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Lucky seven

The bakeoff contestants are a mix of comicbooks, the high seas and sequels

Given the sheer number of films that contain visual effects in any given year, selecting no more than three to vie for a visual effects Oscar seems like a slight. But the reason lies in the fact that not all Oscar categories are created equal.  

Visual effects and sound editing (but not sound mixing) are considered special achievement categories, and by Academy rules are limited to a maximum of three nominations. To get to that point, entries are forced to go through the process known as the “bakeoff” — a final judging session to determine the ultimate nominees. (For the record, if only one film is deemed worthy of an award, it is given out as a true special achievement Oscar.)

Once the executive committee of the Academy’s visual effects branch has made an initial cut of about 20 films, its steering committee meets to further narrow the number down to the magic seven. While the work in the films may vary widely, the emphasis throughout the process is on fairness, according to Scott Farrar, who serves on the visual effects branch’s exec committee.  

“Every point of view is heard,” Farrar says.  “You have quite a broad-based range of people — visual effects supervisors, matte artists, those more oriented toward computer graphics — and everybody in the room discusses the films and weighs one against the other.”

In the bakeoff, each film is represented by a 15-minute reel highlighting pic’s effects. The reel is introduced by an effects artist who worked on the film, and followed by a 10-minute question-and-answer session.

Even though it’s designed to be a one-stop-shopping survey of the potential nominees, some veterans of the visual effects branch find the process somewhat grueling. 

“It’s basically an assault on the senses,” says visual effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier. “It’s 3½ hours of visual effects, and these reels are loud and over the top and in your face.”

Dennis Muren of effects giant Industrial Light & Magic speaks for many in the visual effects arena when he says he would like to see the category elevated to “official” status. 

“A lot of us feel like we should have more representation,” Muren says.  “We change so much, but (the award status) hasn’t changed.”

“The Hulk” (Universal)
Box Office: $132 million
Lead Effects House: Industrial Light & Magic
Effects Supervisor: Dennis Muren
What Stands Out: The film’s angry green meanie (attention to detail on his digital skin, and facial animations and emotions, considered the most realistic-looking CG human created for a live-action film), fights between the Hulk and mutated dogs and later the military.

“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (New Line)
Box Office: $290 million
Lead Effects Houses: Weta Digital, Weta Workshop
Effects Supervisor: Jim Rygiel, Joe Letteri, Randall William Cook, Alex Funke
What Stands Out: The epic battles; CG creatures, including an enhanced Gollum, Shelob the spider, mammoth-like Mumakil, flying dragon-like Fell Beasts, armies of Orcs and trolls; the mix of miniatures among live action, including the massive White City of Minas Tirith.

“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (Fox, Miramax, U)
Box Office: $83 million
Lead Effects Houses: ILM, Asylum Effects, Weta Workshop
Effects Supervisor: Stefen Fangmeier, Nathan McGuinness
What Stands Out: CG oceans, storms, and digitally-enhanced hurricanes, heavy use of miniatures and matte paintings to enhance explosive sea battles between cannonball-firing ships during the Napoleonic wars.

“Peter Pan” (U/Sony/Revolution)
Box Office: $34 million
Lead Effects Houses: ILM, Digital Domain, Sony Pictures Imageworks
Effects Supervisor: Scott Farrar
What Stands Out: The painterly visuals largely created by CG and on-set effects that bring J.M. Barrie’s fairy tale including Neverland, Captain Hook’s (now airborne) pirate ship, mermaids, the tick-tock croc, and a flying Peter Pan and feisty Tinker Bell to life.

“Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” (Disney)
Box Office: $305 million
Lead Effects House: ILM
Effects Supervisor: John Knoll
What Stands Out: The transformation of the film’s cursed pirates (and monkey) into swashbuckling CG skeletons when exposed to moonlight, seamless compositing of miniature buildings, ships and matte paintings into live-action footage.

“Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” (WB/Intermedia)
Box Office: $150 million
Lead Effects House: ILM
Effects Supervisors: Pablo Helman, Dan Taylor, Allen Hall, John Rosengrant
What Stands Out: The highly destructive truck chase, the seamless blend of CG and animatronic makeup and robotic effects for the Terminator and the villainous Terminatrix, along with the use of liquid metal, alien ships and robot weaponry.

“X2: X-Men United” (Fox)
Box Office: $215 million
Lead Effects Shops: Cinesite, Rhythm + Hues, Kleiser-Walczak
Effects Supervisors: Mike Fink, Stephen Rosenbaum, Richard Hollander, Mike Vezina
What Stands Out: Nightcrawler’s “bamfing” teleportations, Mystique’s improved morphing maneuvers, the Cerebro sequences, the dogfight between the X-Jet and F-16s through tornadoes, Pyro’s flame fight with police, the invasion at Professor X’s mansion/school.

(All domestic B.O. figures are as of Jan. 5)

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