SPI, Digital Domain each have 2 pix in mix

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Wednesday announced the seven pics tapped to compete in February for the three noms for the visual f/x Oscar.

The films selected by the visual effects award nominating committee are: Fox’s “Cast Away” and “X-Men,” Disney’s “Dinosaur,” Universal’s “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” DreamWorks’ “Gladiator,” Sony’s “Hollow Man” and Warner Bros.’ “The Perfect Storm.”

Of the nominees, Sony Pictures Imageworks and Digital Domain both walk away as the lead houses for two pics in the mix, respectively: “Cast Away” and “Hollow Man,” and “Grinch” and “X-Men.”

Each f/x house will next compile a 15-minute reel of scenes pulled directly from the films they worked on and organize a presentation to be given at what the f/x industry affectionately calls a “bake-off” to be held Feb. 7.

The roughly 200 members of the visual f/x branch of the Academy will then vote for the three pics to move on to compete for the Oscar, basing decisions on technique, execution, creative use of existing technology, how pioneering the work was and whether it pushed the boundaries of visual f/x.

Watery wonder

Industrial Light & Magic was a shoo-in to nab one of the seven spots and is already a lead contender for the gold come Oscar time for its computer-generated water work on “Perfect Storm.” In the biz, visuals demanding water and fire are still considered the hardest to recreate in a computer.

Ridley Scott’s London-based f/x facility the Mill rebuilt Rome for “Gladiator,” while the Mouse House’s “Dinosaur” was borne inhouse by its Secret Lab facility. Kodak-owned Cinesite also worked on “X-Men.”

“It’s a tough field, and we’re thrilled to be included,” said DD’s Nancy Bernstein, senior veep of feature films. “These are all great movies and all different movies. Both of our movies deserve to be in the bake-off, and we’re glad to be recognized for the work.”

Pics thought to be contenders but not chosen were “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Mission: Impossible 2″ and either of the Mars pics, “Mission to Mars” or “Red Planet.”

The matter of which individuals will receive credit for their work on the nominated pics is still being hammered out. For some of the noms, more than one f/x house contributed visuals to the pic. “X-Men,” for example featured roughly 12 facilities that created shots for the pic. At one point, many didn’t think the f/x would be completed in time for pic’s release due to its tight production schedule.

Small surprises

Of the nominees, only “Cast Away” and “Dinosaur” are considered small surprises by the f/x community. However, helmer Robert Zemeckis’ respected status among f/x creators and the notable plane crash sequence could make “Cast Away” a contender. And while the biz tends not to nominate animated pics, “Dinosaur” won kudos for its blending of computer-animated characters with live action settings.

While “Hollow” wasn’t a critical success, Sony Imageworks’ disappearing digital human was considered a never-before-seen achievement.

“It’s an honor to have these two films recognized,” said Ken Ralston, prexy of Sony Pictures Imageworks. “I’m really proud of all the artists here, and their work gives us the opportunity to bring on any project.”

The three nominees will be announced Feb. 13, with the rest of the Oscar nominations. The Academy Awards will be presented March 25.

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