Friday, February 22, 2008

Best Visual Effects

The Golden Compass – Michael L. Fink, Bill Westenhofer, Ben Morris, Trevor Wood
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End – John Knoll, Hal T. Hickel, Charlie Gibson, John Frazier
Transformers – Scott Farrar, Scott Benza, Russell Earl, John Frazier

Will win: I rail about this category annually, so this year, in a feeble protest, I’m shifting it to an earlier position in the sequence of categories (‘cause, like, now it has to be noticed, right?). Anyway, winning an Academy Award is the highest honor a film can receive (at least from the American media), but obviously not all Oscars are created equal. While publicists might try to make a movie like Memoirs of a Geisha sound impressive by proclaiming that it won three Oscars, that quantitative accomplishment becomes less meaningful when you learn that those three wins were for cinematography, art direction, and costume design. You know what other movie won exactly three Academy Awards? The Godfather. I look forward to the Gregg Easterbrook column debating which was the better film.

My point is that each individual award handed out during the Oscars can be assigned a ranking – a certain level of relative importance. Following the methodology of the Rotoworld Draft Guide, I tend to break things into tiers. In the top tier, we have the Big Six (with Best Picture obviously the big kahuna, then Best Director and the four acting awards). That’s followed by the two screenplay categories, since screenplays are really fucking important. And in tier three, I’d put cinematography, art direction (which the Academy really needs to officially rename as “production design” so people better understand what it means), and, yes, visual effects. Of all the technical awards handed out at the Oscars, I firmly believe Best Visual Effects to be by far the most important.

Why? Because it is a facet of filmmaking that is consciously recognized by the average moviegoer. Attributes of production such as costume design, editing, and sound mixing might be inherently important to a film’s success, but those qualities aren’t likely to make an impression on most viewers. (This includes myself – I don't pretend to be this ridiculously perceptive filmgoer who's wise to all of the subtle techniques of filmmaking. Except when Emma Watson is involved.) But in the current cinematic era of digital wizardry and computerized enhancement, people who watch movies are actively aware of their visual effects and whether or not they properly complement a movie or, in some cases, detract from it.

Consider an example: One of the common complaints against the first Chronicles of Narnia movie (and I say “first” because yeah, they’re making another, yippee) was that the CGI animals all looked unbelievably fake. It was a nice effort on the part of the filmmakers to integrate CGI with real-world actors, but the results were so artificial that many viewers were turned off. That we consciously noticed the substandard application of visual effects negatively impacted our appreciation of the movie as a whole.

Now contrast that with a movie like Return of the King – the gold standard of fantasy films – in which CGI was applied so seamlessly that we reacted in one of two ways. The first was just to drop our jaws in wonderment, dazed with that inimitable “How did they do that?” feeling. (My generation first fully experienced that sensation of awe when we watched Terminator 2: Judgment Day. For the prior generation, it was Star Wars. For my buddy Tom, it was Birth of a Nation.) When Legolas mounted his horse even as it charged toward him in The Two Towers, the fluidity of the movements – the flawless merger of elf and stallion – was so damn impressive that the entire theatre emitted an awed, congratulatory gasp.

The second form of reaction – and perhaps the more desirable – was not to react at all. Over the course of the three Lord of the Rings pictures, Peter Jackson grew so gifted in assimilating computer technology into his physical filmmaking that during the introduction of Minas Tirith – when his camera swooped first around the border, then into the heart, and finally up to the apex of the City of Kings – we had no conception of what specifically was filmed literally and what was computer-generated. The immaculate degree of this composition was unprecedented, and it represented a next step in filmmakers’ continuing campaigns to both delight and deceive audiences. An obvious theoretical goal of the application of visual effects – if perhaps a creepy one – is for us to watch a movie and be completely incapable of determining what is “real” and what isn’t. The philosophical implications of this notwithstanding, it’s indicative of just how important visual effects are to the continuing evolution of mainstream cinema.

Which makes me ask the following question, which I ask every year: Why the fuck are there only three nominations? The achievements in this particular field of moviemaking are of such monumental import that they are destined to shape the future language of cinema. So why the hell does the Academy grant Best Visual Effects only 60% the number of nominations offered to a standard category?

I honestly have no idea. We might never figure it out. But it needs to change, or I’m going to send the Academy a cutting of Devil’s Snare.

As for which of the three nominated films is going to win, all of them have their drawbacks. I think Transformers is too brash a movie for the Academy’s tastes (think John C. McGinley’s assessment of Keanu Reeves in Point Break – young, dumb, and full of cum). The Golden Compass is more gentle, but it wasn’t particularly well-reviewed, and it was such a relative bomb (domestic gross of $69 million, compared to more than $300 million each for its competitors) that I wonder how many voters even saw it. And Dead Man’s Chest already took home the Best Visual Effects Oscar for the Pirates franchise last year – I’m not sure the Academy will be thrilled about voting for the same series again, especially when it’s been unjustifiably panned by many critics.

