Monday, February 10, 2014

Visual Effects

The films carrying nominations for the Visual Effects category are
  • Gravity
  • The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug
  • Iron Man 3
  • The Lone Ranger
  • Star Trek: Into Darkness
These films can be roughly categorized into a few different ways. Here I'm going to separate them into realism (Gravity), high-gloss fantasy (Iron Man 3, Star Trek), and rugged fantasy (The Hobbit, The Lone Ranger).

Working backwards and starting with the films falling into my rugged fantasy categorization, we have The Lone Ranger, which does a pretty solid job of capturing the wonder of the Wild West, a running obstinancy* of bison, and mano-a-mano fighting atop stagecoaches. The CGI generally gives just enough credibility to whatever crazy invention or slapstick joke the writers decided to put to screen. While solid, the effects seem, in this day and age, to be just enough to get by. There are a couple scenes where greenscreening is painfully apparent. If you can suspend your disbelief for two and a half hours and not look too closely, it's absolutely good enough. I don't think they've ever given out an oscar for "good enough," though.

The effects in The Lord of the Rings movies aren't aging particularly well. While well-done for this dirty sort of fantasy, they're no longer crisp enough to lend to me a particularly deep sense of realism. Like The Lone Ranger, they do a solid enough job to convey the imagery intended, but, while better, they no longer engage me in the way Peter Jackson's first LotR films did. Unfortunately for the series, the films seem to have let time pass them by.

That puts us at the high-gloss fantasy films. Iron Man 3 had some truly beautiful scenes with really amazing character interaction. Scenes like Aldritch Killian showing Pepper his brain scan and Tony Stark examining the recreated crime scene are beautiful, immersive, and work around the characters as smoothly as one could hope. The Iron Man suit, as always, works and looks exactly as one might hope. Perhaps it's an overuse of fire in the film in general, but even still I don't feel like it's really that realistic looking of a thing yet. Were it a cheap one-off effect I might not be terribly concerned, but it being the basis for the villains and therefore its high use is unfortunate. Perhaps that's as well done as it gets, but I really hope that "people made of lava" starts to look more "realistic" in the future. Until then, hopefully screenwriters can leave it out of central characters and plot points.

Star Trek: Into Darkness is really solid from the the first scene on planet Nibiru creating a wholly immersive topography that's really a pleasure to see. The visual effects are quite well done throughout, especially - as Star Trek deserves - the space scenes. There perhaps aren't the highlights of character immersion as in Iron Man 3, but there are a vast number of other very well done scenes from planets to space ships to cataclysms.

Then there's the present-day Gravity which works tirelessly to get us to believe we're firmly grounded in reality. The technical aspects of the spaceships' abilities, the plot feasibility, and much else are less than accurate. The look and feel of earth, satellites, space walks, and what it's like to look out of a visor however are remarkably spot on. The opening sequence of Gravity is the first time I've been held breathless during a film since the first space scene of The Fountain. This film doesn't have the uniqueness of effects that The Fountain had or the grand sets props of any of the aforementioned films, but it painstakingly recreates something that few people on earth have any actual experience with and does it with such an honesty that several astronauts have lauded it.

To me, the argument really comes down to the high-gloss fantasy and the realism film. Iron Man 3 and Star Trek are both very good at what they do each creating a sense of realism that's truly a joy to watch. To me, though, Gravity's ability to so accurately recreate the beauty of space and the wisdom of Cuaron to let that beauty linger really set it above the other films. Gravity may be the most truthful representation of space we have, and I'll happily say those are the best visual effects this year. Do I think the Academy voters will agree? I hope so, but honestly I don't feel confident in that. While Gravity is stunning, I think it might not be flashy enough for the Academy. If I had to hazard a guess I'd pin it on Star Trek. I think Iron Man being a third iteration (fourth if we count The Avengers) works against it, and also the less than fortunate effects aren't buoyed well enough by the grand spectacles.

While I like Gravity an awful lot, I won't be terribly disappointed to see Star Trek take home the prize.

*Because when a group of animals is called an "obstinancy" you find a way to use it.

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