The chairman of the visual effects branch committee has seen it all

It might sound like a trivial affair, but the visual effects bakeoff is serious business.

And Richard Edlund, chair of the executive committee of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ effects branch, says the process is foolproof.

“The Academy does a pretty good job (of selecting the nominees) every year, and people have a great deal of respect for the judgment of those who make the movies.

“Before (the vote) goes to the general body of the Academy, it’s in the branch committee in the nominating process. I’ve always considered the nominations as important as the Oscar because they come from your peers who understand what you did.”

Most of the 40 or so f/x pros who comprise the nominating body have been around for a long time and know each other well. The group had to consider a long list of some 250 qualifying movies and narrow it down at a meeting at the Academy’s boardroom to 12 movies by the end of 2003.

“We did go through all those movies. There’s a discussion about it,” Edlund says. “At the end, we wound up with 40 that had laudable visual effects, so that’s our long list. Then the people who spoke up for (each title) the first time will say, ‘it had some nice stuff in it but it doesn’t warrant inclusion in the shortlist’ — which wound up being 19 films.

“Those are voted on by the group, a hand vote. We then take a secret ballot and everybody picks 10 movies that they feel should be in the bakeoff. PricewaterhouseCoopers then takes the ballot box to their secret dungeon and tallies the score and we all find out what our vote was the next day.”

This go-round was the first time in a while that the members of the visual effects branch were surprised at the result, Edlund says. When the smoke had cleared, no Wachowski brothers film was among the final seven, and that surprised even Edlund.

“The feeling was that the second one (‘Matrix Reloaded’) had more effects than the third one (‘Revolutions’) and the studio backed the third one. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”

The branch committee met Jan. 21 at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater and narrowed the seven contenders to three — “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” and “The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”

In the process, the effects supervisor on each of the seven contenders presents a reel. “Everybody cuts the reels like trailers,” says Edlund, “but everybody’s limited to a 10-minute piece with a five-minute introduction by the visual effects supervisor. What’s on the screen speaks for itself.

“At the end of the evening, all the members of the branch will then pick their three nominees in their favorite order and then those ballots are turned over to PricewaterhouseCoopers and out of those we have three nominees.”

Edlund would like to see the category increased to five nominees. After all, since the inception of the award nine years ago, the number of visual f/x shots in most films has increased.

“There are movies today that rely very heavily on visual effects and they have upwards of 1,000 shots,” Edlund says. “If you read the post-production credits you have maybe a few hundred people involved with the movie for months longer than it took to shoot it.

“And it’s not necessarily the number of shots. We look at it from the filmmaker’s standpoint. Look back at ‘Gladiator,’ for example, which had a hundred shots — and won. It was up against movies like ‘Dinosaur’ that had 1,100 shots. It’s not the number of shots. It’s the fidelity of the shots, how the shots served the movie.”

And that is why “Master and Commander” with fewer than 400 visual effects shots, could very well triumph over “The Return of the King” and its 1,150.

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