So it’s coin-flipping time, yet again. I’ll take Golden Compass. It has a nice, pretty, computer-generated polar bear – who doesn’t love polar bears?

Should win: Transformers featured some impressively bulky CGI creations, but the movie was so middling that I barely remember them. At World’s End has the maelstrom sequence, one of the most phenomenal action sequences ever filmed, but that succeeds as much due to Verbinski’s skill and the screenplay’s whimsy as the visual effects. Given that the rest of the movie has surprisingly little action, At World’s End doesn’t rely on visual gimmickry as much as one would have anticipated.

The Golden Compass, on the other hand, skillfully employs visual effects in its every frame. The computerized creation of the Arctic bear Iorek Byrnison is undoubtedly striking, but even more extraordinary is the film’s unqualified success in its replication of daemons. In Pullman’s fantasy universe, all humans are accompanied by an external animal spirit who functions as their constant companion, as well as a seeming extension of their soul. (I don’t want to get too bogged down in the philosophy of this, but the human-daemon relationship actually gets pretty heavy in the novels.) What’s more, children’s daemons have not yet settled on a fixed form and can change shape at will. (I can only imagine director Chris Weitz’s horror when he heard about that part.)

It’s a considerable challenge to translate these ideas gracefully to the screen, a challenge that Weitz and his effects team conquer supremely. Not only have they seemingly provided every person who populates The Golden Compass with a highly individualized daemon, but they have done so with extreme elegance. There is nothing showy about the daemons’ existence – they simply exist. As such, The Golden Compass has achieved that coveted second reaction I discussed earlier, where the audience accepts the visual effects as a given rather than focuses on them as a distraction. When Lyra learns that she’s heading north, her daemon Pantalaimon emerges in a ferrety form and trembles, “North? It’s cold up there!” – his fur then turns arctic-white. Watching that moment, we don’t think, “Wow, the computer-generated ferret can use the magic of digital technology to transform the color of its fur!”. Instead we think, “Aw, Pantalaimon’s worried about the cold”. The best visual effects exist not to flaunt their own conception but to subtly enhance the communication of a film’s story – The Golden Compass understands this tenet and puts it to excellent use.

Spider-Man 3. Yet another reason the Academy is a bunch of dunderheads – by limiting itself to three options, it excludes a movie like Spider-Man 3, which features a special effects sequence so beautiful that it constitutes high art. It’s the birth of the Sandman, who’s played with integrity by Thomas Hayden Church and is envisioned by Sam Raimi and his crew as a mournful being comprised of an infinite number of infinitesimal grains of sand. The scene begins with a closeup of little more than a heap of sand crystals; then the camera observes stoically as the grains slowly swarm together, forming a sort of sinister, self-sustaining particle river. It twists and twirls like an insect cloud, and suddenly it rises up again in the form of a perversely misshapen head – it looks like a mad scientist’s brain minus one of the lobes – before collapsing back onto itself. The gradual repetition of this process slowly reveals the unmistakable form of a man, endlessly shifting yet nevertheless possessing arms, legs, and a torso. As the man rises – a phoenix minus the ash – he gradually takes the form of Church, shrugging off layers of sand with a visible clench of his stomach and an audible hiss. The scene ends with the newly formed Sandman laboring toward the camera, pulling along with him first one hunk of leg, then the other, eventually gathering enough human strength to journey on.

It’s a spellbinding, elegiac sequence, buoyed by one of the best cues from Christopher Young’s otherwise unremarkable score, and its most memorable image – shown when the Sandman attempts to pick up a fallen ornament of his daughter’s only to have it literally slip through his fingers – is shattering. Spider-Man 3 may not live up to the pedigree established by its predecessors, but no other superhero movie has ever featured a birthing sequence such as this.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Curiously enough, the maturation of the Harry Potter franchise is evident in its utilization of visual effects as well as its darker themes and more intense plotting. The effects in Chris Columbus’ initial movies, while implemented with careful technique, were almost ostentatiously showy – when Harry first puts on his Invisibility Cloak, the scene has a “Look what I can do!” feel to it. In contrast, the effects-driven passages of Goblet of Fire – Harry’s confrontation with the merpeople, the sinister and shuddering hedge maze, and of course the Hungarian Horntail – were considerably more intense and possessed a threatening aura of menace.

The effects in Order of the Phoenix don’t always carry that same ominous quality (partly due to the movie’s general lack of action scenes), but they’re impressive nonetheless. Harry’s initial battle with a Dementor is sudden and terrifying, and the Order’s broomstick flight over the Thames is both highly invigorating and completely unforced. And now we are only two films away from that scene in the vault of Gringotts …

Ratatouille. This is more a question than a complaint: Are CGI movies allowed in this category? Does the nominated film have to employ some sort of integration with live actors in order to merit consideration? If not, then doesn’t the colorful, flawless animation of Ratatouille constitute one continuous, impeccably constructed visual effect? I’m honestly not bitter about this – I’d just like to know.
(About the three nominations instead of five? That, I’m bitter.)

No comments: