Craft kudos cast wide net

Going way beyond Oscar's single trophy, fledgling VES Awards gain stature in f/x biz

TIP SHEET
WHAT: Third annual VES Awards
WHEN: Feb. 16
WHERE: Hollywood Palladium

Applying the scale of human development, Sony Imageworks topper Tim Sarnoff estimates that the visual effects craft and its fledgling trade org, the Visual Effects Society, are in their teenage years.

“Teenagers never feel they’re irrelevant, it’s the people around them that do,” he quips.

Sure, the Visual Effects Society Awards — handed out for only the third time Feb. 16 — don’t carry the same kind of industrywide weight that the kudos of other more established trade orgs do. But with 19 trophies honoring everything from visual f/x in TV commercials to those in videogames, they’re already very relevant to f/x pros.

“This business is filled with hundreds of people who’ve spent years of their lives doing this,” Sarnoff says. “It’s hard to be cynical about this (awards show). It has the potential to be great.”

Actually, it’s more than hundreds of people. Currently, the 8-year-old VES has 1,150 members, up 22% since veteran Los Angeles city politico Eric Roth took over as executive director of the society in the middle of last year.

Armed with a small staff of mostly interns and the “rap” befitting a former Los Angeles City Hall chief of staff, Roth has spent his time barnstorming film festivals, screenings, and just about every other networking function imaginable. Part of the job is teaching the industry at large common f/x craft terms such as “compositing” and “matte painting,” but also to hammer home the message that “a larger percentage of every entertainment dollar is going into visual effects these days.”

As a society with no guild-like intention of getting involved with any kind of organized labor movement, establishing standards and practices for the developing f/x industry is among the VES’ core tasks. But promotion of the craft in general is Job 1.

“The organization was going through some growing pains, and they asked me — someone with decent management skills — to take it to the next level,” Roth says.

Of course, building up the kudofest fits in with that agenda.

“The awards are fast becoming the most easily recognized event the society conducts,” adds Roth, who often recounts a trip last year to George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch, during which he saw the “Star Wars” creator’s VES lifetime achievement award prominently displayed.

As it does with every other craft, Oscar still rules in the visual effects world. Mimicking the Academy’s January bakeoff — a public event in which reels of contending films are presented to voters — the VES conducted its first “Big Reveal” several days later at the Skirball Cultural Center.

The Jan. 22 event drew reps from most of the big f/x shops and studios, but overall attendance was still less than half of what the Jan. 19 bakeoff received.

Still, Sarnoff says the VES’ diversity of kudos — what other event honors supporting f/x in a motion picture? — offers something Oscar can’t.

“They can get down to the granularity that exists in something like effects,” he explains. “More than three people should be honored.”

In terms of honoring visual f/x, one of the most well received decisions the VES has made is to separate f/x-heavy action, science-fiction and fantasy films from pics for which effects use is much more subdued.

This year, the VES’ best “visual-effects-driven motion picture” category is similar to the Academy’s, with “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Spider-Man 2” making both lists. For its third nom, the Academy’s visual f/x branch chose “I, Robot,” while the VES went with “The Day After Tomorrow.”

However, in its “visual effects in a motion picture” category, the VES also tapped “The Aviator,” the kind of film in which the f/x don’t take center stage, but are acclaimed nonetheless — and exactly the kind of pic most often overlooked in Oscar’s f/x race.

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