Although the Visual-Effects Bakeoff isn’t normally a news-filled part of awards season, David S. Cohen was there to report on a little bit of “Harry Potter” drama last night as the shortlisted films presented their clip reels.

Updated: 5:20 p.m.

There was an unprecedented moment of drama at Thursday night’s Academy Visual-Effects Bakeoff, when due to a snafu, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2” almost didn’t get to make its Oscar pitch.

Visual-effects supervisor Tim Burke introduced the 10-minute “Deathly Hallows” vfx clip reel, but what then unspooled at the Acad’s Goldwyn Theater didn’t match his introduction. Within moments, the vfx branch’s Bill Taylor, who was MC for the event, was scrambling at the front of the house to get the attention of the projectionist, Marshall Gitlitz, shouting “This is the wrong reel!”

It turned out what they started to show was “Deathly Hallows,” but it was the makeup bakeoff reel, not the visual-effects reel. The Potter presentation was stopped and the next pic, “Real Steel,” took the stage, leaving “Deathly Hallows” in danger of not being able to show a reel at the bakeoff at all.

While not presenting a reel wouldn’t have disqualified “Deathly Hallows” from the race, since most vfx branch voters had probably already seen it, it would have put the pic at a huge disadvantage.

Initially there was confusion Friday over how this happened, especially once Variety began asking about the problem. By late afternoon, the mystery was solved — mostly. Taylor told Variety neither the studio nor the production had a representative at Thursday’s rehearsal to approve the clip. That made “Deathly Hallows” the only bakeoff contender with no one present at rehearsal to check and approve the reel presentation.

According to a Warner exec who works on visual effects, Technicolor was asked to deliver the visual effects and makeup reels on two separate drives to avoid confusion. Instead, Technicolor sent over one drive labeled on the outside “Makeup” and one labeled on the outside “VFX,” but each drive had both files. So the Academy engineer would have loaded the drive labeled “VFX” only to find, according to Warners, the following file names: “HARRY-POTTER-7B_BAKEOFF-MAKEUP_SHR_S_EN-XX_51-2K_WB_20120116_TDC” and “37836_HARRY-POTTER-7B_BAKEOFF_VFX_SHR_S_EN-XX_51_2K_WB_20120115_TDC.”

Warner adds, “Although Technicolor caused some confusion, an engineer at the Academy loaded both 10-minute segments and put the wrong reel in the playlist.”
So at almost 10:30, at the end of the bakeoff, Gitlitz put up the mysterious file. Taylor says, “As soon as it came on the screen, Tim Burke gave me the thumbs-up, and we knew that we had the right reel.”

For those not familiar with the Acad’s vfx nominating procedure, the vfx branch’s executive committee narrows the competish to 10 films. The supervisors from those pics present 10-minute highlight reels, each with a strictly-timed five minutes of introduction and three minutes after to answer questions. The vfx membership from around the world gathers for the bakeoff at the Goldwyn Theater and votes to choose the five Oscar nominees immediately after the event.

This year’s 10 pics, in the order they presented, were “Hugo,” “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” “The Tree of Life,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” “X-Men: First Class,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2,” “Real Steel” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.” The bakeoff is open to the public and is one of the Acad’s most popular public events. Taylor introduced it Thursday as “the greatest visual-effects show on Earth.”

Taylor said that he has never seen such a snafu at a vfx bakeoff before, and credits Gitlitz’s resourcefulness with saving the day. “It was a happy ending,” he said, adding that “Harry Potter” showed “wonderful, wonderful work.”

It’s not the first time a d-cinema snafu caused an awards-season embarrassment. The debut screening of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” at the DGA, for an invited aud of press and luminaries, was halted 20 minutes in when the digital projector brought in for the occasion showed the pic with a green tint. Eventually the screening was cancelled, though guests got to enjoy the wine and cheese spread in the lobby anyway.

“Hugo,” “Transformers” and “Pirates” presented in 3D, and so had to be shown digitally. Six more were shown digitally by choice. Only one was shown on film: “The Tree of Life.”— David S. Cohen