Acad's new respect for sequels could boost saga's final bid for Oscar glory
No, “Star Wars” didn’t invent visual effects. It just seems that way.Films ranging from “Metropolis” to “2001: A Space Odyssey” left auds wide-eyed, but George Lucas’ epic saga created the modern effects-driven tentpole. The 1977 “Star Wars” won. “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” got special Oscars for f/x. Since then, though, visual effects has become an annual, competitive category. The last two “Star Wars” films, “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones,” got nominations but no wins. That makes “Episode III: The Return of the Sith” the last chance for the Academy to honor the franchise. For many years the Academy was disinclined to honor sequels in the visual effects category. “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” for example, got an f/x nom but “Star Trek II” was ignored, despite good reviews, strong box office and a groundbreaking CGI effects sequence (created by the nascent Pixar, then a unit of ILM). No further “Star Trek” films won. Likewise Warner’s “Batman” and “Superman” franchises seemed to garner less support as the years went on. Effects supervisor John Dykstra says, “In that era, it was perceived to be people cashing in on the success of the original.” Dykstra was one of those awarded an Oscar for the f/x on the original “Star Wars.” He has a theory about why the franchise’s f/x haven’t won since. “They overwhelmed the movie,” says Dykstra. “I felt the visuals were an embarrassment of riches. I wasn’t sure where to look and I wasn’t sure how what I was seeing was contributing to and advancing the story.” But Dykstra says that the overall approach to effects in all movies has changed. “The visual effects do more than add scope,” says Dykstra. “They’re essential to understanding what the characters are about and what the story is about.” That’s helped reverse the Acad’s no-sequels trend over the past few years. All three “Lord of the Rings” films won and Dykstra’s own “Spider-Man 2” took honors last year. Pros understand that, unlike 30 years ago when physical models could be reused and recycled, in the age of digital effects there’s little carryover from one film to the next. As a practical matter, technology is advancing so quickly there’s little point in trying to reuse digital images. Likewise, the creative standards are evolving. “The bar is even higher for you in many cases (on a sequel),” says Rob Coleman, animation director on “Star Wars — Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.” “As an artist, you never want to keep retreading what you did before. And you’re working with a director who probably feels as strongly or more so than you about that. He wants to something more amazing than they did before.” Even if directors would settle for more of the same, says Coleman, audiences won’t sit still for it. “The audiences are getting more sophisticated each year, if not each month, and they demand a realism they didn’t demand five years ago. What audiences used to fall in love with is no longer possible. You have to create images that are even more photorealistic.” The evolution of effects is visible all over the “Star Wars” franchise. The beloved cantina scene in “Star Wars” featured actors in rubber masks. In 1980, Yoda was a puppet, albeit a sophisticated one, and always earthbound. By 2005, Yoda was as nimble as he was digital. And while the volcano planet and some of the other never-before-seen worlds in “Sith” were a difficult achievement, it’s the characters that really make Coleman proud. “In this movie we could really achieve a level of acting and therefore closeups and longer scenes that we couldn’t achieve in (‘Attack of the Clones’).” If the Academy sees it that way, Oscar may give “Star Wars” a golden send-off.