THE VFX OSCAR – FOR IMAGERY TRANSCENDING A TIME OF TURBULENCE
By TREVOR HOGG
An action adventure about rival fishermen was the first to be acknowledged for outstanding achievement in creating Special Photographic and Sound Effects. The legacy started by Spawn of the North (1938) at the 10th Academy Awards would later see the two different crafts be given their own separate categories with Emil Kosa Jr. receiving the Best Special Visual Effects Award for Cleopatra at the 36th Academy Awards. A sign of what was to come occurred in 1979 when five rather than the usual three nominees vied for the renamed Best Visual Effects Award with two being the first installments of major cinematic franchises: Alien (the winner) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Five nominees became the standard when Paul Franklin, Chris Corbould, Andrew Lockley and Peter Bebb took center stage at the Kodak Theatre for Inception.
The past three winners First Man (2018), 1917 (2019) and Tenet (2020) have been rewarded for their ability to seamlessly blend practical and digital effects rather than being pure CG spectacle. As for what to expect at the 94th Academy Awards on March 27, 2022 predictions have been complicated by theatrical release dates being like moving targets with an expected nominee Top Gun: Maverick being jettisoned to 2022 while Venom: Let There be Carnage was moved up a couple of weeks. The only certainty is uncertainty. So here, after consulting a number of industry experts to get even a faint pulse of what might happen when the nominees are announced on February 8 are the best guesses for best effects.
One has to wonder what would have happened if Ridley Scott had not left the original production of Dune for family reasons and been replaced by David Lynch. But then Blade Runner would not have come into existence. Serving as a bridge between ‘what if’ and what actually happened is Denis Villeneuve, who directed the sequel Blade Runner 2049, which went on to win the Oscar for Best Visual Effects in 2017, and got to make his teenage aspiration of re-directing Dune a reality. The story revolves around a spice with supernatural properties, blue-eyed desert inhabitants, giant sandworms, insectoid vehicles, a manipulative galactic empire and a messiah.
There is a possibility that only covering half of the first book, as well as aspects of the narrative making their way into Star Wars, might work against the production. However, the term ‘visionary’ is not used haphazardly when describing Villeneuve, who is able to create epic worlds that do not overshadow the trials and tribulations of the characters. His emphasis on naturalism, which is built upon real locations and sets that are digitally augmented, will avoid the campy and outdated effects that plagued Lynch, and pave the way to Oscar glory for a second time.
What are going to be the contenders that could possibly usurp House Atreides? Marvel Studios has made a heroic effort with the Phase 4 release of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals. Marvel Studios President and COO Kevin Feige has a developed reputation for what are seen to be risky projects that turn out to be box office gold with the prime example being Guardians of the Galaxy, which received one of the 10 Oscar nominations for the MCU when it comes to visual effects; however, the comic book empire that Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko built has yet to see that translated into a win. Shang-Chi features Destin Daniel Cretton utilizing the crowd-pleasing bar-brawling of Captain America with the iconic Vibranium shield replaced by magical bracelets.
The fight choreography is elevated by paying homage to the death-defying Hong Kong action films that pride themselves on showmanship. Much has been said about the bus and scaffolding fights that embody the mischievous spirit and determination of Jackie Chan, which is a welcomed addition to the MCU. As for Eternals, Chloé Zhao follows the Villeneuve philosophy of naturalism and the avoidance of vibrant, saturated colors. She is essentially dealing with celestial beings echoing the Gods of Olympus, with the major exception being that their view of the world comes from ground-level rather than a mountaintop.
Also, banking on the popularity of comic book adaptations is Sony Pictures which has partnered with Marvel Studios on Spider-Man: No Way Home (2018) and gone solo with Venom: Let There be Carnage.
