Long overshadowed by the creators of computer-generated visuals, Hollywood’s physical f/x community made a strong comeback in 2001.

Proof of that could be seen at this year’s special effects bake-off — the effects industry’s annual event in which (usually) seven pics compete for the three official Oscar noms.

In an unusual tie, eight pics, including strong physical effects contenders “Black Hawk Down” and “The Fast and the Furious” found themselves on the short list, which included “Pearl Harbor,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Jurassic Park III,” “Cats and Dogs” “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” and “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.”

In previous years, there has always been one film (usually that year’s latest entry in the James Bond franchise) to represent top physical f/x artists. With “Black Hawk Down” and “Fast and the Furious” on the short list, this year had an unheard of two contenders.

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What’s more, presentations during this year’s bake-off proved that physical f/x, combined with the computer-generated kind, played a major role in the visuals for all eight contenders.

“It’s always refreshing to see more physical f/x get noticed,” says Neil Corbould, the supervisor behind the bloody military battle and two helicopter crash sequences for “Black Hawk Down.” He previously supervised the physical battle effects for “Saving Private Ryan” and “Gladiator.” “We’ve always felt like the black sheep of the family. We’re always talking about new ideas and how to catch up.”

So what exactly is creating the comeback? Ironically, it’s computers.

Eric Brevig, f/x supervisor on the explosive “Pearl Harbor,” says technological advancements over the last five years have given physical f/x artists more control and precision in the creation of their visuals either on set or when shooting miniatures.

Fine-tuning effects

“Computers are giving us amazing accuracy,” Brevig says. “Now all the technology is so reasonably priced and user-friendly that you can virtually do anything on set. By using computer-controlled detonations, we can fine-tune the detonation of explosions by a tenth of a second. When you’ve got one chance to shoot something, it can’t blow up too soon or too late. Now we know which frame in a shot an explosion should happen.”

Computers also have enabled the creation of more complicated physical f/x on set.

“Digital is helping physical f/x guys,” Brevig says. “Knowing that we can hide the rigging later digitally, what is happening is that we can build more and more devices that need to be in the shot.

“If you needed to get a big-name actor in a dangerous place — on a bridge or walking across a cliff face — you just couldn’t do it. You needed to use a stuntman. Now with digital f/x you can rig a real actor and fly them. Now you can paint the cables out. By using a digital touch-up, you can hide the fact that you shot them separately. With that, you start thinking, ‘What if I can put all my equipment in the shot and hide it later?’ It opens the door for very powerful physical effects that weren’t able to be done before.”

Brevig should know. For “Pearl Harbor,” he used computers not only to set off explosions to simulate torpedo and bomb attacks, but also to control the roll-over of a 150-foot replica of the bow of the U.S.S. Oklahoma. Roughly 60% of the pic was made up of physical f/x.

Similarly, Corbould says 90% of “Black Hawk” was made up of physical effects, with computers helping detonate gunfire and rocket explosions, and control wind and other elements. Roughly 70% of the pic’s first helicopter crash was created on set, with a mock up of an actual Black Hawk helicopter being dropped down a wire. The pic’s second crash was all CG.

“A lot of directors these days would automatically do f/x in a computer, because it’s quicker to do it,” Corbould says. “I try to persuade them to go physical as much as I can. The younger guys don’t know what we can do, unless they see a movie like ‘The Fast and the Furious’ and ‘Black Hawk Down.'”

Some CG artists were irked by the growing acceptance of physical f/x projects in a category that awards the Oscar to the pic with the best visual effects. According to them, the category should solely recognize computer graphic achievements.

But in a biz where photorealistic computer animation is making it increasingly hard to tell where one visual f/x technique ends and another begins, other industryites question whether it is really necessary to divide the CG and physical f/x worlds.

“They’re missing the definition of visual effects which includes physical effects,” Brevig says. “The two work hand in hand. If it wasn’t for the marriage of the two technologies, it would have restricted the scale of the final effects in … ‘Pearl Harbor.'”

Still, in the end, it’s the CG work that won out, with “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “Pearl Harbor” moving on in the Oscar race.

Yet while neither “Black Hawk” nor “Fast and Furious” ended up receiving Oscar mentions, including them in the bake-off signaled that the visual f/x branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences was awarding much deserved credit for a group of effects artists that have long been ignored.

“It might have to do with the quality that we’re pushing for now,” Corbould says. “The transition between visual and physical f/x is becoming more seamless. It’s very difficult to tell what was a visual and what was a physical effect.”