Visual Effects Awards Category Faces Identity Crisis

VFX Guardians of the Galaxy

Effects are now so ubiquitous, it can be argued, that they deserve more than a single trophy

After decades of struggle, visual effects seem to have achieved a measure of respect. There are five vfx nominees at the Oscars. The VES Awards are taken pretty seriously. The BAFTAs give a visual effects award.

Farewell to the kids’ table, vfx pros. You’ve arrived. That’s the good news.

The bad news? It’s time to blow up the visual effects category. It should cease to be, shuffle off this mortal coil, join the choir invisible. It should be an ex-category.

SEE ALSO: Want Better Oscar Ratings? Play Up Visual Effects.

“But why?,” you cry. Visual effects have never been more important and the artistry of the vfx craft has never been more appreciated. How can we call the whole thing off now, just when things are getting good?

Because the very idea of a visual-effects category has become not just meaningless, but downright misleading.

Visual effects now comprise so many things that the category might just as well be called “stuff we see on the screen.” Pretty much anything on the screen is being done with visual effects. Need images of World War II for “The Imitation Game” and “Unbroken”? Visual effects. A fairy tale world for “Maleficent”? That’s vfx. Giant sets? Historical landscapes? Yup. Pyro in “Transformers: Age of Extinction” and miniatures in “Interstellar”? Come on in! “Avatar,” “Life of Pi” and “Gravity” all won Oscars for cinematography that was mostly realized by digital vfx, not with photography.

The all-green banners of vfx protests, proclaiming “your movie without vfx,” are quite on-target.

Lumping all that together as visual effects is like having one category for design, with d.p.’s, production designers and costume designers competing for a single award. It minimizes the contributions of some artists, exaggerates the importance of others, and perpetuates prejudices the entertainment industry must shed if its valuable awards franchises are going to keep their relevance — and their value.

Until recently the one thing that was reliably not a visual effect was acting. Now, though, digital characters can be the most interesting thing in a film. In “Guardians of the Galaxy” (pictured), a film full of satisfying performances, the animated Rocket and Groot are the money. The performance capture apes of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” are the film’s most compelling characters.

Performers need not worry that they’ll be eclipsed, though. In “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb,” a slew of gifted comics manage to share the screen with CG dinosaur skeletons and the like, and they get their laughs. It’s a style of filmmaking that harkens back to Abbott & Costello, and it’s only getting better as the technology improves. And it’s the only contender this year that mostly goes for laughs.

The traditional approach to vfx lives on in other films and genres, too. “Godzilla” is an old-fashioned monster movie, in which the monsters are the stars and people are a necessary distraction. In “Interstellar,” vfx provide the futuristic spaceships and robots, the black hole and the wormhole, all rendered with a matter-of-fact naturalism. But that is just the setting in which the actors are meant to shine. Both films could have been written and made in the 1970s, though with lesser visuals.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” uses vfx to paint an apocalyptic future and display superhero powers and battles, but its vfx are arguably most notable for their loving re-creation of the 1970s. Then there are the fantasy worlds of “The Hobbit” and “Maleficent.” Before the age of digital vfx, those two films could only have been made as animated features. They have digital characters, digitally enhanced characters, digital cinematography, digital design. Again, in those films, visual effects means “what you see on screen.”

I realize that visual effects aren’t going to get multiple categories quickly. I’m not even sure what the best split would be. (Supporting vfx, as at the VES? Or separate awards for fantasy pictures, as some of the guilds have?) But there are four Oscars for acting, two for writing, two for sound. Visual effects are now as diverse as any of those crafts. Awards that favor analog artisans and minimize the work of digital artists will eventually become irrelevant, or worse, ridiculous, and that in turn would be bad for the guilds, honorary societies and Academies that bestow them.

So now that the visual effects award is really, truly here, let’s celebrate how important vfx really are, and dump it.

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  1. Marcus Pun says:

    Gosh, you know that we might as well get rid of cinematographer too since most of the work we see is CGI anyway. Director? Given the CGI content and the fact that most of them are absent from most of the process we might as well give best direction to the intern who gets the coffee for the CGI leads.
    What a snarky opinion piece. For one, that CGI work you see up there is the result of a lot of intense artistic craftsmanship (combined with a lot of detail work in digital sweatshops), both in CGI and physical effects such as the robot arm demolishing a floor of an office building in “Pacific Rim” or the backgrounds in “Lincoln”. It is work that has earned recognition and honor. To be dismissed so easily is maybe the writer’s cry for attention. Ok. you cried. We still find you boring. Write something better.

  2. MG says:

    Thanks David Cohen for this timely piece. More and better defined award categories for VFX work may only amount to a little bit of balm on the sore mess that is our industry but they might help refocus the attention on its importance. The current system is obsolete and the euphemistically cavalier attitude of the studios towards some of their most important vendors is beginning to look not so much like mere neglect and far more like a Roman spectacle of christians and lions. Credit should be given where it is due.

    On the minus side, the Academy is not famous for its capacity to change and the more technical or “unglamourous” an award, the faster it will be swept under the red carpet on the night of nights. I’m not holding my breath.

  3. Touree says:

    “The performance capture apes of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” are the film’s most compelling characters” should read “The animated apes of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” are the film’s most compelling characters.”

  4. Karla says:

    Definitely have a concept art award!!! Every single amazing VFX on every single movie starts out as a painting! We have some of the most talented artists creating masterpieces that no one recognizes or sees . That would be 2 awards right there animation concept art and concept art !

  5. VFXer says:

    If you really want to celebrate how important VFX are, support VFX unionization and a trade organization before the studios greedily destroy the people and shops that are making them money.

  6. Contessa46 says:

    VFX have enhanced so many pics, I’ve lost count! It’s saved millions of dollars for the studios and still they artists get dumped on!!!?? The studios should Insist on multiple categories for awards as there is so much that goes into a finished product. There are multiple divisions of artists and their expertise, not just each supervisor. These important people who are “below the line” are credited after catering, extras, even assistant to assistants!! It’s outrageous. Time to recognize just how important these talented, educated pele are and give them their due. Just sayin…

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