Oscars: ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Jurassic World,’ ‘Mad Max’ Shine at Academy’s Annual Visual Effects Bake-off

Also: Keep an eye on BAFTA nominee 'Ant-Man,' which offered a fun and humorous presentation.

Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens
Courtesy of Disney/Lucas FIlm

The Academy’s annual visual effects bake-off was held Saturday night at the org’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. An event unique to only two categories (the other being best makeup and hairstyling), this is where and when the nominees for the best visual effects Oscar are chosen.

A quick rundown of the protocol: Ten films are selected by the branch’s executive committee to present. The visual effects supervisor for each film introduces the work for five minutes. Then comes the film’s 10-minute highlight reel, showing only clips as they’re seen in the film —  no “befores-and-afters,” no progressions to reveal the extent of the work. Since it’s an official voting meeting, applause and cheering from the audience is discouraged. Next, there are then three minutes of questions from the voting members following each clip. When those 18 minutes are up, it’s on to the next. At the end of the presentations, members take their ballots downstairs and slide them into a ballot box, which is then whisked away by PricewaterhouseCoopers to be counted.

The bake-off is open to the public and is one of the Academy’s most popular events. The theater is all but full every year. But if you are planning to go next year, make a note to get there early. The growth of the visual effects branch and the expansion of the bake-off from seven films to 10 (when the Academy moved to five nominees in the category a few years ago) means there are more official participants in the room, and therefore fewer seats for the public. Meanwhile, the shift of the bake-off from Thursday to Saturday night has encouraged demand for tickets.

Old hands at the bake-off know a few more things:

– It helps if the movie is good.

– It helps even more if it’s a “serious” film from a prestigious director. The branch loves that.

– The branch doesn’t necessarily care if it’s a flop. “Evan Almighty” made the bake-off. This year, so did “The Walk.”

– It helps if the film had good practical effects, or “special effects.” Those people vote, and they’re tired of their work being ignored.

– The order of presentation matters. If you go first, the voters may have trouble remembering you at the end, when it’s time to fill out the ballots. The order is determined by lottery, but can be tweaked to help out the projectionists, who have to switch among various aspect ratios, and change from 2D to 3D and back, depending on the film.

– Some reels are better than others. The best reels tell enough of the story for a viewer who hasn’t seen the film to get a sense of the story.

– Some presenters are better than others. Good visual effects films have fallen by the wayside because of bad presentations. On the other hand, skilled presenters like Rob Legato give their films a distinct advantage, irrespective of the quality of the film.

– Politics matter. Some companies benefit from great good will in the visual effects world (Industrial Light & Magic, for example). Others don’t. (Marvel seems to have a chilly relationship with the VFX rank-and-file.)

With that in your pocket, here’s a rundown of how things went at the Academy on Saturday night, in order of presentation.

1) “Ant-Man” (Presenter: Jake Morrison)
Shown in 3D. Morrison said that before starting on “Ant-Man,” he viewed the great “shrinking” films, many of which had groundbreaking effects, and reached this conclusion: “A shrinking film has to take you on a journey… And you have to be attacked by a giant cat.”

Morrison described the use of extensive models and miniatures. “My favorite thing about this film is we shot miniatures that were actual size,” he said. He added, “Let’s be honest here: the special effects crew likes to blow up big things. The bigger the explosion, the happier the crew. So this might have been the worst film ever for a special effects crew to work on.”

The reel itself hit the action highlights from the film, and (wisely) kept many of the best gags. As a result, it got laughs in all the right places and was generally quite entertaining. Tidbit: The Wasp suit revealed at the end is all-CG.

My take: Good presentation, but may be hurt by politics, and by having gone first. However, the film did receive a BAFTA visual effects nomination, so it’s clearly in the running.

2) “Tomorrowland” (Presenter: Craig Hammack)
Here’s a movie that might have actually benefited from being cut down to 10 minutes. Hammack explained that bringing Walt Disney’s original vision for Tomorrowland to life in CG “seemed simple enough — which is usually our first mistake.” Hammack explained that “Tomorrowland” was created in 4K resolution and with Expanded Dynamic Range for select theaters, all of which add difficulty to the visual effects work. The reel focused on the futuristic locale and the lead’s visions of Tomrrowland, though some bits were represented by a single shot. Afterward, Hammack admitted that if you hadn’t seen the film, you might be confused.

My take: The problems in the reel reflected the problems in the film. A longshot for a nomination.

3) “Jurassic World” (Presenter: Tim Alexander)
Director Colin Trevorrow wanted to balance old and new, recapturing the magic of the groundbreaking original “Jurassic Park” while adding new dinosaurs and new effects, said Alexander. The visual effects supervisor made many of the same points during his presentation that he did in Variety’s Artisans interview with him, while further revealing more about the stunt rigs used for the gyrospheres — and the rig removal they entailed in visual effects. ILM also invented a new iOS app to allow them to see the digital dinosaurs on set.

After the reel, in response to a question from the audience, Alexander admitted that the motion-capture for the raptors provided the “foundation” for their performance, but animators provided plenty of embellishment.

My take: I don’t see how this finishes out of the top five.

4) “The Martian” (Presenter: Richard Stammers)
Shown in 3D. Stammers emphasized the mix of in-camera and CG effects, including shooting in native 3D (a rarity). He noted that each of the three main locales — Mars, space and Earth — was handled by a different company. The reel included the haunting Martian landscapes, but wisely kept in plenty of Matt Damon, his narration, and a couple of his best one-liners. That meant that the reel for “The Martian” kept some of the film’s humor and warmth. Interestingly, the reel didn’t feature much of the “skinny Watley” effect.

