Behind The Illusion

As of Tuesday, Feb. 14, the world will know the three nominees for the Academy Award in the visual effects category. But most people will not know that seven pictures were considered for the honor, or that the nominees were chosen on a single extraordinary night.

The singularity of the evening was chiefly due to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ announcement that branch status has now been accorded to the org’s visual effects members, giving further proof, if such was needed, that f/x have become the new movie stars (see story, page 22).

But even without the announcement, the evening was a spectacular entertainment, although the annual affair is attended chiefly by those in the field and cognoscenti. The annual nominating convocation for the visual effects Oscars attracts the world’s foremost practitioners of motion picture illusion.

Indeed, watching f/x heavies such as Stan Winston, James Cameron, Jan De Bont and John Frazier mill about the crowded lobby of the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater Feb. 9, it was clear that had a bomb exploded, it would be a long time before you’d see a movie in which a bomb exploded.

Although not open to the public, this year’s event attracted more non-Academy members than ever, mostly invited guests, nearly filling the theater’s 1,000 seats.

“I brought nine people myself,” said John Bruno, on hand to introduce selection from “True Lies,” the James Cameron-directed film for which Bruno was the visual effects supervisor.

The evening’s purpose is for the members of the Academy’s visual effects committee (just recognized as a branch) to choose a maximum of three films from seven finalists as having the best visual effects for the year.

The producers put together 15-minute reels showing off the best f/x moments of their films. After each reel is projected, four members of the effects team describe the techniques they used, and answer questions from their colleagues. Then ballots are marked and deposited with Price Waterhouse. Two visual effects houses dominated the 1994 list of finalists. Venerable giant Industrial Light & Magic had “Forrest Gump” and “The Mask,” while “Interview With the Vampire” and “True Lies” featured effects by upstart Digital Domain.

The other films being considered were “The Hudsucker Proxy,” “The Lion King,” and “Speed,” with effects work mainly from Sony Pictures Imageworks and one crucial sequence (the bus jump) by VIFX.

The collected 105 minutes of mayhem and magic, from the floating feather opening of “Gump” to the bloody gore of “Vampire” to the bus-airplane explosion at the climax of “Speed,” drew loud applause, and numerous queries during the Q&A sessions.

“How’d you get the horse in the elevator?” someone asked Bruno, referring to a sequence in “True Lies” in which Arnold Schwarzenegger rides his steed to a hotel rooftop. The answer: The horse was really a robot with a man inside.

How did they get Jim Carrey’s “tornado” moves right in “The Mask”? Quipped ILM’s Steve Williams, “We just got his hint and took up where he left off.” Cloud tanks, matte paintings and hand-rotoscoping also helped, said Williams’ cohorts.

However the nominations go, the seven pictures in contention were notable on several levels, according to Don Shay, editor of Cinefex, the magazine devoted to visual effects in film.

The absence of “Stargate” was surprising, said Shay, considering the range of effects work performed by Kleiser-Walzcak Construction Co. and Available Light Inc. that went into the box office winner.

“The Flintstones” was another noteworthy f/x pic not included. “Maybe people thought they’d seen those effects before in ‘Jurassic Park,’ ” said Shay. The same idea might have kept the new “Star Trek” installment off the academy’s list.

“The Crow” was one more f/x-laden pic not making the finals, though it was notable for its digital resurrection in several scenes of the movie’s star, Brandon Lee, who died while the pic was filming.

The inclusion of “The Lion King” marks the first time an animated feature has been considered in the visual effects category. Randy Fullmer, Scott Johnston and Scott Santoro explained the combination of traditional animation and cutting-edge digital effects needed to create the movie, although the film’s set-piece – the wildebeest stampede – was revealed to be entirely computer-generated.

“Hudsucker,” whose miniature work and compositing were overseen by visual effects supervisor Michael McAlister, was also a surprise. But after viewing sequences involving cityscapes created by miniatures expert Mark Stetson, it was clear why it was considered worthy of recognition by those in the know.

Even with the magic revealed, the evening of peak moments from the year’s most spectacular movies carried such a punch that one effects maestro, when questioned by the audience about one of his effects, turned to his colleagues.

“How did we do that?” he said.

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