By taking cues from Hong Kong martial arts films, the fight sequences in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings rise above what has been seen before in the MCU. (Image courtesy of Marvel Studios)
For the sheer fun factor and nostalgia appeal, the edge has to be given to the quick-witted Web Slinger from New York City. If Jon Watts can capture even half of the innovative and narrative craftmanship exhibited in the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, that will go a long way to satisfying the masses and Academy voters. Just the thought of the various cinematic incarnations of Peter Parker and his adversaries appearing together for the first time is enough to spark giggles of glee, but is also a recipe for utter disaster like Spider-Man 3 which was riddled with the ‘way too many characters’ syndrome despite being directed Sam Raimi.
For the adult crowd craving an R rating rather than a PG13, have no fear as the symbiote that debuted in Spider-Man 3 has gained enough popularity to warrant the Venom sequel directed by Andy Serkis. The true act of wizardry has been the ability to create the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde dynamic without obscuring the performance of Tom Hardy as a mild-mannered investigative journalist having to share his body with an aggressive and perpetually hungry alien parasite. Undoubtedly, the blood and gore factor will be upped as a serial killer portrayed by Woody Harrelson gets infected and fully embraces the opportunity to greatly increase his sociopathic mayhem.
Godzilla vs. Kong, Jungle Cruise and The Suicide Squad would make an interesting threesome battle. The safe bet would be Adam Wingard’s rematch between the iconic Kaiju that became a cultural institution in Japan and later to the entire world. Interestingly, the original King Kong (1933) sparked the discussion about establishing a visual effects award with producer David O. Selznick petitioning the Academy Board of Governors to recognize the groundbreaking work of animator Willis O’Brien. It is a testimony to how far the digital technology has matured that a project like this required no major pipeline overhaul and the artists could focus more on crafting the performances of the creatures. Jungle Cruise by Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra takes place in an African Queen setting and mixes together the Oscar-winning effects of Life of Pi and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest by bringing to life a photorealistic leopard and living-dead buccaneers. When it comes to The Suicide Squad, what is there not to love about Sylvester Stallone voicing a giant shark that is an aquatic manifestation of Rocky Balboa with a much lower IQ and treats his opponents as edible snacks? James Gunn has done a great job in the past of integrating CG characters into the principal cast, in particular a monosyllabic anthropomorphic tree.
Considering the harsh critical reaction to the two sequels, it is hard to imagine Lana Wachowski returning to the franchise that launched her blockbuster career, unlike her sister Lilly who decided to take the blue pill this time around. The Matrix was lauded with an Oscar, while Reloaded (2003) and Revolutions (2003) were not even nominated despite being a training ground for a lot of the top visual effects talent in the industry today. The Matrix Resurrections brings Neo and Trinity back to life by having Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Ann Moss return to their signature roles. The storytelling ambitions of the Wachowskis always go way beyond the realm of what is physically possible, which means that Reeves and Moss will be surrounded and supported by boundary-pushing technology.
Another franchise revival has become a family affair as Jason Reitman follows in the footsteps of his father, Ivan Reitman, with the release of Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Homages have been woven into visuals with miniature rather than skyscraper-sized Stay Puft Marshmallow Men making an appearance along with Slimer, an ominous thunderstorm, and the station wagon emblazoned with the Ghostbusters logo. Despite the supernatural premise, both Reitmans use visual effects to heighten the dramatic and comedic situations that reveal something about their characters.
Visual effects are not only found in the action and science fiction genres as they assisted Steven Spielberg in fulfilling his ambition of shooting a musical with his remake of the West Side Story; the closest for him previously was the opening sequence in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). There will be no digital doubles or massive explosions to be simulated, but expect invisible environmental work to get the necessary size and scope that will enhance the already gorgeous cinematography by Janusz Kaminski.
For the outlier that might surprise everybody, David Lowery took the time during the pandemic lockdown to re-edit The Green Knight and added another 60 visual effects shots. The work consists of a talking fox, a tree-like adversary, wandering giants and fantastical landscapes done with an indie budget. That in itself is a major feat worth celebrating.