My take: With Ridley Scott’s masterful eye guiding the effects team, the variety and beauty of this reel looks like another lock to me.

5) “The Walk” (Presenter: Kevin Baillie)
Shown in 3D. This, too, was subject of an Artisans video…

…which is more revealing than the bake-off reel in some ways thanks to the inclusion of befores-and-afters. Baille said helmer Robert Zemecks wanted to put the viewer inside the experience of walking between the towers. He added that the budget for the entire film was just $35 million, and that 82% of the film is visual effects shots — not surprising, since so much of it is a reproduction of early-’70s New York, from it’s skyline to its buildings to its air pollution.

Baille emphasized the difference between realism and believability, noting that they’re not the same in visual effects. The reel put up a substantial chunk of the half-hour walk between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. It also included, in full, the film’s bittersweet final shot, a lingering, elegiac image of the sun glinting off the towers. I think that was smart.

My take: I think this is great work, but when I spoke to two voting members after, one said he couldn’t bear to watch it. Maybe they were TOO effective in putting the viewer inside the experience. Another said he thought it was beautifully choreographed but not especially well executed, technically speaking. It might have been one of my final five, but it quite possibly won’t be in the Academy’s final five.

6) “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (Presenter: Christopher Townsend.)
“’Age of Ultron’ is big,” said Townsend, “even for a Marvel movie.” There were 20 visual effects companies on this film, with four or five on a single shot in some cases. Townsend reviewed the various characters and which companies led on which character, including Lola VFX giving Paul Bettany an inhumanly perfect purple complexion. “You’re going to make me look butch, right?” Bettany asked on set, wearing his required garb of partial makeup and a mo-cap suit. If he looks butch, it’s the visual effects.

My take: If the award were for “most visual effects,” this would be a lock. As it stands, I think it’s on the bubble. I don’t think either “Ant-Man” or “Age of Ultron” make it.

7) “The Revenant” (Presenter: Rich McBride)
This was the night’s most offbeat presentation, in more ways than one. “This is almost as terrifying as showing shots to Alejandro,” quipped McBride, referring to director Alejandro G. Iñárritu. “The weather was awful, the location was awful. Alejandro was… passionate,” said McBride, observing that the filmmaker criticized his team’s work severely, but he and DP Emmanuel Lubezki were just as willing to be critical of themselves.

He revealed that the film has far more visual effects than Iñárritu and Lubezki have been willing to admit. Much of it involved stitching shots together. For instance, that’s how the camera goes from handheld on the ground, to horseback, then back to the ground again. Also, some of Lubezki’s skyscapes were moved from one scene to another with visual effects. In other words, Lubezki’s shots aren’t as au naturel as the Oscar campaign implies.

“Alejandro called me to wish me luck,” said McBride, “and said he hoped there wouldn’t be any reporters to report on how much you did.” McBride relayed the request, perhaps tongue in cheek. Good luck with that, Alejandro. McBride also reports Iñárritu telling him of the bear attack sequence: “If this scene breaks, the whole film breaks.” Quipped McBride: “No pressure.” The reel featured the other visual effects, including DiCaprio floating down a river, through rapids then getting up the river bank to find a buffalo herd, out of order. He saved the mauling for last.

My take: The bear attack sequence was the most extraordinary scene shown over an extraordinary evening. And it’s for a prestigious, “artistic” director in an “artistic” film. The branch tends to love that. The scene, shown in full during the reel, is also something new and fresh, and it’s perfectly integrated with Lubezki’s cinematography. And it’s from Industrial Light & Magic. It could make the final five.

8) “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (Presenter: Roger Guyett)
Guyett said the goal was to create a film “with its own forward motion,” not merely recreate the past. The film has 2100 visual effects shots, but Guyett talked about the “restraint” used in creating them, adding a level of realism not seen in previous “Star Wars” films. Yes, those are practical explosions going off near Rey and Finn on Jakku, but they’re matched digitally.

My take: Come on, its “Star Wars.” It’ll be nominated and probably win.

9) “Ex Machina” (Presenter: Andrew Whitehurst)
This film wins the lowest-budget battle: $15 million all in. But they saved enough during shooting by avoiding overtime and other overages that they were able to sink more funds into the visual effects for the robot Ava. There was no green screen, said Whitehurst, in part because “when you put up a green screen, everybody starts acting weird.”

My take: Beautiful but somewhat limited effects work. One pro told me afterward he could see the technical imperfections. But the film could benefit from the reflected glory from its director, like “The Revenant.”

10) “Mad Max: Fury Road” (Presenter: Andrew Jackson)
Jackson took a bit of a dig at “The Revenant,” saying that while his film had plenty of in-camera effects, they were willing to talk about their visual effects. He began pitching some of the (truly) astonishing special effects/stunt work, to the point where I feared he may have oversold the practical efforts and minimized VFX side. Not at all. He went on to point out where digital effects were used, including the canyon through which the heroes pace twice. There was a real canyon, but it wasn’t nearly so narrow, and lacked that natural “needle” arch foundation. In the post-reel Q&A, there was a brief mention of what DP John Seale has called “sim-trans,” simulated driving, where wind machines, moving digital backgrounds, etc., make stationary vehicles appear to be moving.

My take: This is the one that seemed to have Academy members fired up. (Remember, special effects people vote, and they were over-represented in this one for once.) It also ran last, which, again, helps. I think it gets in.

My predictions:
“Jurassic World”
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
“The Martian”
“The Revenant”
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Either or both Marvel movies could make it, and politics may swing support away from “Mad Max” and “The Revenant.” I actually liked the “Ant-Man” presentation best, but I doubt the Academy members felt that way.

Nominees will be revealed Thursday, Jan. 14.