Side effects of Oscar changes

'Hobbit' added to vfx longlist although few had seen it

The late-year steering committee meeting of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science’s visual effects branch is always a long night. This past November, though, things got heated as well.

The accelerated Oscar nominations calendar put the vfx selection process under new pressures, and that led to an unprecedented compromise: One film was voted into the bakeoff even though most of the committee had not seen it.

By design, the bakeoff selection process isn’t transparent. What happens in the committee stays in the committee. This time, though, there were leaks. I spoke to four members of the vfx branch. Two asked not to be identified or quoted in this article, but all agreed on the essential story. The process didn’t work as intended, and the Academy was arguably lucky that the nominations worked out as well as they have.

A little background: The 40-member committee meets to choose the pics that compete in the Oscar vfx bakeoff. At one time, there were so few vfx contenders it was easy for all the steering committee members to see all of them. As vfx became more ubiquitous, the Acad added a step, announcing a “long list” of 20 pictures the committee needed to see before the meeting.

Visual effects steering committee chair Craig Barron explains, “The reason it’s a big committee is we want to know what’s going on. We want people to say ‘Hey, this film is good, we need to see this.’ ” They try to cast a wide net. Even so, vfx insiders have long whispered that the single biggest factor in the bakeoff selection is who’s on the committee, and therefore which vfx studios have reps in the room to argue their case.

This cycle, with the accelerated calendar, there was no time for the long list. The steering committee met early, on Nov. 28. Christmas is traditionally a date for vfx tentpoles, but the committee couldn’t wait because the bakeoff, too, had been moved up by weeks, to Jan. 3. The bakeoff pics had to be announced to give time for reels to be assembled.

Just one problem: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” was a month from opening and just beginning to screen. The committee would have to vote on whether to include the movie in the bakeoff sight unseen.

That didn’t sit well with some members. “What are we voting on? A trailer?,” pleaded one. The meeting got quite emotional, by more than one account.

Barron told Variety “Ideally we’d want to see the film. But it was pretty obvious this was going to be a major film and it should be on our list, that’s a no-brainer.”

Still, said committee member Jonathan Erland, “This is not a desirable situation to have. There are two contending interests. One interest is concerned with having an awards process that is conducted as promptly as possible, and that of course has to vie with the interest that is mainly preoccupied with ensuring the process maintains its integrity.

“It’s self-evident that there’s a problem,” said Erland.

In effect, “The Hobbit” got an advantage because on the one hand it had an impeccable Oscar pedigree, and on the other it was opening late. To understand the danger of this, try a thought experiment: What if the acting races narrowed their contenders off trailers and reputation. Think of all the advance buzz in 2011 for the cast of “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” and how little of it was focused on Max Von Sydow, who was actually nommed. The road to the podium is paved with the bones of much-buzzed-about “contenders” that didn’t deliver on expectations.

“We were stressed this year, there’s no doubt about that,” said Barron. “What keeps integrity in the process is it goes into the bakeoff and the members get to see it on a bigscreen next to all the other films.”

He added “I don’t think it’s a train wreck, personally,” but said there will be a post-mortem to review the rules.

“What (this year’s process) has crystallized,” said Barron, “is that the committee needs to be more proactive in going out to the producers and saying ‘We need to see your films so that we can debate and talk about it, so we feel comfortable recommending it to our members.’ ” So this November, the vfx steering committee will be clamoring for early screenings.

Especially part 2 of “The Hobbit.”


The Cinema Audio Society’s nominees for technical achievement awards are: For Production: Lectrosonics – WM Watertight Transmitter; PureBlend Software – Movieslate® 3.8; Quantum5X – TapShoeMic; Sound Devices – 664 Field Production Mixer with Recorder; Zaxcom – ERX2TCD IFB Receiver. For Post-Production: AMS Neve – DFC Gemini with Superstem Mixing; Barco – Auro 11.1; Dolby® – Atmos; iZotope – Insight; Waves – WLM-Waves Loudness Meter. Winners will be announced at the main CES Awards presentation, Feb 16 a the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.

Shotgun Software has hired Rob Blau as head of pipeline engineering. Blau is a former pipeline supervisor at DreamWorks and Laika. … Former Activision senior VP Laird Malamed has joined Oculus VR as chief operating officer. … SpotGenie has named Marty Coppage client service account manager. She will work closely with senior VP, Service and Operations, Annie Pastina and prexy/CEO Wayne Dykes.

