Tuesday, September 29, 2015

OVP: Visual Effects (2014)

OVP: Best Visual Effects (2014)

The Nominees Were...

Dan DeLeeuw, Russell Earl, Bryan Grill, and Dan Sudick, Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett, and Erik Winquist, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Stephane Ceretti, Nicolas Aithadi, Jonathan Fawkner, and Paul Corbould, Guardians of the Galaxy
Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter, and Scott Fisher, Interstellar
Richard Stammers, Lou Pecora, Tim Crosbie, and Cameron Waldbauer, X-Men: Days of Future Past

My Thoughts: The Visual Effects category, that wonderful place where people have actually seen almost all of the movies.  Indeed, all of these films crossed the $100 million domestic mark, something not even the Animated Feature category can boast.  As a result, I suspect that most of you will have opinions on this race, and hopefully will bring them to the comments.  Before that begins, though, let's start in on where I landed.

The Oscars actually got a little bit outside-the-box in 2014, particularly when it came to comic book films.  Prior to 2014 unless Batman or Iron Man was involved this category didn't really seem to want a part of the Marvel/DC universe, but shockingly they broke that stretch of antipathy with three nominated films.  The strangest of the bunch was surely X-Men: Days of Future Past, a film that even I had sort of written off as one of those movies that makes the bake-off sort of because it feels like it has to do so.  This is largely because the film only has one particularly compelling effect, the entire scene involving Evan Peters' Quicksilver.  This is admittedly quite impressive, with Peters stopping and mugging in a swirl of liquid and frozen movie stars, but it's only one ten-minute scene in an otherwise boring and predictable movie.  None of the other effects stand out in a major way, so I will chock this one up to a particularly splashy reel for the VFX committee.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is also a weird conundrum of a movie for this list, as its visual effects don't stand out in a necessarily flashy way, but it's by far the best nominated film of this bunch.  Honestly-months later I can't get over how much better The Winter Soldier is than every other Marvel film before it.  It's perhaps the only one of the Marvel movies to remind me why I used to domate my allowance every week buying to Stan Lee while looking at the DC label with disdain.  Still, though, this isn't a nomination for Sound or Editing where it would be easier to defend, but for Visual Effects, and while the action set-pieces were compelling, it was more to do with editing and acting than to do with Visual Effects, and I can't help but feel that this was a way for the Academy to acknowledge a really good movie that wasn't "serious" enough to warrant Best Picture consideration.

The final comic book film that was nominated was the massive hit Guardians of the Galaxy, which sort of reinvented what was starting to look like a rather disappointing summer of comic book films by being insanely funny and gamely coasting off of the undeniable charms of Chris Pratt.  The effects here are more central to the film than either Captain America or X-Men, and so I was definitely predicting this nomination and can better understand it.  At this point stop-motion performance seems pretty par-for-the-course (and one of the other nominees was doing much better with it anyway), but it has to be said that Groot was a treat for filmgoers.  Even better was the gorgeous gold-laser fence that the ships created in one of the film's most memorable moments; this is the sort of thing that plays well in a ten-minute reel, and even pops for you a year after seeing the film.  However, the film runs that issue of too much CGI in some scenes, becoming almost animated but they're still trying to function within a normal world, so the animation feels jarring and kind of like you're watching a soap opera (that heightened fakeness that results, if you get what I'm talking about).  As a result, this is a swing and maybe a hit, but not the home run you'd expect from a film competing for an Oscar.

The final two nominees were clearly the ones battling it out for the trophy, and once again the Apes got left in the cold.  This is sad because Dawn of the Planet of the Apes somehow was even better than its way-too-good original, and the effects in it just continued to build.  Here we have not only Caesar but an entire army of apes descending on the Redwood Forest, never once having that faux animated quality that was affecting Guardians.  The movie's battle scenes are epic and this is one of those rare films that actually uses its effects to advance the story.  We are left with moments like the ending, where (spoiler alert) Caesar essentially becomes a deity of sorts over his army after defeating his nemesis Koba (/end spoiler alert), a scene made all the more beautiful by the intense orange lighting and the attention to detail in the apes' fur and gestures. This is a movie that focuses on the details in a way you don't see from late-summer blockbusters, where giant payoffs and sets are more of the focus.  While it never becomes something revolutionary in a way that Avatar or Gravity managed to be (Visual Effects has been kind of on-fire in recent years in terms of consistent winners), it comes as close as it can to that territory.

The final nominee is the one that you could have predicted for a nomination a mile away, but with good reason.  Interstellar has a number of really amazing effects, even if Nolan came perhaps a year too late (the entire film you're left sort of thinking how much better Gravity was, but that's true of pretty much every effects film).  Still, Nolan knows how to create a visual, and in particular the first planet's wall of water is one that I don't think you can beat.  The sparse water where they wade, and then the gigantic cascade of water, all the while with us feeling the heaviness of the effect-it's mesmerizing and easily the film's best moment (and the best effects moment of 2014 in general).  I wasn't as thrilled with the bookcase design, though the script and my disdain for that story twist may have been more to blame at that point, but there's no denying this is really impressive, and occasionally it leaves Gravity behind and makes on an ode to Douglas Trumball, particularly in the approach to Saturn, which is always a great thing.

Other Precursor Contenders: The Visual Effects Society splits its nominations between effects-driven films (the ones that actually get nominated at the Oscars) and the ones with supporting effects.  Supporting effects nominees included Divergent, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, and Unbroken, with Birdman's occasional booms taking the trophy.  The effects-driven films cheated a bit and went with six nominees, though they still skipped Captain America and put in The Hobbit and Maleficent while Dawn of the Planet of the Apes won.  The BAFTA Awards also skipped Captain America for The Hobbit, though they chose the space adventures of Interstellar for their trophy.  And of course Visual Effects is one of the bakeoff categories, so we know that not far behind these five were Godzilla, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, Transformers: Age of Extinction, and Maleficent.  In hindsight The Hobbit is clearly the film that is missing from this list and probably the surefire sixth-place, though I also remember at the time thinking that Maleficent was a real shot at an upset ala Snow White and the Huntsman and Transformers movies tend to do very well in this category.  All-in-all this was an extremely close race, making the Captain America nomination in particular seem really out-of-nowhere in retrospect.
Films I Would Have Nominated: I surely would have included The Hobbit, whose continued "wow" factor was upped particularly in the frozen waterfall sequences.  I also rather enjoyed the updated effects of Godzilla-quite subtle but still very impressive and showy.  I also will point out that while it by no means was the most impressive from a technical-standpoint, the effects of Under the Skin were marvelous and so wonderfully suited to the film that it feels like a shame that they weren't under consideration, even though an art house movie would never dare to get a nomination here instead of a major summer tent-pole (if The Tree of Life couldn't do it a few years ago with a Best Picture nomination, no one can).
Oscar’s Choice: In a weird case of double-dipping, Oscar went for back-to-back (but cinematically unconnected) space odysseys, selecting Interstellar over Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
My Choice: I will be doing the opposite, going with Dawn which has a more consistently impressive record than Interstellar, though I will admit considering my disdain for one of the movies and my love for the other that this contest ended up closer than I expected.  Following them will be Guardians, Captain America, and X-Men.

And those are my thoughts-what are yours?  Are you with me that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was slightly superior to Interstellar, or are you with Oscar on the Nolan epic?  What do you think caused the random shift to comic book films in 2014, and will it continue in 2015?  And what do you think caused the random Hobbit and Transformers fatigue-share your thoughts below!

Past Best Visual Effects Contests: 20082009, 2010201120122013

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