Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Visual Effects

In getting ready to write this article, I realized the Academy doesn't use the Oxford comma, for whatever that's worth. Not much, probably.

Oh, visual effects. Is there any category for which my love has so diminished? I was born the year Ghostbusters and Temple of Doom won. My early years were full of science-fiction masterpieces that spawned winning franchises and owed their lifeblood to the effects - AlienPredator, Terminator,  Back to the Future, and Jurassic Park amongst them. Somehow, these are still all still going (so long as you count Nike's shoe release next year in the Back to the Future timeline). Since, though, there have been too many Transformer films ruining a good thing, too many Hobbit films, and too many blunders in those storied franchises. Prometheus? Terminator SalvationJurassic World? Crystal Skull? No. This is not how special effects are supposed to age. They're supposed to get better! To be sure, now we have beauties like Interstellar, but they're drowning in a sea of Avengers sequels. Somehow, this year, we've only two sequels, both of which are throwbacks to franchises without an entry since the '80s*. Things feel fresh again. Everyone is out there establishing their brand and putting in amazing work. It's a sight to behold.

Visual Effects:
  • Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Mark Ardington, and Sara Bennett for Ex Machina
  • Andrew Jackson, Tom Wood, Dan Oliver, and Andy Williams for Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Richard Stammers, Anders Langlands, Chris Lawrence and Steven Warner for The Martian
  • Rich McBride, Matthew Shumway, Jason Smith, and Cameron for The Revenant
  • Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Neal Scanlan, and Chris Corbould for Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Look, honey! The artificial woman is laid bare for us all to see, just like Ex Machina's plot in the first fifteen minutes! Oh, wait, was I the only one that thought it was empty inside? Whoops. Nevermind me. Okay, okay. About the CGI, though. Ava and Kyoko were both exquisitely and convincingly brought to life, but haven't we seen that all before? We've been taking off the backs of people's heads since RoboCop, at least. We've been plastering human faces all over the place for a couple decades as well. Don't get me wrong, Ava is created with a stunning intricacy. I just don't know that one technological marvel is enough anymore.

Much has been written about how it's the re-emergence of practical effects that makes Mad Max: Fury Road the masterpiece that it is. Do you think the image above just happened by driving a fantastically idealized semi-truck over a ramp? No. It did not. I've said it before (twice), but what strikes me so strongly about Fury Road is the sheer pervasiveness of its world. The audience is subsumed into the film so completely, that you might just leave with a shiny and chrome mouth. Here, too, the visual effects team went to exceedingly great lengths to develop an entire world for your enjoyment.

Speaking of world creation, The Martian has terraformed an entire planet. It would be a standout candidate in another year, but Fury Road simply does much of the same and then some.

So there's a bear in The Revenant. People are pretty excited about that. It looks scary. It takes up a couple minutes of screen time. It also looked a little silly at times. Sorry Bear, you don't get an Oscar either.

After the consensus-disasters that made up the prequel trilogy, The Force Awakens really had to go back and rewrite the manual on how to incorporate special effects into a Star Wars film. Much has been made of the use of practical effects in the film, but if you think the Millennium Falcon had a chase scene with a TIE fighter inside of a star destroyer without massive use of CGI, then I have a bridge on the Death Star I'd like to sell you. The level of detail that went into the sets is astounding, and, with the speed of the movie, impossible to take in. While I've never been a Star Wars fan per se, I have always appreciated how broad of a color palette the films use in their fantasy. Too often science fiction / action / blockbuster films resort to gritty, drab color schemes, but not here. The Force Awakens plumbs the depth of its reality and gives a creation worthy of the franchise.

I am pretty sure this comes down to the two franchise filmes: Fury Road and The Force Awakens, but I really don't know how to break it down between the two. Is it the film that created pristine, perfect set pieces, or is it the film that seamlessly built a gorgeous, thoroughly-realized world around its set pieces? I'm leaning toward The Force Awakens and I think the Academy will as well. That said, Fury Road has had a massive amount of hype around its CGI and could easily take this.

Should win: Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Neal Scanlan, and Chris Corbould for Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Will win: Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Neal Scanlan, and Chris Corbould for Star Wars: The Force Awakens

* You can pretend we live in a universe where the Star Wars prequel trilogy happened, but it's clear The Force Awakens' creators don't.

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