Reels showcase work in Oscar race

What’s the most important ingredient when prepping for the perfect bake-off? It’s got to be the reel thing, baby.

In early February, Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences members from the visual effects, sound editing and makeup divisions gather for their annual bake-offs, where a short reel spotlighting the relevant work is shown. The events decide the final Oscar nominations for their respective categories.

The centerpiece of these festive and energy-charged evenings is the screening of the reels which “represent the work, imagination and creativity of the artist nominated,” says Don Hall, chair of the sound editors rules committee.

First impressions

“A reel is real important to making the final three (nominations),” quips Richard Edlund, chair of the visual effects executive committee. “They are like trailers. They need to be very dynamic and spectacular. People may not have seen a certain movie in theaters because it didn’t seem like something they would have liked. So when they watch the reel, they are seeing the effects for the first time.”

Essentially, the reels are a series of clips taken from a release print and cannot contain any behind-the-scenes footage. They vary in length, according to Academy rules.

For all of their importance to the bake-offs, reels are cobbled together rather quickly. In January, committees announce a short list of films that members consider outstanding achievements in their fields. After the individuals responsible for the achievement are determined, they are sent a letter requesting a reel for the bake-off in February, as well as other material to explain the specific accomplishment.

The individual then contacts an editor as well as the studio. They select the scenes they want, working from an old print or from video, but they try to use a pristine print to assemble sequences for actual submission. The entire process usually takes about a week. Total cost depends on the time invested.

Sounds pretty straightforward, but according to Edlund, who has won Oscars for his work on “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” among others, reels are more than just a series of shots.

“There is a definite art to putting the reel together,” he says. “Pacing is very important. You have to have a little live action to build up into the climax of the effect.”

“The reels that are put together well have a flow to them,” Hall explains. “They can’t just be pieced together for the sound sequences. You have to think of it from both the audio and visual standpoint.”

Team work

To create a fluidity that fully expresses the artistry, the production of the reel needs to be a collaborative effort.

“If it’s just an editor putting a reel together, he may pick segments that he thinks are really fabulous but have nothing to do with makeup,” says Richard Engelman, chair of the makeup awards rules committee.

However, according to Edlund, it’s not only what’s on a reel that matters when winning over an audience — the order in which it’s screened can also make a difference.

“It’s nice not to have to go first or follow a tough act,” Edlund says about the luck of the draw.

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