Category to expand from three to five slots

Setting aside a swirling controversy in the visual effects community, the executive committee of the Motion Picture Academy’s vfx branch has voted to expand the number of vfx Oscar nominees from three to five.

The move was the subject of heated debate at last Thursday’s branch meeting, according to insiders, even though the Visual Effects Society and several of the bigger vfx studios have pressed for the change.

The change must be now approved by the Acad’s Awards Rules Committee and then by the Board of Governors. Both bodies usually defer to the branches on such matters, but changes of this scale are unusual, and approval is not automatic.

If approved, there would be five vfx nominees for the next Oscar ceremony.

Move would help the Oscars’ efforts to bring popular pics into the show, as the tentpoles that dominate the box office charts, like this year’s “Alice in Wonderland” and “Iron Man 2,” typically are vfx-heavy.

Oscarcast producers, though, would have to build in time for the reading of eight more names — four names on each nominated film — and probably two more clips in the show’s already full-to-bursting timeline.

Vfx studios reached by Daily Variety reacted favorably to the move. Christian Roberton of Moving Picture Co.. called the movie “really exciting,” adding, “It shows a renewed understanding of the art of vfx and the key role it plays in the filmmaking process today.”

Miles Perkins, director of marketing & communications for Industrial Light & Magic, said, “It actually has a real impact on us, in being able to have the work recognized for the quality that’s out there.”

Several concerns fueled the debate within the vfx community over the move.

Some vfx pros have argued that with five pics eligible, the Oscar won’t necessarily go to the most cutting-edge work. Perkins, however, said, “I think at times you can see that happen in any category. But I think that’s a separate issue. That’s an issue of making sure the voters are educated as to where the contribution is.”

Under existing rules, the Academy doesn’t allow befores-and-afters to be shown at the annual bakeoff or making-of information on Acad screeners. Perkins and ILM favor loosening those strictures to educate Oscar voters on how the process works.

Another objection is that with four names on each nomination, that would mean 20 individuals nominated for a single category, which arguably dilutes the value of the nom.

Those favoring the change note that even though the vfx teams on a major tentpole can outnumber the cast and crew on the set, there is only one vfx category. At the same time, there are two sound categories, two screenplay categories and four for acting, so the number of names up for vfx honors isn’t out of line with other disciplines.

The fate of the visual effects bakeoff, now used to trim the contenders from seven to the final three, is unclear. Given the popularity of the event with members and the public, it’s more likely to be expanded to eight or nine pics than eliminated.

The visual effects Oscar in its current form was created in 1984, at a time when vfx-heavy films were rare and generally genre pics. Over the last decade, however, digital visual effects have become common in all genres, and 20 or more pics a year have arguably had vfx of sufficient quality and quantity to lay claim an Oscar nomination.

Digital Domain topper Cliff Plumer said, “The numbers are important because I see digital production changing the way we make movies. The lines are getting grayer and grayer between the crafts.”

Noting that each year’s top grossers are almost all vfx-driven, Visual Effects Society exec director Eric Roth said, “To say there hasn’t been enough room to shine the Oscar spotlight on a fourth and fifth movie is almost laughable in this day and age. So we say thanks to the Academy for allowing visual effects to take its rightful place at the Academy grownups table!”

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