GUEST COLUMN BY JAKE THOMPSON
Visual Effects can be a difficult category to predict sometimes. In a given year, the most obvious of choices will deservedly get nominated. But every now and then, one of the nominees will make us scratch our heads and wonder, “How the hell did (Movie A) get nominated over (Movie B) in the Visual Effects category?” When most people think of visual effects today, they think of CGI. While special effects are mostly digital these days, there are filmmakers who still rely on practical effects captured on set, use miniatures, and employ camera tricks to tell their stories (CGI can often be used to augment these effects without anyone realizing it). While most of the films that get nominated for Best Visual Effects were deservedly nominated, it is important to shine a light on those films that were ignored or forgotten by the Academy.
1982’s The Dark Crystal immediately comes to mind as a Visual Effects snub (despite heavy competition). Jim Henson and conceptual designer Brian Froud created such a rich, alien world. There were no human characters in the film; all of the characters (including the Gelflings, the Skeksis, the Mystics, Aughra, the Podlings, the Garthim, and the Landstriders) and some of the environments (swamps, forests) were brought to life by puppeteers (or rather Muppeteers) using groundbreaking animatronics. Landscapes (shot on location in the UK) in wide shots were complemented by matte paintings. Whatever wasn’t captured on set was achieved optically (this was back in a pre-CGI era). Roy Field and Brian Smithies were responsible for having the special effects teams bring Jim Henson’s vision to fruition (neither has been nominated for an Oscar). One of the most striking things about the film is that there’s no CGI in it at all. Check out the TV documentary called The World of the Dark Crystal for an in-depth look at the making of the film, particularly the special effects.
The actual nominees at the 55th Academy Awards were:
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial – Carlo Rambaldi, Dennis Muren, & Kenneth Smith (*Winner)
Blade Runner – Douglas Trumbull, Richard Yuricich, & David Dryer
Poltergeist – Richard Edlund, Michael Wood, & Bruce Nicholson
1996’s The Frighteners is a very important film in the history of special effects, although a lot of people might not realize it. There was a lot of groundbreaking visual effects that Peter Jackson’s special effects company, Weta Digital, had to complete within a tight deadline. CGI was employed as well as scale miniatures and camera tricks to help bring the special effects to life. The scenes with ghosts interacting with humans had to be filmed twice; the first time with the human characters acting on set and then the second time with the ghost characters acting against a blue screen. Both elements were then digitally composited into one shot using split-screen photography. Blue screen shots and miniatures were also used to create tracking shots over the town of Fairwater. Among the CGI standouts are the “Soul Collector” and the Heaven/Hell sequence. Visual effects supervisor Richard Taylor stated that The Frighteners had more effects shots than any other film up to that time. It’s such a shame that it didn’t get the recognition it deserved at the time. Without The Frighteners, there would be no Lord of the Rings trilogy. Taylor himself would go on to receive six Oscar nominations, winning five of those times (Best Makeup & Best Visual Effects for 2001’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Best Makeup & Best Costume Design for 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return Of the King, and Best Visual Effects for 2005’s King Kong).
The actual nominees at the 69th Academy Awards were:
Independence Day – Volker Engel, Douglas Smith, Clay Pinney, & Joseph Viskocil (*Winner)
Dragonheart – Scott Squires, Phil Tippett, James Straus, & Kit West
Twister – Stefen Fangmeier, John Frazier, Habib Zargarpour, & Henry La Bounta
2000’s Cast Away is another film that comes to mind. On first viewing, I didn’t realize what role digital effects had played in the film (and that was a good thing). Digital tools were used to remove things from the shots, not to add. An example would be Tom Hanks’ view from the beach, which originally showed nearby islands in plain view. Since the story called for an isolated and uninhabited island, those other islands had to be digitally erased. A lot of water effects shots were digitally created, as well as certain overhead shots of the island. Once you realize the extent of the visual effects for this film, all you can do is scratch your head in puzzlement over the snub. Interestingly, visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston was already a four-time winner in the category at the time the film came out (for 1985’s Cocoon, 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, 1992’s Death Becomes Her, and 1994’s Forrest Gump), and has three additional nods (for 1981’s Dragonslayer, 1989’s Back To the Future Part II, and 2010’s Alice In Wonderland). I believe that the visual effects work done in this film is so strong that I’d put Cast Away on the major snubs list for Visual Effects despite the past Oscar love for Ken Ralston.
The actual nominees at the 73rd Academy Awards were:
Gladiator– John Nelson, Neil Corbould, Tim Burke, & Stan Parks (*Winner)
Hollow Man– Scott E. Anderson, Craig Hayes, Scott Stokdyk, & Stan Parks
The Perfect Storm – Stefen Fangmeier, Habib Zargarpour, John Frazier & Walt Conti
2005’s Star Wars: Episode III- Revenge of the Sith had a bit of a surprise when the Oscar nominations rolled around. It was presumed to be a shoo-in for a Visual Effects nod (like Episodes I and II). When the nominations were announced, it had gotten a Best Makeup nod (go figure) but was surprisingly absent in the Visual Effects category (the Academy gave its slot to The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). ILM had done a great job with all the CGI creation and rendering, especially considering how much more action-packed this installment was. The lightsaber duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan was a definite visual effects highlight, as was an amputated Anakin being burned alive. This was definitely one of the most surprising snubs in a year that saw a lot of unusual snubs. Visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett is a two-time nominee, having been nominated for 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and 2009’s Star Trek. He has yet to win.
The actual nominees at the 78th Academy Awards were:
King Kong – Richard Taylor, Joe Letteri, Brian Van’t Hul, & Christian Rivers (*Winner)
War of the Worlds – Dennis Muren, Pablo Helman, Randal M. Dutra, & Daniel Sudick
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – Dean Wright, Bill Westenhofer, Jim Berney, & Scott Farrar
2009’s Watchmen was a surprising snub despite the fact that it was a competitive category that year. A ton of CG work clearly went into bringing Dr. Manhattan to life (Billy Crudup supplied the motion capture performance), as well as complementing the production design in recreating the different eras shown in the film. The Mars scenes, Rorschach’s mask, and the villainous master plan (and aftermath) are also great examples of the terrific effects work that went into the film. Practical effects were captured on set, then complemented with CGI. Had the film been a bigger hit, I’m sure there would’ve been a bigger push for it when awards seasons came around. Visual effects supervisor John “DJ” Des Jardin has yet to be nominated for an Oscar.
The actual nominees at the 82nd Academy Awards were:
Avatar – Joe Letteri, Stephen Rosenbaum, Richard Baneham, & Andrew R. Jones (*Winner)
Star Trek – Roger Guyett, Russell Earl, Paul Kavanagh, & Burt Dalton
District 9 – Dan Kaufman, Peter Muyzers, Robert Habros, & Matt Aitken
Other films that were considered include 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, 1985’s Legend, and 2007’s Spider-Man 3.