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Cooking show

Inside the big effects bakeoff

It’s one of the more public pre-Oscar events. It’s free, and anyone can go, but most bizzers still are barely aware of it.

It’s the Academy’s visual effects bakeoff, in which the seven semi-finalists for the f/x Oscar are whittled down to three nominees

On Jan. 19, Variety‘s man on the f/x beat, David S. Cohen, sat in on this native ritual. Here’s his report.

After this year’s bakeoff, Warner’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” Fox’s “I, Robot” and Sony’s “Spider-Man 2” were selected by the f/x branch. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences’ general membership will now vote on a winner.

But never mind Feb. 27 at the Kodak Theater, when the Oscar is finally announced — f/x pros say bakeoff night at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater, when it’s just their peers judging, is their big night.

“I love going to the bakeoff more than any other event I go to throughout the year,” says Sony Pictures Imageworks topper Tim Sarnoff. “Every-body’s in the same room cele-brating their work together without any of the cutthroat competition that goes on the other 364 days of the year.”

Or as another f/x vet puts it with a shrug, “Once (the voting) gets to the general Academy membership, well …”

Bakeoff night always starts with an invitation-only party at Kate Mantilini on Wilshire — an event that feels like a cross between a convention and a family reunion.

Upon my arrival, a long-time f/x-biz publicist discovers I’m at my first bakeoff and offers to be my guardian angel.

She introduces me around, telling people, “It’s his first bakeoff. Isn’t that adorable?”

“We’ll be gentle,” says one longtime effects chief. I’m not completely reassured.

But I’m in, and soon I’m getting the lay of the land. There are living legends (“My God, I just shook hands with John Dykstra!”) who’ve been doing these evenings for 20 years or more, mingling with newly minted digital artists. There are practical-effects guys, including a knot of fire-f/x honchos in leather jackets, and a couple of ILM staffers who stole a night away from their feverish work on the final “Star Wars” prequel.

Others have just returned from a work stretch in New Zealand and are catching up.

I hear a lot of Oscar buzz about “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Spider-Man 2.” The third spot seems to be up for grabs. Some people love “The Aviator,” others “I, Robot.”

We wander down the street to the Samuel Goldwyn Theater at about 6:30. Of course, with all the schmoozing, it’s nearly 7:40 before the show gets going.

The bakeoff itself is tightly timed. Each of the seven films gets exactly 23 minutes for its presentation: five minutes of introduction by the visual effects supervisor, a 15-minute reel (see sidebar) and three minutes of either additional explanation from the supervisor and their team or Q&A from the audience.

Once the first reel starts, there are no breaks. When a presenters’ five minutes are up, a red lightbulb in front of the lectern clicks on so loudly it can be heard in the last row.

If the bakeoff has had a “Jack Palance moment,” it was in 1998. Going way past the five-minute mark while presenting the “Titanic” f/x, director James Cameron simply reached over the podium and unscrewed the red bulb.

Before the presentations started, film titles are drawn out of a hat to determine the presenting order. This year, “Harry Potter” leads off.

There wasn’t much buzz about “Potter” at Kate’s, but the reel dazzles the aud. Roger Guyett of ILM, the lead f/x shop on the film, gives the presentation, highlighting such things as the detail on the Hippogriff, as well as the intricacies of the Dementors’ fabric.

When he finishes, there are no questions from the audience, but we get the evening’s first in-joke: “Where’s Bill Taylor?” Guyett asks. My guardian angel explains that Taylor is a longtime f/x branch member famous for breaking awkward silences with good questions.

Next up is Rob Legato, visual effects supervisor for “The Aviator.” He warms up the crowd with a funny impersonation of the film’s director, Martin Scorsese. His reel is like a miniature version of the film itself, less dazzling than “Potter” but more powerful. This, of course, is one of the nuances of the bakeoff: A good presenter can sway the branch and Legato is one of the best.

As “Lemony Snicket,” “I, Robot” and “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” take their turns at bat, another nuance of the bakeoff becomes clear: Some pics are better reels than movies, while some are better movies than reels.

If the bakeoff has any controversy this year, it centers around “The Day After Tomorrow” and its visual effects supervisor, Karen Goulekas

After Goulekas and Digital Domain had a bitter parting during post-production of “The Day After Tomorrow,” the shop wasn’t listed on the film’s Oscar submission to the f/x branch. But the Academy took the unusual step of insisting that the submission be changed to include Digital Domain. So, Goulekas is joined onstage with Digital Domain’s Matthew Butler. There are no fireworks, however, as Goulekas is noticably meticulous in her effort to accurately credit the myriad f/x shops involved in the project.

“Spider-Man 2” is up last. This time, Bill Taylor really does ask a question. As John Frazier cracks that the animatronic tentacles in the film “were beautiful, but the only thing they could pick up was their paycheck,” time expires.

It’s 10:40, and the time for reels is over. Some 20 minutes later, as most of the aud compares notes in the lobby, there’s a P.A. announcement: Ballots must be turned in immediately, as the PriceWaterhouseCoopers rep is about to leave. It’s 11 p.m. The nominations are decided.

A few of the branch members and presenters head back to Kate’s to unwind over a late supper and discuss the reels. Over clam chowder and bread pudding, the buzz is already starting for next year’s bakeoff — will it be “King Kong”? “War of the Worlds”? “Star Wars”?

By then, maybe I’ll know my way around well enough to be someone else’s guardian angel.

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