Members of the Academy’s visual effects branch will have their work cut out for them in narrowing this year’s wide-ranging field of big-screen spectacles down to 10 semi-finalists for the bakeoff stage in a few weeks, let alone settling on five nominees to fill out the Oscar ballot.
At least two films are all but locked for recognition, and one of them we can probably feel safe in calling sight-unseen: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” No one will get a look at the film until the Dec. 10 Hollywood premiere, but the mega franchise’s history in this category is difficult to ignore; the only “Star Wars” film to be dismissed by the visual effects branch was “Revenge of the Sith” in 2005, when the whole enterprise had become rather stale (despite, naturally, showing no signs of weakness at the box office). Not only that, but visual effects play into “Rogue One’s” very existence: Oscar-winning VFX supervisor John Knoll conceived of the story by plucking it from the opening crawl that first set the stage for audiences way back in 1977.
Also strong in the category is another Disney film, Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book.” Indeed, the lush and detailed environments conjured by Weta and MPC (around principle photography shot in a downtown Los Angeles warehouse) might as well be considered the frontrunner in the category. Robert Legato and his team boast seven Oscar nominations and three wins between them, for films as varied as “Apollo 13,” “Titanic,” “I, Robot,” “Avatar” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”
A notable latter-year entry is Marvel’s “Doctor Strange,” which dazzled audiences with “Inception”-like mind-bending effects. Oscar-nominated “Guardians of the Galaxy” alums Stephane Ceretti and Paul Corbould head up a crew that could land a notice, even if only four of the 14 Marvel Cinematic Universe films have penetrated with this branch.
Speaking of which, “Captain America: Civil War” deserves a mention. Some of the most impressive VFX elements in the film were of the “Ant-Man” variety, though that Marvel film somewhat surprisingly failed to receive a nomination here. Nevertheless, supervisors Dan DeLeeuw and Russell Earl were nominated for the previous “Captain America” installment, “The Winter Soldier,” so definitely a possibility.
That’s four films so far, and three of them come from Industrial Light & Magic, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. Another contender, however, pushed the company to its limit — even if it disappointed at the domestic box office. Duncan Jones’ “Warcraft” could, therefore, be a favored son in ILM’s ranks. It may have met disastrous reviews but it was a grueling undertaking. A great effects reel at the bakeoff could easily sell it. Two-time Oscar winner Bill Westenhofer (“The Golden Compass,” “Life of Pi”) leads a star-studded team that has been recognized by the Academy for films like the “The Avengers,” “The Revenant” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. (It’s also worth noting that Universal Pictures has carved out a VFX section on its “for your consideration” website, spotlighting “Warcraft” along with “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” and Jason Bourne.”)
Speaking of franchises, the “Harry Potter” series racked up fewer visual effects nominations than you probably remember (three), so “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” might be an on the outside, or it could be right in the wheelhouse. It’s hard to say at the moment but the team is filled with veterans of the wizarding world, including supervisors Tim Burke and Christian Manz.
But maybe the branch will feel like pulling away from established aesthetics and drifting over to something new. “Passengers” could fit the bill, and with a December release, it will be top of mind. The work was diverse and included a huge spaceship build, various environments within the ship, outer space, and, of course, the zero-gravity swimming pool sequence seen in trailers. Erik Norby and Pete Dionne headed up the MPC team in completing the effects.
There are a few contenders lurking below the radar that are worth keeping an eye on. First and foremost, while Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG” was a box office bust, it still featured expert visual effects that transported the viewer to a world of giants. Not only that, but 10-time Oscar nominee and five-time winner Joe Letteri spearheaded a Weta team on the picture. Those are some serious credentials, but Disney’s focus will obviously be on their more successful films, “The Jungle Book” and “Captain America.”
Meanwhile, don’t snooze on something like “Allied.” Robert Zemeckis’ World War II spy craft drama feels like it was shot on location in 1940s London, and that’s thanks to the digital trickery Zemeckis loves so much. Kevin Baillie, who was surely close to a nomination for Zemeckis’ “The Walk” last year, served as visual effects supervisor.
And finally, going back to the ILM well, Peter Berg’s “Deepwater Horizon” is an impressive entry this year, capturing the horrific disaster on the eponymous oil rig with aplomb. Supervisor Craig Hammack has deep roots with the company, going back to his work as a digital effects artist on movies like “Speed 2: Cruise Control” and “Titanic.”
That’s the race as I see it. But some surprises could nose into the bakeoff list, like “Deadpool,” “A Monster Calls,” “Pete’s Dragon” or “Sully.” And movies like “Arrival,” “Star Trek Beyond” and “X-Men: Apocalypse” have obvious strengths as well. We’ll know more when the branch settles on an initial list of 20 films to advance in the race later this week.