
Even the effects that looked cool ultimately don’t stand up to any scrutiny. The titular bracelets have powers that are so undefined as to be almost meaningless, so when we get the moment of Shang and his father locking rings, it’s flashy but barely registers. Similarly, the driving path through the killer woods to get to Ta Lo is executed well, but it doesn’t make any sense, as this is a forest that supposedly wants to trap trespassers, yet conveniently opens itself up ahead of the cars to basically show them the way. How does that work? These are fun moments that ultimately serve no purpose other than to look good, which makes them superfluous, and makes me not care.
Spider-Man: No Way Home – Kelly Port, Chris Waegner, Scott Edelstein, and Dan Sudick
Well, if nothing else, congrats to Dan Sudick for getting on this list twice, though he likely won’t win for either entry. This is sort of a legacy nomination, as bringing back all the heroes and villains from the previous iterations of the franchise provides an opportunity to update and fix many of the cheesier effects from those earlier films. Whether it’s Rubber Peter Parker jumping on rooftops or the absolutely laughable design on Electro, No Way Home provided fans with a visual reset button before the film’s story gave us a plot-based one.
But like some of the other films on this list, the better effects were the ones done in more intimate settings. The initial spell that opens up the multiverse makes sense in the grander mythos of the MCU because we’ve established Doctor Strange’s skill as a sorcerer. Ned opening up portals that allow for new allies to jump locations is not only an audience applause break, it’s a plausible-looking (within this world) bit of magic that is again able to build on the character moments for all involved in completely appropriate ways.
And because of these smaller moments, we can go all-in on the sequences that are pure animation, like Spidey and Strange fighting in the Mirror Dimension, or Sandman using a whirlwind storm to make himself a giant in the final battle. Yes, those moments are completely fake, but the film gives the audience enough credit and treats them with enough care to build up some credibility before it goes full cartoon. Stakes and character moments are firmly established before we just fly off into whatever the hell we want. It’s an appreciated touch that no other Marvel film last year even attempted, much less pulled off.
2) Free Guy
3) Spider-Man: No Way Home
4) Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
5) No Time to Die
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Up next, I think we could all use a nice interlude in the middle of the week. It’s Original Score!
Join the conversation in the comments below! What makes a good visual to you? Should this category have just been taken as read and given to Dune without any other nominees? Given the size differential, how long do you think it would take for a sand worm to digest you? Let me know!