Cinema lives or dies by illusion. To make stories work, movies must take audiences to another place, suspend their disbelief and thrill them. And effects, whether created in-camera or in post-production or a combination of the two, have always been among the tools used by filmmakers to make that happen.
But despite their vital role, visual effects have qualified for a five-slot Oscar category in only the past decade, and films deemed “heavy” on VFX have often found themselves on the outs in the acting and writing categories.
The effects category has evolved over time. In 1963, the special effects award was removed and two categories — one for visual effects and one for sound effects — were created. Then, from 1977 to 1979, a maximum number of five VFX nominees were permitted, though 1979 was the first year to max out nominations. From 1980 to 1995, two or three films could be nommed in the VFX category; by 1996, the rules required exactly three VFX nominees. Since the 82nd Academy Awards in 2010, the category has grown once again to five nominees.
Does this whipsawing back and forth indicate a reluctance to accept the importance of VFX in storytelling? If so, the studios are partly to blame.
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“There’s the legacy issue that VFX is the stepchild of the movie industry,” says Scott Ross, former general manager of effects superpower Industrial Light & Magic and founder of Digital Domain. Ross was with ILM at the time of Robert Zemeckis’ 1988 “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” a pioneering mix of live action and animation and a landmark film for VFX. “I wanted to tout from the highest building the work Industrial Light & Magic did on this film,” Ross says, “but Disney came down on me like Reagan on the Soviet Union. They said you cannot talk about it. Do not mention it.”
To overcome the studio’s prohibition on the use of images or photos from the film to promote ILM’s work, Ross expressed congratulations to the filmmakers by running an ad in the trades that showed an illustration of the magician who was in ILM’s logo pulling Roger Rabbit out of a hat.
Visual effects supervisor Kevin Baillie — whose credits include “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace”; “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”; “Transformers: Age
of Extinction”; and Zemeckis’ latest, “Welcome to Marwen” — believes that films that use VFX in lieu of narrative are partly responsible for the negative feelings toward his trade. “People are really looking to hear a story,” Baillie says. “Bob Zemeckis believes every shot should have a reason for being there and that every shot is a visual effect in a way because you’re capturing light through a lens. You’re telling a story, and either people want to see it or they don’t.”
The paradox is that while VFX are often considered a kind of muscular filmmaking with little depth of story, many effects-heavy films draw from beloved fantasy or science fiction books. Whether it’s “Lord of the Rings,” the Harry Potter films or the recently released “Mortal Engines,” based on the novel by Philip Reeve, such books have a strong connection with their readers, and in view of their content, it would be difficult if not impossible to bring them to the screen without plenty of VFX — and heavyweight effects talent.
Indeed, VFX supervisors and tech experts often collaborate to create proprietary tools that make the stunning shots in these films possible. And each new story demands a fresh look at ways to bring effects to the screen in a manner that audiences — who have been exposed to so many VFX — can really believe what they’re seeing. It’s the kind of marriage of art and science that made film possible in the first place.
“There are lots of big films where there’s a sheer spectacle of VFX,” says Christian Rivers, director of “Mortal Engines.” “We wanted to be true to the book. We wanted real characters sitting in the fantastical setting of these effects that fill out and support the story. They shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. The films I loved when I was growing up were character-driven stories that had the spectacle of visual effects. I don’t buy that just because a film has a lot of visual effects it should be a big background for lots of product placement. ‘Terminator’ and ‘Alien’ were great films that told great stories and had lots of spectacle. You can have both things and tell a really good story.”