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Picking a winner

In the effects race, big and flashy still beats seamless and subtle, wizards say

The official criterion for the visual effects Oscar is spelled out in Rule No. 22 of the Academy’s Awards rulebook. Films are judged based on “(a) consideration of the contribution the visual effects made to the overall production, and (b) the artistry, skill and fidelity with which the visual illusions are achieved.”

But confronted with more movies than ever containing complex visual effects, what is it that Academy voters are really looking for?

The first hurdle is to identify what is, and what is not, a visual effects shot. 

“Many times people have to say, ‘You may not realize this, but these shots are effects,’ ” says Scott Farrar, visual effects supervisor for “Peter Pan” and a past Oscar winner for “Cocoon.”  

“A lot of the stuff we do now is not noticeable even to the trained eye,” adds Kevin Mack, visual effects producer for “Big Fish,” and an Oscar winner for “What Dreams May Come.”  

Mack also feels the Oscar race is a bit of a numbers game. “I think the Academy still tends to go with the volume of effects,” he says. “They’re going to be most aware of the shows that have a high profile in terms of effects, like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Terminator 3.’ ”

Jim Rygiel — up for his third trophy as f/x supervisor for the “Lord of the Rings” series — concurs. “People constantly ask, ‘How the hell did you do that? Not just technically, but how did you finish the sheer amount?’ ” he says. “I have to ask myself the same question.”

Another factor, Mack says, is simply how intrinsic an effect is to the story. “A lot of being amazed by visual effects is story, and it’s most effective when it’s supporting some amazing story point, like the dinosaurs in ‘Jurassic Park’ or the liquid metal guy in ‘Terminator,’ ” he says. “They’re not just things you’ve never seen before, they’re ideas you’ve never been exposed to.”

Both in terms of technology and ideas, though, it is often the more obvious effects work, such as creatures, fantasy or sci-fi settings or flying figures, that reap the lion’s share of attention over other films that use environmental effects to create reality while not announcing their technological wizardry.  

“In terms of the awards themselves, doing seamless and organic effects is definitely not an award-winning approach,” says Jeffrey A. Okun, visual effects supervisor for “The Last Samurai.” “You actually have to mount a campaign and go out and tell people, ‘There are really 450 shots in this movie.’ ”

Some believe that the best-liked film will carry the technical awards on the basis of its popularity. “I think most Academy members react to how good the film was overall,” says two-time Oscar nominee Stefen Fangmeier, visual effects supervisor for “Master and Commander.” “They go, ‘Oh, I really liked this movie, I’ll vote for it for editing and sound design and visual effects.’ ”

John Clinton, visual effects producer for “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions,” agrees. 

“Popularity of the film has a lot to do with it these days,” he says. Popularity is how many in the effects community explain the 2001 visual effects Oscar win for “Gladiator.” It contained about 90 effects shots, largely digital recreations of ancient Roman structures — and actor Oliver Reed, who died mid-shoot — over the more groundbreaking work done for “Hollow Man” and the complex digital weather in “The Perfect Storm.”

Popularity, of course, is directly linked to B.O, which is also a factor, per eight-time Oscar winner Dennis Muren. 

“I look back at the effects films of 40, 50 years ago where the show that had hardly any effects in it won over amazing effects work,” says Muren, who was visual effects supervisor for “Hulk.” “I saw that when I was a kid and said, ‘What the heck’s going on here?’ Well, one was a success, and the other wasn’t.”

While Academy tastes change yearly, Jim Berney, f/x supervisor for “The Matrix Reloaded” and “Revolutions,” believes “the era of big wow stuff seems to be over, and I think it’s more about the storytelling. Like when (1995’s) ‘Babe’ got it — that is a good example of creative technology to tell a story.”    

While some agree with that, and others disagree, most would echo Muren’s view that the key to winning is to present something unique. “We are talking about special visual effects,” he says, “not just visual effects.”

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