The LAMB Devours The Oscars 2017: Best Visual Effects

by Jay Cluitt · January 30, 2017 · Featured, LAMB Devours the Oscars · No Comments

Every day until the Oscars ceremony we’ll be highlighting a different category or movie here on the LAMB! Here’s a link to all the posts written so far:

Today the LAMB’s shepherd Jay Cluitt – otherwise known as me – is discussing the nominees for Best Visual Effects:

I’m a big fan of visual effects. When I was younger great CGI would be something that fascinated me in film – it’s why Peter Jackson’s King Kong is still one of my favourite films – and it helped retain my interest in Computer-Aided Design and develop it into a career in engineering. If I could work in film, it’d probably be in an effects capacity, as making the impossible appear real is something that interests me greatly, and I’m often left in awe at many of the effects realised on screen. This year’s nominees are a mixed bag in everything but quality, so let’s get into them, shall we?

Deepwater Horizon

This in the only nominee I’ve yet to see (it gets released for rental in the UK tomorrow, and I’m looking forward to seeing it a great deal), but judging by the trailer and some behind-the-scenes interviews with special effects supervisor Burt Dalton the effects are predominantly fire- and explosion-based, entirely centred around the disastrous oil rig. This was a surprise nomination – my money was on Arrival filling this slot – and it’s unlikely to take home a trophy, but considering the great care and attention that was paid to both making as many effects as practically as possible, but also keeping everyone nearby safe from the deadly explosions, then I’m happy to see it nominated. Dalton also made it clear in an interview that they felt it was important to not make this an “effects film,” instead they wanted it all to look as realistic as possible, depicting as close to the real event as they could, without being disrespectful to those involved.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

It’s strange to think that a film whose major talking point upon release was controversy over some of the visual effects would then find itself up for an award highlighting them, but here we are anyway. When Rogue One was initially nominated my first thoughts went along the lines of “Yeah, those AT-ACTs were pretty impressive I guess, and the space-stuff looked fine, plus that squid-monster thing, oh and the robot!” but then I remembered the more likely reason this got nominated, for recreating two characters almost entirely from CGI, mapping more familiar faces over the top of stand-in actors. It’s my opinion that these effects are distasteful and still desperately trying to climb out of the uncanny valley, but we must consider how far this technology has come in that some movie-goers were oblivious to the fact that the people they were watching weren’t actually completely there. Also, everything else looked phenomenally real, so much so that I often got lost in the film, momentarily unaware that, for example, K-2SO was really just Alan Tudyk wearing stilts and a mo-cap suit.

Doctor Strange

If we’re talking about the overall film, for me Doctor Strange is the best of this bunch, and it ended up pretty highly on my end-of-year list, and a lot of that is down to the effects. I like to think that a key purpose of visual effects, and indeed cinema in general, is to show things we’ve never seen before, even in our own imaginations, and Doctor Strange certainly did that for me. It had the unenviable task of portraying magic and the ability to absorb energy from alternate realities in a realistic and plausible manner, and it achieved this and much more. Kaleidoscopic cities tumbling around, hands sprouting from areas where no hands should ever sprout, apples becoming uneaten, ruins rebuilding themselves and a sentient comedic side-kick cape were all amongst the many incredibly impressive visuals that I’m very much looking forward to revisiting soon. Doctor Strange is unlikely to win, but I’d be very happy if it did so.

Kubo and the Two Strings

Another surprising nomination (at least to me) was this film, mainly because I didn’t think a film eligible for Best Animated Feature could also justifiably garner a nomination for Visual Effects due to them being almost opposing fields. However this isn’t the first animated film nominated for Visual Effects, with Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas receiving a nomination in 1994, and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit winning Best Animated Feature in 2006, so precedent has been set in both camps, but Kubo is (I think) the first film to ever be nominated for both awards, even though it’s unlikely that it’ll take home either. This is a real shame because, as much as I love Doctor Strange as an overall film, Kubo and the Two Strings does some truly magnificent and innovative effects work. Were I a far more patient and skilled person than I am, and if I didn’t rely on earning money to survive in life, then there’s a good chance I’d be involved in stop-motion animation. I love it. There’s so much  care and attention that must be taken to move a character the most minuscule amount, the creativity of character design, the skill of creating said character, their environment, mannerisms, clothing, accessories; their entire world! And to then put these characters in situations that force the hand of the animator to think outside of any box that’s ever been conceived of before, to manipulate light and motion, distort time and visuals to create the illusion of life from that which has none, it’s mesmerising. Kubo isn’t just a stop-motion film with some CGI post-production sheen, it’s a genuine work of art and innovation, developing new techniques after literally years of research and development, and whilst the Academy have announced that those involved will be the recipients of some of the non-televised technical awards, I think they’re more than worthy of delivering a speech to the world on the night as well.

The Jungle Book

Let’s be honest though, The Jungle Book is going to walk this, and honestly that is OK. It’s a great film, far better than an unnecessary remake of a true Disney classic has any right to be, and a lot of that is down to the effects. It’s phenomenal just how much of this film wasn’t really there during the filming, considering how realistic it appears on screen. It’s an utterly bizarre experience trying to get your head around the fact that you’re not really seeing a bear talking like Bill Murray. My issue is though that I don’t know how much of this film is truly “new” and not just “better than the last time”. I’m sure developments were made within the world of CGI for The Jungle Book, but they can’t be as drastic as those made for Kubo, surely? How much better is this than, for example, Avatar, which was made seven years earlier? It’s not a fair question because I don’t really know the answer, and it’s also incredibly unfair to the effects artists who have gone above and beyond with this film to make something that is truly impressive and enchanting, but it leaves a bitter taste that it’s more than likely to beat what is, in my opinion, a far more deserving contender to the podium.

What do you think of this year’s Visual Effects nominees?