×

Is There Bias Against Movies With VFX by Awards Voters?

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.

“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.”  

More Artisans

  • Crawl Movie

    'Crawl' and Other Disaster Movies Pose Unique Obstacles for Production Designers

    The rampaging fires, earthquakes and storms of disaster movies present unusual challenges for a production: On top of the normal work of creating a film’s lived-in and realistic locations, designers must build sets that the forces of nature can batter, flood and ravage into something completely different. Take “Crawl,” in which a Category 5 hurricane [...]

  • Costume designer Michele Clapton

    Costume Designers Fashion a Plan to Fight for Pay Parity in Upcoming Contract Talks

    The Costume Designers Guild Local 892 is gearing up to fight for pay equity in its 2021 contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, establishing a pay-equity committee to raise awareness of the scale disparity between the mostly female CDG membership and the mostly male membership of the Art Directors Guild Local [...]

  • This photo shows composer Hans Zimmer

    Hans Zimmer on Recreating Iconic Score: 'The Lion King' 'Brought People Together'

    Composer Hans Zimmer is seated at the mixing board at the Sony scoring stage, head bobbing to the music being performed by 107 musicians just a few yards away. He’s wearing a vintage “Lion King World Tour” T-shirt, frayed at the collar. On the giant screen behind the orchestra, two lions are bounding across the [...]

  • On-Location Filming Slides 3.9% in Los

    On-Location Filming Slides 3.9% in Los Angeles in Second Quarter

    Held down by a lack of soundstage space, total on-location filming in greater Los Angeles declined 3.9% in the second quarter to 8,632 shoot days, permitting agency FilmLA reported Thursday. “Although our latest report reveals a decline in filming on location, local production facilities tell us that they are operating at capacity,” said FilmLA president [...]

  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

    How 'Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood' Turned the Clock Back for Its Shoot

    Crossing the street took months for the crew that turned back the clock 50 years on Hollywood Boulevard for Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” Production designer Barbara Ling created false fronts for buildings that were constructed off-site and installed by crane just ahead of the shoot. Set decorator Nancy Haigh described [...]

  • Just Roll With It Disney Channel

    Disney Channel's Scripted-Improv Comedy Crew Shares How They 'Just Roll With It'

    The title of the new Disney Channel series “Just Roll With It” appears to be as much a directive for its cast and crew as it is a description of the multi-camera hybrid sitcom, which is part scripted and part improv. The plot revolves around the blended Bennett-Blatt family — strict mom Rachel (Suzi Barrett), [...]

  • "SpongeBob's Big Birthday Blowout" cast

    'SpongeBob' Voice Cast on Acting Together in Live-Action for 20th Anniversary Special

    On a brisk morning in February, the members of the voice cast of Nickelodeon’s flagship animated series “SpongeBob SquarePants” gathered to work on a new episode, like they’ve done most weeks over the past 20 years. But instead of being in a recording booth, this time they’ve assembled at a diner in Castaic, Calif., shooting [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content