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Threepeat feat?

New Line, Peter Jackson have sights set on f/x trophy trilogy

A correction was made to this article on Jan. 8, 2003.

New Line has already proven that its “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy can rule at the box office three years in a row. But can the fantasy epic threepeat come Oscar time?

“The Lord of the Rings'” previous two outings, “The Fellowship of the Ring” and “The Two Towers,” won the golden statuette in the visual effects category. The final installment, “The Return of the King,” is considered a sure bet to land one of the three effects Oscar noms. It’s already been chosen as one of seven films to compete in the annual f/x bakeoff for one of the three slots, to be announced Jan. 27.

The third installment has maintained the trilogy’s wow factor among audiences, critics and the wizards in the effects biz, with its mix of computer-generated and on-set visuals — an improved-upon Gollum, armies of orcs and trolls, the mammoth Mumakil, the dragonlike Fell Beasts and the massive battle at Minas Tirith.

“Whether we win or not, we tried to make the best picture we could,” says “Rings” producer Barrie Osborne, who also produced the effects high-water mark “The Matrix.” “We did some innovative things on this film. What’s important is that the effects are seamless and integral to the story. It’s not about looking at how great the effects are but whether they support the story and keep you in the story.

“We spent all of our efforts making a movie that’s as good as it possibly can be,” Osborne adds. The film speaks for itself.”

Should it win, “The Lord of the Rings” would be the second film series after “Star Wars” to take home the effects Oscar three times. It also would be a crowning achievement for New Zealand-based Weta, the lead effects studio on the films — a facility that hadn’t headed up a pic’s effects efforts since 1996’s “The Frighteners,” also from helmer Peter Jackson.

While many in the f/x biz consider “Return of the King” to be this year’s favorite, the other six films can’t be discounted. Overall, the selections represent all areas of the effects biz — from physical effects shots created on set, such as stunts and miniatures, to CGI visuals including digital characters, digital stunt doubles and matte paintings.

“The Hulk” is being heralded for its title character’s angry green meanie — considered one of the best digital humans (albeit outsized) created for the bigscreen, when it comes to facial expressions, emotions, skin and movement.

“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” may not be considered an effects-heavy film, but the pic has over 700 f/x shots, features digital oceans and storms, and relies heavily on miniature ships and set enhancements for its seafaring action sequences.

The digital skeletons and the film’s use of miniatures and matte paintings, proved notable for “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.” Advancements in animatronic robots, and digital stunt doubles and sets were featured prominently in “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.”

“Peter Pan” is this year’s entry that features painterly effects. “X2: X-Men United” is singled out as the rare superhero film with believable effects (including Nightcrawler’s “bamfing” teleportations, the attack on Professor Xavier’s mansion and the X-Jet dogfight) propelling the film’s plot rather than becoming its focus.

Should Weta win for its work on “Return of the King,” the victory would mean yet another loss for effects powerhouse Industrial Light & Magic.

The films ILM has worked on over the years have consistently been visual effects Oscar finalists, but the company has had to watch as Weta has nabbed the coveted prize for “Lord of the Rings,” Manex Entertainment for “The Matrix,” Mill Film for “Gladiator,” and Digital Domain for “What Dreams May Come” and “Titanic” in the past six years alone.

This year, ILM’s credit can be found on five of the seven films heading to the bakeoff — “The Hulk,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Terminator 3,” “Master and Commander” and “Peter Pan.”

Making the bakeoff list is really good for morale, says Jim Morris, prexy of Lucas Digital, which oversees ILM. “Because the selection committee is made up of the top guys in the industry, it makes people feel validated for all the work they did. It’s a nice acknowledgement of our work from a highly respected group of people.”

Cinesite, Rhythm & Hues and Kleiser-Walzcak served as the lead shops on “X2.” Sony Pictures Imageworks and Digital Domain helped on “Peter Pan.”

“The Lord of the Rings” may discover, however, that history doesn’t always repeat itself. Industryites had expected this year’s race to include one of the two “Matrix” sequels. But neither “The Matrix Reloaded” nor “The Matrix Revolutions” made the list for the bakeoff.

The no-show created an unexpected surprise and killed any chance of a “Lord of the Rings” vs. “The Matrix” battle for gold. The first “Matrix” won the effects Oscar in 1999, breaking new ground with its camera-revolving “bullet-time” sequences.

With an f/x budget of more than $100 million, the two sequels featured over 1,500 f/x shots, created by multiple companies, including lead shop ESC Entertainment.

It might be argued that this year was too competitive to include every major f/x entry (“Bad Boys II,” “Big Fish,” “The Haunted Mansion,” “Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle,” “The Cat in the Hat”).

Warner Bros. had only submitted “The Matrix Revolutions” for consideration, rather than risk submitting both and having one cancel the other out.

But the Acad has made exceptions in the past, selecting eight films for the 2001 race to compete for the three slots for visual effects.

While committee members would not disclose how they made their selections, industryites say voters may have had a hard time choosing “Revolutions” because the sequel featured much of the same visuals that appeared in the first film, just much more of them.

In the past, voters have been less impressed by the sheer volume of effects in a film and more by distinct achievements. They are requested to base decisions on technique, execution, creative use of existing technology, the extent of innovation and whether it pushed the boundaries of visual effects.

“Ultimately, filmmaking is collaborative,” says Richard Taylor, a visual effects supervisor on the “Rings” films and director of Weta Workshop. “You always want to build on the successes or failures of the previous efforts. You have to be humble enough to learn from your mistakes. All of what we learned appears in the third film. Everything that was seen in film two has been revisited and improved upon. We grasped the new technology and the knowledge that was learned and created something that has a completely fresh new look.”

The bakeoff will take place Jan. 21, when the 200 members of the visual effects award nominating committee will vote after visual effects supervisors for the seven selected films will present 15-minute reels.

The final noms will be announced Jan. 27, along with nominees in the 23 other Oscar categories.

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