Oscar race leans to storytellers

HOLLYWOOD — The seven films that will face off for this year’s visual effects Oscar noms have been picked, although the Academy has snubbed two of the year’s most digital-effects-driven pics.

Omitted from the “bake-off” list were Universal creature feature “Van Helsing” and Warner’s all-CGI “The Polar Express,” while “The Aviator,” a character-driven ic that relied on practical as well as digital effects, made the cut.

Joining Miramax’s Howard Hughes biopic on the The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ list are Fox’s “The Day After Tomorrow” and “I, Robot,” Warner’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” Paramount’s “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” and “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” and Sony’s “Spider-Man 2.”

U, which also had hopes for “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Chronicles of Riddick,” was shut out entirely. Studio spokesmen declined comment on the selection.

Pics on the list are a diverse group, but effects pros saw a common thread — and a message from the Acad — in the selections. Henrik Fett, VFX supervisor-producer at Look Effects, said, “It seems to be focusing on effects as a storytelling tool, rather than as a standalone item. It’s about the effects being used as just another tool in the toolbox, and it looks like that’s what the Academy is trying to promote.”

“Aviator” used a combination of CGI, radio-controlled planes and forced perspective to re-create Jazz Age airplanes and plane crashes but had no digital character work.

Nor did “The Day After Tomorrow,” which pushed its digital environments, especially its water, atmospheric effects and renderings of Los Angeles and Manhattan, to new levels of realism.

“I, Robot” mixed digital environments — a CG near-future Chicago — with a major character who was entirely digital.

“Harry Potter” featured several digital characters, including its Dementors, who represented a breakthrough in digital cloth. “Spider-Man 2″ was a major step forward in the use of digital doubles for its action sequences, as well as a digital cityscape for backgrounds.

“Lemony Snicket” also used a digital double for its biting baby and extended its off-kilter production design with digital set extensions.

Sony Imageworks prexy Tim Sarnoff told Daily Variety that the inclusion of “Aviator” continues an Acad trend to list “at least one film that you’d include on the expertise of the work not on the magnitude of the work.” Among effects shops, Digital Domain had its name on two films on the list, “Day After Tomorrow” and “I, Robot.” Otherwise the day brought mixed news to the top shops. Sony Imageworks could celebrate for “Spider-Man 2″ and “The Aviator” but was stung by the omission of “Polar Express.”

Industrial Light & Magic is listed as the lead shop on two films on the list, “Harry Potter” and “Lemony Snicket,” and contributed work to “Sky Captain” and “Day After Tomorrow” but lost out on “Van Helsing.”

With work split among many houses on most of this year’s contenders, a slew of smaller shops also find themselves in the running, including Hydraulx, Dreamscape Imagery, the Orphanage, Ring of Fire, Yu+Co and Zoic Studios, who share credit for “Day After Tomorrow.”

London-based shops Framestore CFC, the Moving Picture Co., Cinesite and Double Negative are named with ILM for “Harry Potter.” Some 13 shops have their names on “Sky Captain” alone.

The seven semifinalists will cut together 15-minute clip reels to be screened for the Acad’s Visual Effects Award Nominating Committee “bake-off” on Jan. 19. The three nominees will be announced along with the rest of the Oscar categories on Jan. 25.

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