Oscar Blitz 2023 – Visual Effects

Thirty years ago, one of the greatest effects-driven films ever made was released upon an adoring public, and that was Jurassic Park. The expert combination of animatronics and relatively new digital CGI executed by the late, great Stan Winston ushered in an entirely new era of movie magic, where special effects could almost become the movie itself rather than just a bonus feature.

It was also the beginning of the end for practical effects, as production costs and let’s just say it, creative laziness, shifted the focus to CGI. In 1994, Jurassic Park won the Oscar for Visual Effects, and there were a few more highlights in the decade that followed, with Forrest Gump employing expert editing techniques to insert the title character into historical archive footage, Titanic using a great mix of CGI and scale models, and the Lord of the Rings series taking home the prize with all three entries in the trilogy thanks to innovative motion-capture and forced perspective photography.

And now we have this.

Take a good, long look, America. We let this happen.

If you are blissfully ignorant as to what this is, let me shatter your inner peace. This is a screengrab from the latest Marvel film, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, featuring Corey Stoll, the villain killed at the end of the first Ant-Man movie, resurrected and bastardized as the cyborg death merchant, M.O.D.O.K. Stoll’s face is completely warped around nothingness to create something straight out of an art school nightmare, with tiny CGI limbs, a CGI chair/floating platform, all set against a background that is not only 100% CGI, it’s playing on a screen on a soundstage that the non-cartoon actors have to perform in front of while pretending this isn’t all someone’s idea of a sick joke.

This is how far visual effects have fallen. This latest MCU disaster had an estimated price tag of $130 million, and most films in the franchise reach $200 million. And THAT is what we got for our money. Nine figures of total spending… for that.

It was entirely predictable and preventable. After those last few examples of high quality in the 90s and 00s, the definition of “visual effects” was transformed along with the budget priorities of the major studios. Starting with Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong, the term changed to just being about whatever computer animated nonsense could be put on the screen. In many cases, there didn’t even have to be a physical shot of film to affect. The effect became the visual rather than the result of a creative vision and the work of talented artists to change a visual.

And this isn’t me just bitching about blockbusters. Films I enjoyed immensely, and even advocated for as Best Picture in their given years (Avatar, Inception, Hugo) have fallen prey. It’s gotten so bad that utterly terrible movies that shouldn’t even exist (The Lion King remake) outright lie to audiences and Academy voters by trying to pass off wholly animated works as somehow eligible for this prize, and what’s worse, it works and they get nominated. We’ve reached the point that CGI has not only become the default for effects-driven media, but it’s even beginning to substitute for actual filmmaking.

Maybe I’m being pedantic, but I’m still a stickler for the basic definitions of words that we as a society have all agreed to. In order to have an “effect,” you need to have a “cause,” which in this case, is the existence of an actual shot to alter. Otherwise, it’s just a cartoon, and if you’re going to spend $200 million on a cartoon, they should be way the hell better than what Disney thinks passes for M.O.D.O.K. Here’s hoping the Academy recognizes this fact sooner rather than later and we get a return to the form of true innovation. We get occasional flashes of brilliance (Dune, Tenet, etc.) but they need to be the rule, not the exception.

Anyway, that’s my rant to make sure I have a sufficiently lengthy preamble to what should be the most obvious result of the entire Oscar ceremony this go-round.

This year’s nominees for Visual Effects are…

All Quiet on the Western Front – Frank Petzold, Viktor Müller, Markus Frank, and Kamil Jafar

I complained yesterday that the Cinematography of this version of All Quiet was largely a ripoff of what Roger Deakins did in 1917, and when it comes to Visual Effects, we have the same thieving shenanigans. The film employs the exact same techniques used in that previous World War I epic, and several other war movies of the modern era before it. Battlefields are made to look bigger than the actual set thanks to green screens. Explosions in the distance create the illusion of devastation without having to use real pyrotechnics. The sky and weather are artificially created to set a mood and to cover up cranes and other production equipment visible in the frame (and also to make sure that when people like me bitch about it, we’re literally old men yelling at clouds). Flames made entirely of CGI engulf soldiers composited onto the screen long after the actor has left the shot. Blood spatters erupt from head and body wounds via computer because pop capsules are apparently a thing of the past.

It’s all been done before, and by much better films. I give the team credit that it all looks realistic enough, but that’s not saying all that much when there’s basically a template for it at this point. I hate to beat a dead horse, especially when talking about a film where CGI horses are killed rather than training live animals, but look at something like Jurassic Park. That film is almost 30 years old, and the effects are so lifelike that they hold up today. Will anything in All Quiet hold up beyond next year? Does anyone even care? Moving on.

Avatar: The Way of Water – Joe Letteri, Richard Baneham, Eric Seindon, and Daniel Barrett

The bulk of the team from the first Avatar film returns for the sequel, and this is the one franchise where I can genuinely say that despite all the CGI, they’re doing things properly. As I’ve said numerous times, I and the dictionary define the words “visual” and “effects” as alterations made to an already existing piece of media, meaning there has to be a visual in order to have an effect.

Well, when it comes to Avatar, James Cameron’s people demonstrate that exact principle. The images aren’t created out of whole cloth (or whole code as it were), but are instead drawn and modeled over the actors who are performing in motion-capture suits in a space laid out with blue screens and being filmed with actual cameras. There are physical images to change here, and just like in the last film, the end result is gorgeous, especially when rendered in 3D to make it feel as interactive as possible. These completely alien people and environments feel real and genuine, with their designs looking more like detailed makeup jobs than a computer-generated skin.

