Editor’s Note: Our Oscar countdown through the categories moves on the visual delights of 2015 cinema
Ex Machina (Mark Williams Ardington, Sara Bennett, Paul Norris, and Andrew Whitehurst)
Mad Max Fury Road (Andrew Jackson, Dan Oliver, Andy Williams, and Tom Wood)
The Martian (Anders Langlands, Chris Lawrence, Richard Stammers, and Steven Warner)
The Revenant (Richard McBride, Matt Shumway, Jason Smith, and Cameron Waldbauer)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Chris Corbould, Roger Guyett, Paul Kavanagh, and Neal Scanlan)
Trivia: The nominees for all the films except Star Wars, are celebrating their first Oscar nominations. Three out of five, that’s the most Best Picture nominees up for this award in a year. The last time a Picture nominee was nominated and lost to a non-Best Picture nominee was in 1970.
This past year has seen the importance of practical effects refocused after being brought into the forefront of some of the year’s biggest films. That in mind, many of this year’s nominees in the Visual Effects category have combined the two, practical and computer generated imagery, with truly incredible results that only confirms that the future is bright for testing the limits in filmmaking. So in true Oscar’s fashion, let’s take a look at the nominees and their noteworthy work in this year’s most revered films:
Let’s talk about the piece of visual effects work assuming centre stage in Alex Garland’s gorgeous A.I. drama Ex Machina, our first nominee in this year’s category. If ever a visual effect were important in helping to mould the character and the feeling of a film, that need is fervently on display in Ex Machina. Nathan’s curious humanoid creation Ava is exquisite in every single detail. From the unique design to the execution, the end product is breath-taking on screen and is an example of fantastic effects work. Work that could potentially, and unfortunately be too understated to win the award. Ava’s sleek silhouetted look is not only a beautiful innovative design but an integral and crucial part of the construction of her character, her status as an A. I. and the plausibility and effect of the film as a whole.
The Academy Award for Best Visual Effects takes into consideration the way the effect contributes to the wider production of the film and the level of artistry and skill on show in the finished product. The work of Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Mark Ardington, Sara Bennett and no doubt a whole team of talented individuals represents a clear instance where both of these boxes are strongly ticked. The construction of Ava’s appearance is crucial, it needs to be believable for the whole structure of the film to work and be plausible and acceptable to the audience. This achievement aside, Ava’s look is crucial in the sense that it works in direct collaboration with Alicia Vikander’s inspired, BAFTA nominated performance that places Ava as the captivating force behind the film. This performance hinges on the construction of the relationship between Ava and Caleb and exposing the very humane personal aspect of it. The balance between the human and robotic elements of Ava’s design allow Vikander’s performance to be perceived without any shadow of doubt in the audience’s mind, we forget Vikander, we forget her mesh suit, and focus on Ava. The effects accentuate and work in conjunction with Vikander, and place the spotlight on the greater picture of Ava and the world she inhabits and disturbs in Ex Machina. Surely this is the essence of what fantastic visual effects work can and should be able to achieve in cinema. It certainly ticks all the boxes The Academy propose and I would not be surprised if it snatched the award away from the shadow of some of the larger, bigger budgeted films in this category.
From the mysterious events of Ex Machina to the explosive display of mechanised bravado in perhaps one of the most gloriously aggressive road movies in the history of cinema in Mad Max: Fury Road. This film astounded many cinemagoers, and I personally am overjoyed that the film, its director and other behind the scenes talent have been recognised in this year’s Oscars nominations. Like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, to an extent The Martian, and Ex Machina in its lack of green screen, Mad Max: Fury Road saw a return to and emphasis on the use of practical effects, with epic results that demonstrates to studios that endless green screen is not always the best option even on a big budget blockbuster. You may ask then, why this film is nominated in a category that praises the work that goes into crafting and manipulating imagery that lies outside of the real physical world of filming? And of course the answer is that Mad Max contains some stunning visualised landscapes, settings and backdrops that enhance the world of its characters indelibly. The fact that this preliminarily slips our mind as an audience is testament to the work of the nominees. For instance the barren rocky landscape of the Citadel, that atmospheric storm or the backdrop to the War Boys’ cries. All this work is in addition to the skill required to edit practical effects seamlessly with computer generated images, colour grading effects and image enhancement that takes place during post-production which makes Mad Max: Fury Road, also a best picture nominee, a sure contender for the award.
Next up for consideration is The Martian. This film had the difficult task of visualising and bringing another planet to life, one that doesn’t seem too far out of reach in our own time. The Martian boasts some impressive atmosphere effects, zero gravity sequences and strong realistic visuals that allow what seems like a contemporarily accessible planet to be believable and look great on screen. The achievement of creating a realistic and striking landscape is visually written in the film itself, the visuals are fantastic and create an impressive canvas for Matt Damon’s performance. However, despite its best picture nomination and the previous Oscar’s success of nominee Chris Lawrence, I can’t help but feel that The Martian could potentially be overlooked. Call it a hunch, but despite the commendable work on display in the film, it may not be enough to stand out from the other nominees. Perhaps the award-winning work of Gravity (2013) has slightly dulled some of the effects at work in The Martian, regardless of their quality.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant is without question one of the most discussed films in this year’s Oscars race. As well as being held as the film that might just clinch the Oscar for its leading man Leonardo DiCaprio, it has also become partly defined by one of the most unsettling scenes I have ever experienced in the cinema. With a plethora of well-founded nominations behind The Revenant, including Best Picture and multiple technical nominations, it would not be surprising if the team behind the film’s visual effects were to be announced as the winners in this category for their outstanding work. Of course the starring role of the bear mauling in the film is no secret, it’s incredibly realistic depiction is memorable as an audience member. The detailed, elaborate choreography and research involved in creating the scene demonstrates a relationship between the creative and technical elements of the filmmaking behind The Revenant that makes it such a standout piece of cinema.
Finally we come to the final nominee of the category that just so happens to be one of the most exciting and highly-anticipated films to burst onto our screens in 2015. With multiple successful nominees to its name and excellent work to show for it, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is in prime position to claim the award just by sheer scale and variety. The film is heaving with dynamic visual effects sequences that bring Star Wars action to the screen at a level audiences have never seen before, swiftly brushing the memory of the outdated prequels under the carpet. This results in a high-octane cinematic ride that facilitates the narrative and its characters perfectly. The dynamism, range and well-executed nature of the visual effects work in Star Wars: The Force Awakens could potentially be a head turner for the members of The Academy.
It is clear that year after year, the collaboration between talented individuals and advancing technology is providing audiences with evermore impressive spectacle in the cinema, whether it is subtle or quite frankly mind-blowing. If I were voting with my heart I would sincerely hope that the nuanced, beautifully detailed and executed work in The Revenant or Ex Machina could clinch the award for visual effects at the ceremony on February 28.