F/x coming of age at the Oscars

In the wake of the f/x bonanza that propelled this year’s top five moneymaking movies to blockbuster status, few people would doubt the importance of special effects on the box office. Yet, despite the impact the f/x trade has made at the turnstiles, and its increasing role in the creative equation, the argument could be made that the Acad-emy has been cautious to elevate the visual-effects category to grade-A standing.

Last year, visual effects was granted its own branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and, sub-sequently, rules were changed so that this year, for the first time, three pictures must be nominated for the visual-effects Oscar. Previously, the nominating committee could submit one, two, three or no films as nominees. Other than these changes, nominating procedures for visual effects remain status quo.

However, compared with dramatic advances in sound and visual effects, changes to nominating procedures for the special-effects Oscars have been slight. With the preponderance of f/x that are driving the marketability and shap-ing the look of films, the existence of only three nominees — as opposed to five that are granted in less glamorous categories such as sound, or other creative categories like editing, costumes, art direction and the like — has raised questions in certain quarters.

“If it took 47 years to make a special-effects branch, how could we expect the Academy to make this kind of a change in the rules?” one industry vet asks rhetorically.

“Special effects are certainly worthy of the cinematography prestige,” says Linwood Dunn, a longtime visual f/x coordinator who sits on the branch’s board of governors. “It would be nice to have five nominations, especially with so many pictures depending on the effects, but that will have to be further down the road.”

According to Academy Awards administration director Rich Miller, the creation of a visual-effects branch is its own reward for f/x players and said he doesn’t see any further changes in the near future. “While the crafts are changing, we’re still looking for the same things. The system seems to work,” he says.

Some feel that while respect for the art has been slow, the Academy is slowly evolving with the times. “Considering visual effects did not have a branch in the Academy for so many years, you have to consider that f/x have come a long ways to reach this point,” Dunn says. “Visual effects has become one of the most important branches in the business technically.”

Yet full expansion for the f/x nominations remains in doubt. “Effects have long been an undervalued part of Hol-lywood. It was only a couple of years ago that the award was handed out weeks before the ceremony,” one branch veteran says. “I don’t see (expansion) happening for a long time, even now that f/x is slowly being recognized as part of the filmmaking community.”

Miller maintains that the Academy had a reason for not electing to expand the nominations for visual effects to five films.

“With an award that has a possibility of four nominees per film, there can be up to 12 nominations in the visual-effects category,” he explains. “If there were to be five films (with four nominations each), it would be to the point where almost everyone would have a nomination.”

How it’s done

For the visual-effects award, a steering committee of 40 members of the visual-effects branch of the Acad-emy meet to select seven films from the list of eligible titles. A nominating committee made up of the members of the 150-member visual-effects branch attend a private screening to view excerpts of the films. The clips, which must not exceed 15 minutes in length, are chosen by the films’ producers, who also must provide written descrip-tions of the procedures used to create the effects.

Miller attributes the change in policy, requiring three nominees, to the growing impact of visual effects on film. “The growth and progress of visual effects has helped directors put their vision on the screen,” he says.

A maximum of four people per nominated film are eligible to receive awards in the visual effects category. The producer of each film must supply the names and titles of primary individuals involved with the effects. “It is key that someone in a supervisory position, who also is a hands-on person to the film, is nominated. The names are reviewed by the visual-effects executive committee to ensure that a person has not been overlooked, for example, when a specific craft is critical to a film, but no one was selected (to receive an award),” Miller explains.

Behind the scenes

Insiders are placing their bets on “Twister,” “Dragonheart” and “Independence Day” to receive the final nods given the Academy’s history to reward innovation rather than overall quality of special-effects work.

“There has long been a favoritism toward groundbreaking technology when it comes to effects, unlike cinematog-raphy where the overall piece is recognized,” one f/x veteran says. “Innovation is better in this case than presenta-tion.”

According to Miller, judging special effects remains mainly a matter of opinion. “While it would be nice to have a checklist, some (of the decisions) are so basic. It’s difficult to tell people who work every day in a specific industry and know the work involved in the mastery of a craft how to vote,” he says.

Miller also notes that the two screening evenings have become extremely popular over the past few years, exceed-ing previous attendance. “It may become a problem at some point. It’s important to make sure that the screenings do not become public events, so that those who need to attend still can,” he says.

Why three?

In the final analysis, Miller says the reason there aren’t five nominees in visual f/x is that “while most films today utilize visual effects in some form, not all films use visual effects to the degree that might get them nomi-nated in that category. The list of fewer nominees is proportionate to the smaller initial list that they are selected from.”

Miller admits that there has been some talk in the Academy about the discrepancy, but says there has not been a major outcry. “I have received e-mail, but no one has signed a name to it,” he says.

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