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With 'Caribbean' and four other effects noms, could this be ILM's year?

It’s been five years since Industrial Light & Magic last won an Oscar for visual effects, the longest drought in the f/x behemoth’s history. Will 2003 break the losing streak, or will George Lucas’ troops again be overrun by hobbits?

The shop’s contenders are a strong bunch, either lauded by techies for their advancements, or loved at the box office by the public — and sometimes even managing the neat trick of receiving both critical and widespread plaudits.

ILM’s 2003 slate included “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Peter Pan,” “Master and Commander,” “The Hulk” and “Terminator 3.”

But with the “Lord of the Rings” series winning the past two years — and by association, New Zealand f/x house Weta Digital — the odds are in the favor of a Tolkien trifecta this year.

But that doesn’t faze Jim Morris, president of ILM parent Lucas Digital.

“2003 was a good and diverse year for visual effects,” he says. “There were a lot of films that were released, and that’s always a good thing overall for our business … but I thought ‘Master and Commander’ was the most impressive film because of all the invisible effects.”

However, it was another seafaring yarn, “Pirates of the Caribbean,” that made waves at the box office with a take of $305.2 million to date. While Johnny Depp’s performance as Captain Jack Sparrow has been widely praised, the effects were a noteworthy co-star, especially the moonlit pirate skeletons — and the freaky, shrieky skeletal monkey.

“There’s something about those that people really like,” Morris says. “The  real test of if the effects are working is if it feels like the film’s interrupted. In ‘Pirates,’ when you see people turning into skeletons, it doesn’t even make you blink. The dramatic thrust pushes it forward.”

Meanwhile, ILM’s most recently released contender is “Peter Pan.” F/x supervisor Scott Farrar says the challenge was to give a nod to previous versions of the J.M. Barrie tale while innovating the look of familiar story elements.

“All the ideas in the movie originally sprung from a scrapbook that P.J. (Hogan, the helmer) had put together with late turn-of-the-century paintings, works from the Victorians and the Renaissance, Maxfield Parrish and drawings and watercolors of fairies,” Farrar says. “P.J. loves saturated color and we arrived at a look that was both painterly and photorealistic.”  

And much like the other branches of the Academy, the visual effects wing tends to grant kudos in cycles — so perhaps it’s time for something both artistic and technical like “Peter Pan.”

“If you take a look over the awards in the past years, on one hand you see a film like ‘Gladiator’ that is more in the ‘Master and Commander’ vein,” Morris says. ‘Then you have something like ‘What Dreams May Come.’ There is a sense of ‘What’s in fashion, what’s new and different that we haven’t seen in a while?’ “

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