There were also two added degrees of difficulty this time around. One, there were more characters getting the blue cat treatment, including the villains from the last film and Sigourney Weaver being turned into a teenager far more convincingly than any de-aging technology I’ve ever seen Marvel shit out. Second, the introduction of water-based environments created new challenges for shooting and new avenues for creativity. Not only did the design team get to invent all manner of alien sea life, but given that the laws of motion work differently in water due to its density and resistance, the physics had to be taken into account, and movements had to be slowed down in a way that made sense scientifically while still being compelling to look at. It’s a slam dunk that this is going to win, but given the undertaking and the competition, it wholeheartedly deserves the victory.

The Batman – Dan Lemmon, Russell Earl, Anders Langlands, and Dominic Tuohy

Of all the nominees, this one probably does the most with practical effects, which makes me love it irrationally even though it has no chance of winning. Sure, the film employs some of the standard digital tricks that a lot of films use, like inserting the Gotham cityscape into the background when Batman, Catwoman, and/or Gordon are standing at the construction site, or blowing a fan in Robert Pattinson’s face when he’s in his wingsuit as the background is animated behind him, but there are some real, classical touches as well.

I think the biggest example of all is the car chase with the Penguin. I’m sure there are CGI embellishments along the way, like an explosion or two, but for the most part, the sequence is expertly edited to switch between Pattinson and Colin Farrell in their respective vehicles, stunt drivers on an active set where cars are crashing and flipping, and miniature pieces shot to scale. It’s one of the most exciting action scenes of the year because you know there’s actual debris flying around. You feel like you can almost touch it, like you’re strapped to the hood with real danger coming at you. There are so many different camera angles that the effect simply can’t be reasonably recreated for each one digitally. There has to be a physical background and lighting scheme to accommodate everything. That requires an incredible amount of creative discipline and logistics, which I greatly appreciate.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – Geoffrey Baumann, Craig Hammack, R. Christopher White, and Dan Sudick

This was the best movie Marvel put out last year by a country mile, but it still has a great deal of the franchise’s shortcomings where the effects are concerned. Battle scenes are just pure animation, with most of the shots zoomed so far out that the CGI cannon fodder doesn’t even register. There are far too many cartoonish backgrounds. Shuri’s movements when she’s in her Black Panther armor don’t feel remotely as natural as it did when Chadwick Boseman was in the title role, mostly because we spent time with him in the suit but unmasked so that we could get used to the image, which we don’t do with Shuri. In order to promote the upcoming Ironheart show on Disney+, Riri Williams gets introduced by essentially building Iron Man suits for half the main cast, complete with the computerized in-helmet view we used to have for Tony Stark.

There’s a lot this movie gets right, but when it comes to the visuals, it’s just as half-assed as the rest of the MCU these days. Even in the one area where it had a chance to go in a new direction, with the Talokan people and their aquatic environment, it barely does more than the minimum required, which is especially glaring when put alongside Avatar.

At least they got rid of the armored war rhinos.

Top Gun: Maverick – Ryan Tudhope, Seth Hill, Bryan Litson, and Scott R. Fisher

This movie has a lot going for it as a piece of pure popcorn entertainment, but the visual effects are not necessarily among them. It’s pretty much your standard aerial combat and pyrotechnics, which Michael Bay spews at us in lieu of plot or character in every movie he does. That’s not the worst thing that could have happened here though, because most of the visual profile comes from the cinematography and editing, as we’re essentially riding along in the cockpit with the actors for most of the important sequences (though any planes we see flying in the formation were certainly CGI if for no other reason than safety). Part of what makes Tom Cruise such an appealing actor is his willingness and desire to do most of his own stunts, and because of that, there’s little need for any accoutrements. Just let the camera roll and let the stunt team work its magic.

The real effects come in two main avenues, one kind of funny, one very serious. On the hardcore side, the actual training and mission employs some pretty thrilling effects when we switch the point-of-view from looking at the pilots to looking at the environment. This is meant to be a highly dangerous trench run, like Star Wars but in a mountain range, so there’s no way the production was going to actually scout a suitable location and fly real planes through such tight quarters. For those sequences, the CGI comes in, creating the cliffs, peaks, bridges, and other obstacles, and in a clever touch, fooling the audience’s eyes by keeping the speed up and the camera angle rotating along with the plane, so that we can never focus on one point long enough to fully realize the illusion.

On the more lighthearted side, the fact that this film basically recreates the first five minutes of the original Top Gun shot-for-shot is goofy as hell, but something of an achievement from an effects perspective, because you have to stage the same scenes to either mirror the first film but with new equipment, or skin over it with outdated machinery depending on the shot. The same goes for the new version of Maverick on his motorcycle and the climactic escape that just so happens to take place in the plane that he flew in the first movie, which the nameless enemy (*coughRUSSIAcough*) just happens to have. These moments downgrade the movie’s overall quality, taking you out of the moment for the sake of the gag and/or nostalgia. But from a design and effects standpoint, it’s worth acknowledging the quality.

My Rankings:
1) Avatar: The Way of Water
2) The Batman
3) Top Gun: Maverick
4) All Quiet on the Western Front
5) Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

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

Up Next, we started the week with cartoons, and I just discussed cartoons masquerading as effects tonight, so fuck it, let’s go for the trifecta! It’s Animated Feature!

Join the conversation in the comments below! What are your favorite effects-driven films? Is your definition of visual effects tighter or looser than mine? Can we charge Kevin Feige with some kind of crime for what this version of M.O.D.O.K. did to our eyes? Let me know!

One thought on “Oscar Blitz 2023 – Visual Effects

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s