4K UHD TV is surging. The Japanese ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications has decided to begin 4K broadcasting during the finals of the World Cup in Brazil in July 2014 – two years earlier than planned. Telecasts will be distributed via Japan’s communications satellites rather than the usual route of direct-broadcast satellites. Meanwhile the BBC is filming its next wildlife series, “Survival,” in 4K UHD. European satellite operators SES Astra and Eutelsat say they will launch 4K transmissions. Eutelsat launched a demonstration UHD Channel on Jan 8., while SES Astra plans to launch a demonstration channel this calendar year.

Visual Effects studio Double Negative has consolidated into a single location at 160 Great Portland St. London, W1W 5QA, United Kingdom. Main phone for the new office is +44 (0) 207 268 5000.

“Zero Dark Thirty” used Codex recorders and digital labs to manage footage shot on location and in low light. … Dive VFX produced around 175 shots as lead vfx studio on “Silver Linings Playbook,” including reflection and shadow removal; a CG book breaking a window; and de-greening grass to make the locations look wintry. … Oblique FV of Montreal did 110 shots for “On the Road,” including matte paintings and historical clean-ups. … AlphaDogs Post provided post services for Google’s “Zeitgeist 2012 Year in Review,” creating a consistent look from clips from a variety of cameras, frame rates and resolutions. … Santa Monica post house Local Hero is expanding into feature film production. Production on its first pic, “I Remember You,” is set to start Feb. 16. … 32Ten Studios in San Rafael has upgraded its screening room with a 2K/3D Barco projector, Dolby Server and Dolby 3D. Venue is available for private screenings. … Boutique Gotham finishing facility The Room has moved into a custom-built facility within Technicolor-PostWorks at 110 Leroy St.

SMPTE will hold regional seminars on “How to Generate and Automate Content for Multi-Platform, Multi-Display Distribution” Feb. 6 in London and Feb. 7 in Salford, U.K., … SMPTE is seeking technical papers for its Oct. 22-24 confab in Hollywood. …

Moviola’s educational lecture series will have a Jan. 30 session on Autodesk Smoke. Event will be at Moviola Digital Arts Institute, 1135 N. Mansfield Ave., Hollywood.

F/x makeup maven Colin Arthur will lead an intensive special effects workshop in London on April 27-28, open to to directors, art directors, production designers, film students, make-up artists, sculptors, decorative artists, prop makers, art students or aspiring movie pros. For more information go to http://www.filmlab.fest.pt

Several Sundance titles used Assimilate Scratch DI tools: “The Future,” “Before Midnight,” “Blood Brother,” “The Lifeguard,” “We Are What We Are,” “Ass Backwards,” and “A Teacher.” … Assimilate has also expanded sales and support for Scratch in the U.S. and Canada by enlisting CineSys-Oceana as a new reseller. … Assimilate has also shipped an upgrade to v7 of Scratch and Scratch Lab, with support for new cameras.

Panasonic and Aframe have partnered to sell cloud video production solutions to video professionals. Panasonic will sell Aframe licenses through its pro video resellers. Aframe is based in London; its U.S. HQ is in Boston.

Samsung and Lionsgate have pacted to expand the availability of 3D homevideo titles by converting library titles for homevid release, beginning with “Gamer,” “Crank,” “Bangkok Dangerous” and “The Descent.” … The Crackle streaming entertainment app is now available on LG, Samsung and Vizio devices.

Barco has installed Auro 11-1 3D sound in Sathyam Cinemas’ Six Degrees in India, part of SPI Cinemas. December 2012 installation was the first in India.

Footage.net has made its CelebrityFootage collection of news and archival footage of celebrities available through its online screening platform.

The Foundry has launched Hieroplayer, a new vfx review tool. … Cinegy has launched version 9.5 of Cinegy Archive, Cinegy Desktop, Cinegy Workspace, Cinegy Convert, Cinegy Air, Cinegy Studio and Cinegy Type. … Cinegy has also expanded in Mexico via local systems integrator and reseller ARTEC. … Luxion has debuted KeyShot 4 and is aiming for a release in Q1 this year … Cookie Apps has launched Real Piano HD Pro 3.0 for iPad.