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When effects come to the emotional rescue

Smaller f/x pix like 'Magnolia,' 'Kings,' 'Beauty' can contend

In a season in which heavy hitters like “The Phantom Menace,” “Stuart Little,” “The Matrix” and “The Mummy” demand attention for their high-tech style, the Visual Effects Branch of the Academy has its work cut out for it in selecting its Oscar contenders.

“There’s a lot of really good work,” says Richard Edlund, the four-time Oscar winner who serves as the branch’s chairman. As head of the 50-person committee that chooses the “short list” of seven finalists from which the branch members select three nominees, Edlund has been busy screening 60 films in preparation.

That effort includes films in which the effects shots are notable not for their quantity but for their emotional impact — “Sleepy Hollow,” “Magnolia,” “The Green Mile,” “American Beauty,” “Three Kings” and “Being John Malkovich,” for example.

While these films may be “underdogs” in any visual effects competition, “They speak to a great moment in the development of effects,” observes Edlund. “They demonstrate that the line between ‘effects films’ and films in general is becoming fainter.” But, he acknowledges, “a few magnificent shots probably won’t get a movie nominated. Many effects films today have such large budgets to pay for R&D that advances the medium in terms of audience expectations. And audience expectations are what drives all of this.”

“To many people, visual effects are sort of like the ‘fireworks’ of moviemaking,” adds Edlund. But he believes the visual effects committee is open to recognizing all kinds of work, not just in-your-face spectacles. “I remember when ‘Zelig’ came out in 1983, people were really amazed by Woody Allen showing up beside Adolf Hitler. It was done so well and so seamlessly that it almost made the final cut.” (“Zelig’s” effects were nominated for a British Academy Award that year, but “Return of the Jedi” garnered a special achievement Oscar.)

Sometimes subtle work does get nominated, observes Charles Gibson, who supervised the effects in “The Green Mile” and won a 1995 Oscar for “Babe.”

“With ‘Forrest Gump’ in 1994, even though the broad Academy membership was wowed by the shots with President Kennedy, the visual effects branch appreciated some of the amazing behind-the-scenes work, which is why that film ended up among the three films that were voted on.” (Its competitors were “The Mask” and “True Lies.”) “Last year,” Gibson adds, ‘The Truman Show’ was on the short list. That was not a big effects film, but the work in it was really exquisite.”

The same could certainly be said for the astonishing effects sequence in “Magnolia,” an overwhelmingly non-effects-oriented film. Steve Johnson, whose XFX studio contributed realistic creature effects, feels that “even though it’s a pivotal sequence in the film and it’s incredibly well done, I think it will be forgotten because of ‘The Phantom Menace.’ Of course, had what we done not worked, it would have screwed up the movie!”

Gibson says the effects people on “The Green Mile” “feel a lot of kinship with the people on ‘Magnolia.’ We’re both treading in a new area because we’re working for the most part with these epic, A-level character dramas.

“We have to be good and also appropriate in tone. Every effect has a level — almost like the equivalent of a ‘volume’ level — and you have to adjust that and make it fit your film editorially and emotionally as well as visually. For these kinds of projects, people hear the word ‘effects’ and they say, “Do us a favor, don’t wreck the movie!’ ”

Even when the more subtle effects films make it to the final round of competition — the Visual Effects Branch’s ‘bake-off’ balloting — their chances may hinge on a simple matter of timing. “It’s almost as if there’s no absolute standard from year to year,” says Gibson. “You always have to remember what’s in the mix for the current year. I always look at the films that don’t get nominated or even make the short list, and I often see films that in a different year would have been the cat’s pajamas. ‘Babe’ was totally unique in its year, and that was also true last year of ‘What Dreams May Come.’ It was a novel way of using visual effects that was right for its time. The winners almost always have something to do with advancing the art of visual effects.”

Richard Edlund agrees. “There may be hair-splitting as to what films should have made it onto the list of seven, and arguments can be made that perhaps the artistic vision of one film should overwhelm the technical steamroller of another. But by and large, the real pioneering efforts tend to survive. So when our three nominees are presented to the rest of the Academy to vote on, any one of them would be a good choice.”

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