Friday, February 11, 2011

OSCARS: Best Visual Effects

Unrecognized - 1931 King Kong
Special Achievement in Visual Effects - Willis O'Brien

Historically the award for Best Visual Effects has had an on again, off again relationship with the Academy. It is only within the past thirty or so years that it has begun to stabilize as the definition and presentation has become more consistent. At the very first Academy Awards in 1929 (honoring the 1927-1928 production years) the co-winner of the first best picture, Wings (1927) also won for Best Engineering Effects, an early incarnation of this award. That category was discarded the following year and no awards related to visual effects were distributed for almost a decade. After Spawn of the North (1938) received a Special Award for photographic and sound effects the Academy created a Special Effects category the following year. From 1939 to 1963 the award honored both achievements in visual effects, as well as sound effects. During the following eight years (1963 – 1971) the award split, creating two separate categories, but still remained competitive until 1972 when it became a Special Achievement award given to a single film for its specific accomplishments.

In 1977 the category became competitive once again with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) facing off against the revolutionary Star Wars (1977). In 1978 it retuned to a Special Achievement Award honoring Superman (1978), and then turned back into a competition for 1979, then back to S.A. in 1980 honoring The Empire Strike Back (1980) then back to competition for 1981-82, then back to S.A. in 1983 honoring Return of the Jedi (1983) and finally settled as a competitive category in 1984, except for 1990 when it was a S.A. Award, honoring Total Recall (1990). Clearly the Academy had a little bit of trouble making up its mind on the significance of these accomplishments.

In the realm of visual special effects there are basically two periods: before Star Wars and after Star Wars. Before Star Wars launched the visual effects renaissance many films honored in this category achieved nothing a talented kid in his garage couldn’t do today. They relied on forced perspective, miniatures, (stop motion) animation, rear screen projection, animatronics, matte paintings, and other rudimentary effects. In the span of fifty years, between the first awards show and 1977, little progress had been made in this feature of filmmaking. The most significant advancement in the field had been Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Kubrick himself won his only Academy Award for the special effects featured in the film. Still, the shots were very static. The audience simply watched the ships move through space. Star Wars allowed the audience to move with the ships completely revolutionizing the film-going experience.

After Star Wars, which had been a commercial, financial, critical, visual success everyone in the industry started to rethink their approach to filmmaking. Star Wars director, George Lucas, took his earning from the film and pioneered new developments in special effects technology, allowing imaginative filmmakers to realize their visions more clearly than ever. A whole new generation of visually driven stories of science fiction, action, adventure, history, and horror were being projected on cinema screens around the world. What had once been a practical feat of engineering had evolved into a digital wonderland of endless imagination.

Winner - 1994 Forrest Gump
Best Visual Effects
Recognition for the award had always loaned itself to the fantastic, but now it was geared more towards honoring blockbusters. It was sixteen years before a dramatic film (Forrest Gump (1994)) won the award for Best Visual Effects. As the medium of filmmaking continued to grow visual effects were applied to more than just summer blockbusters. Historical dramas began taking full advantage of the technology to transport audiences to the deck of a tragic luxury liner in Titanic (1997) and the Roman Colosseum in Gladiator (2000). Science fiction and fantasy still reign supreme in the category with roughly 90% of the nominations in the past thirty years relating to that genre.

Surprisingly, in 2005, the final installment of the Star Wars saga, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) was not nominated for its visual effects. In fact the only award it was nominated for was Best Make-Up, which was minimal at best, with most of it being enhanced digitally anyway. The legacy of the film that reinvented special effects was snubbed. It is the only film of the series to not be nominated for its effects despite displaying the best presentation of the entire series. From the opening space battle, to Yoda finally looking like he might actually be living under your carpet, to the contrasting landscapes of Hoth on Mustafar, this film is the most clear vision of that galaxy far, far away. This disgrace is second only to the blind eye staring directly at the original King Kong (1931), especially since both of its remakes won for their visual effects.

Considering the Academy’s history of overlooking the obvious, it is not surprising that this year, even with the number of nominations in the category increased to five, that TRON: Legacy (2010) was not nominated. The entire film is one big special effect, an illusion from start to finish. Much like its predecessor, which took a completely unconventional and stylistic approach to convey its visual imagery, TRON: Legacy only received a nomination for its sound. Meanwhile, back in reality, the best sound present in that film is the score, which the Academy also failed to recognize.

This year's nominees for Best Visual Effects:
Ken Ralston, David Schaub, Carey Villegas, and Sean Phillips – Alice in Wonderland
Tim Burke, John Richardson, Christian Manz, and Nicolas Aithadi – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
Michael Owens, Bryan Grill, Stephan Trojanski, and Joe Farrell – Hereafter
Paul Franklin, Chris Corbould, Andrew Lockley, and Peter Bebb - Inception
Janek Sirrs, Ben Snow, Ged Wright, and Daniel Sudick – Iron Man 2

-       A rich history of honoring practical special effect technicians.
-       Occasionally breaking the trend of just honoring sci-fi blockbusters.
-       Awarding Babe (1995).
-       The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) sweep of the category.

-       Not recognizing the groundbreaking work featured in King Kong (1931).
-       The back and forth regulation and establishment of the category.
-       The aforementioned snubs of Revenge of the Sith (2005) and TRON: Legacy (2010).

Winner - 1956 The Ten Commandments
Best Special Effects - John P. Fulton

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