After decades of struggle, visual effects seem to have achieved a measure of respect. There are five vfx nominees at the Oscars. The VES Awards are taken pretty seriously. The BAFTAs give a visual effects award.
Farewell to the kids’ table, vfx pros. You’ve arrived. That’s the good news.
The bad news? It’s time to blow up the visual effects category. It should cease to be, shuffle off this mortal coil, join the choir invisible. It should be an ex-category.
“But why?,” you cry. Visual effects have never been more important and the artistry of the vfx craft has never been more appreciated. How can we call the whole thing off now, just when things are getting good?
Because the very idea of a visual-effects category has become not just meaningless, but downright misleading.
Visual effects now comprise so many things that the category might just as well be called “stuff we see on the screen.” Pretty much anything on the screen is being done with visual effects. Need images of World War II for “The Imitation Game” and “Unbroken”? Visual effects. A fairy tale world for “Maleficent”? That’s vfx. Giant sets? Historical landscapes? Yup. Pyro in “Transformers: Age of Extinction” and miniatures in “Interstellar”? Come on in! “Avatar,” “Life of Pi” and “Gravity” all won Oscars for cinematography that was mostly realized by digital vfx, not with photography.
The all-green banners of vfx protests, proclaiming “your movie without vfx,” are quite on-target.
Lumping all that together as visual effects is like having one category for design, with d.p.’s, production designers and costume designers competing for a single award. It minimizes the contributions of some artists, exaggerates the importance of others, and perpetuates prejudices the entertainment industry must shed if its valuable awards franchises are going to keep their relevance — and their value.
Until recently the one thing that was reliably not a visual effect was acting. Now, though, digital characters can be the most interesting thing in a film. In “Guardians of the Galaxy” (pictured), a film full of satisfying performances, the animated Rocket and Groot are the money. The performance capture apes of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” are the film’s most compelling characters.
Performers need not worry that they’ll be eclipsed, though. In “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb,” a slew of gifted comics manage to share the screen with CG dinosaur skeletons and the like, and they get their laughs. It’s a style of filmmaking that harkens back to Abbott & Costello, and it’s only getting better as the technology improves. And it’s the only contender this year that mostly goes for laughs.
The traditional approach to vfx lives on in other films and genres, too. “Godzilla” is an old-fashioned monster movie, in which the monsters are the stars and people are a necessary distraction. In “Interstellar,” vfx provide the futuristic spaceships and robots, the black hole and the wormhole, all rendered with a matter-of-fact naturalism. But that is just the setting in which the actors are meant to shine. Both films could have been written and made in the 1970s, though with lesser visuals.
“X-Men: Days of Future Past” uses vfx to paint an apocalyptic future and display superhero powers and battles, but its vfx are arguably most notable for their loving re-creation of the 1970s. Then there are the fantasy worlds of “The Hobbit” and “Maleficent.” Before the age of digital vfx, those two films could only have been made as animated features. They have digital characters, digitally enhanced characters, digital cinematography, digital design. Again, in those films, visual effects means “what you see on screen.”
I realize that visual effects aren’t going to get multiple categories quickly. I’m not even sure what the best split would be. (Supporting vfx, as at the VES? Or separate awards for fantasy pictures, as some of the guilds have?) But there are four Oscars for acting, two for writing, two for sound. Visual effects are now as diverse as any of those crafts. Awards that favor analog artisans and minimize the work of digital artists will eventually become irrelevant, or worse, ridiculous, and that in turn would be bad for the guilds, honorary societies and Academies that bestow them.
So now that the visual effects award is really, truly here, let’s celebrate how important vfx really are, and dump it.