Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Best Visual Effects: Spectacle > Supporting (Or Is It?)

It's no secret that when it comes to the Oscars, "best" usually equals "most." Subtle, nuanced performances tend to lose to work that screams "look at me!," while the most overwritten screenplays will usually take home the statuette. This is especially true in the craft categories, where the more extravagant the costumes, the more gimmicky the makeup, and the more noticeable the sound, the more likely that film will win.

For evidence of this, look no further than this year's Best Visual Effects category. All five nominees - Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy, Interstellar, and X-Men: Days of Future Past - are effects-driven blockbusters where the eye-candy spectacle is the main draw. These movies are BIG, not only in the scale of their effects but in the prominence of those effects to the narrative. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, for example, relies heavily on the digitally-created apes that drive the narrative, particularly in the motion-capture performances that were used to create them. Guardians of the Galaxy and Interstellar rely on their visual effects to create entire new worlds, while X-Men and Captain America utilize their effects to emphasize their (super)heroics. (this year is heavy on the superheroes, more so than any other lineup with more than three nominees in this category).

The Guardians of the Galaxy

You could easily make the observation that in each of these films, the effects do play something of a supporting role. Indeed, it's impossible to imagine any of these films being possible without their complex visual effects. But how well does this argument really hold up?

More after the jump.

First of all, where am I pulling the "spectacle" and "supporting" terms from? The latter is coming from the Visual Effects Society's annual awards, where - among their many categories - they distinguish effects in live-action films as "visual-effects driven" and "supporting visual effects." The difference between these distinctions becomes evident with a glimpse of their nominees this year:

Best Visual Effects in a Visual-Effects Driven Photoreal/Live-Action Feature Film
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Interstellar
  • Maleficent
  • The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past
                         Best Supporting Visual Effects in a Photoreal/Live-Action Feature Film

  • Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
  • Divergent
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Imitation Game
  • Unbroken
With the exception of Divergent, which does have several effects-heavy sequences, none of the films in the latter category rely to heavily on their visual effects to tell their stories. Instead, those films utilize their visual effects to filling out backgrounds, creating images that would be either impossible or exorbitantly expensive to film, or otherwise digitally "correct" images in the film. In the former category, on the other hand, the effects take center stage, allowing the science-fiction/fantasy worlds those films take place in exist in vibrant, lived-in ways (presumably). That's the difference between "effects-driven" and "supporting": in the former, the effects are essential and emphasized, while in the latter, they're less-prominent within the narratives.

So to what extent are the effects in this year's nominated films supporting, compared to being effects-driven? It would be foolish to say that none of the nominees are effects-driven blockbusters, yet the ways that the effects drive each film vary to fascinating degrees.

A watery planet in Interstellar

For example, both Guardians of the Galaxy and Interstellar rely on their effects to create alien worlds.  However, the look of those worlds are markedly different. In Guardians, the capital world of Xandar and the market port of Knowhere are fanciful creations that owe a huge debt to the sci-fi worlds imagined by Arthur C. Clarke and George Lucas. Interstellar, however, features worlds that could very well be mistaken for our own at first glance, only revealing their unusual nature as the explorers discover mysterious (and dangerous) new elements. Similarly, Guardians features a number of characters created through motion-capture performances, particularly Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). Interstellar, on the other hand, features two androids - TARS and CASE - that were created through a mix of puppetry and digital effects. As such, the effects in Guardians call attention to themselves, while those in Interstellar appear to seamlessly blend with the "real" elements onscreen.

The Triskelion in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

To the same degree, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Captain America: The Winter Solider rely more on digital elements being added to a world that is recognizably Earth. X-Men revisits the 1970s, inserting mutants with remarkable powers and mutant-hunting robots known as Sentinels, as well as creating a post-apocalyptic world in which the Sentinels have evolved into genocidal overlords. Captain America places a huge S.H.I.E.L.D. compound, the sleek Triskelion, on the shores of the Potomac, and revolves around the use of massive helicarriers that would function as weaponized surveillance drones. In each of these cases, the effects are relied on less for world-building and more for creating thrilling action sequences, ranging from amusing (the "Time in a Bottle" sequence in X-Men) to eye-popping (Captain America's showdown in the sky with the Winter Soldier).

"Reclaiming the city" in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, then, is the odd one out. This is perhaps the most effects-driven film in the bunch, considering that half of the central characters are digitally-created apes. Yet you could make a strong case for the effects being more than just spectacle. The motion-capture performances that drive the film - especially Andy Serkis as ape leader Caesar and Toby Kebbel as his right-hand man (monkey) Koba - are impressive in their nuances, making the characters feel real even though they're digitally created. In fact, much like Godzilla (a noticeable omission in this category), Dawn functions as a "post-human blockbuster," nearly reducing the human characters to minor roles (most of which are antagonistic). Similarly, though the film takes place on Earth, it's set in a San Francisco that's been decimated by plague; nature is reclaiming the city, and not just the apes. The effects aren't just crucial to the film; they practically are the film.

As previously stated, no one would confuse these films for small-scale projects with minimal effects work. It's no secret that Hollywood filmmaking is gravitating ever more towards effects-heavy blockbusters, relying more on the spectacle of what could previously only be imagined than on stories that could be all too real. Escapism has always been king, but as technology evolves, the scale of our collective fantasies has expanded. So we can't say that it's a surprise that the Academy will stuff this category with effects-heavy blockbusters. What is interesting, at least, is how each film utilizes its visual effects to create worlds and drive their respective narratives. As we've shown, these films are hardly empty eye-candy; instead, they're using their effects in exciting and unique ways.

Last year, I typically ended these Oscar posts with what my ballot would look like for the category. So here's my ballot for Best Visual Effects:

1. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
2. Interstellar
3. Captain America: The Winter Solider
4. Guardians of the Galaxy
5. X-Men: Days of Future Past

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