Three for the road

Insiders ask why only 3 pix can receive f/x noms

It might have seemed like a banner year for films with hot-shot visual effects, but some top f/x practitioners beg to differ.

“This past year was just like any other,” says animatronic creature designer Stan Winston, whose most recent creations can be seen in the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle “End of Days.” Not that Winston is pooh-poohing the $1.3 billion-and-counting that f/x-heavy films made in 1999 and now into 2000. More than anything else, he’s trying to make a point. “There are either good movies or bad movies,” says the four-time Oscar winner. “Some require effects to tell the story and some don’t.”

When hoop-skirt dramas such as “Elizabeth” are using multi-layered composite shots for complex visual sequences, Winston may be on to something. In fact, the term “f/x film” may have become archaic. To Winston and may of his colleagues, all films, to one degree or another, are f/x films.

“Long gone are the days when a guy could win an Oscar for a few matte shots,” says Richard Edlund, chair of the f/x branch exec committee. “Name just about any release these days, and they’ll have some complex CG shots.”

That said, the competition for the three spots on the Oscar ballot for best visual effects this year will be intense. “Creative people like to be asked to do things that they’ve been told is impossible,” says John Berton, f/x super on “The Mummy” and CG supervisor for “Men in Black.” “That’s why we’ve seen so much spectacular work in the past few years.”

Many industry veterans also look at 1999 as the year special effects became commonplace in smaller films that used to tell the story without visual tricks of any kind. “Films of smaller scope, such as ‘Magnolia,’ ‘American Beauty,’ and ‘Three Kings’ has some very memorable f/x sequences this year,” says Steve Johnson, the man behind “Magnolia’s” frog rain and “Bicentennial Man’s” robotics. “All these films had some special effects tricks involved in very pivotal scenes, and I think that’s what we’re going to see more of in the future, not just splashy digital work in the big sci-fi pictures.”

To the much-Oscared John Dykstra (whose most recent work is on display in “Stuart Little”), the whole biz is in a transition stage. The flood of powerful software and desktop solutions of the past five years has been largely mastered by the community, Dykstra maintains.

Only recently have people figured out what they can do with it all. “There’s always a certain amount of luck when it comes to visual effects,” he says. “But more and more we’re seeing people who have a distinct vision and subsequently prove they’ve got the chops to achieve it.”

A modest man, Dykstra doesn’t automatically point to his own work as an example of what he’s saying. One of his favorite films of this year’s eligible crop is “The Matrix.” “(The Wachowski brothers) took some cool technology and created a whole new reality,” Dykstra says. With so many strong candidates out there with new and original uses of CGI– “Sleepy Hollow,” “The Matrix,” “The Mummy,” “Wild Wild West,” “Inspector Gadget,” “Stuart Little” and “Bicentennial Man” among others — there’s a strong possibility that even the “Star Wars” juggernaut might miss out from final consideration in 2000.

First, however, there’s the what insiders refer to as the “bake-off” — a confab in early February to screen the top seven films of the year that used visual effects, and boil that number down to a list of three Oscar nominees. The seven are picked by a 40-member steering committee, made up of the f/x branch’s exec committee plus whatever number of at-large members are needed to reach the number 40.

The producers of the seven chosen films are informed by the committee that their film is in the bake-off and asked to prepare a 15-minute highlight reel for the 200-plus members of the f/x branch to watch and vote on.

In the main, members of the f/x fraternity approve of the system as it now exists.

“The bake-off is one of the highlights of the year,” says Tom Atkin, exec director of the Visual Effects Society. Adds Dykstra: “The committee does a conscientious job of singling out the films where there was a unique use of the art.”

The only caveat, is that all the f/x pros contacted for this story would like to see the number of nominees raised from three to five — as with the major above-the-line awards. “I think a lot of my colleagues feel this way,” says Berton. And increasingly so, over the past couple of years. “It’s always tough to pick three when so many films are using complicated effects.”

For his part, Winston would like to take the situation even further. Not only should there be more noms for existing f/x categories, there should be an entirely new category as well–for best achievement in creating the most fantastic character.

“A lot of screen creations aren’t f/x and they’re not make-up. So what are they?” Winston asks. Whether it’s a new character from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, one of the latest “Star Wars” creations or Winston’s own animatronic gorillas in “Instinct,” attention needs to be paid.

“When it comes to a lot of this work, it’s more like acting work than anything else,” Winston continues. “We’re creating characters not effects.”

If recent history is any judge, no one should hold their breath waiting for the Acad to create any new award categories. It has shown little indication that it’s in the mood to increase the number of gold statues it gives out every year. In fact, usually to howls of protest, the Acad is continually trying to find new categories and 86 the old ones.

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