Thursday, March 13, 2008

Predicting the Visual Effects Oscar, Part 5

This is a follow-up to our continuing series, "Predicting the VFX Oscar Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 and Part 4."

I updated the 2007 chart to indicate the winner of the visual effects Oscar, "The Golden Compass."

As you may remember from the previous articles in this series, we determined that critical acclaim (as indicated by the Tomatometer rating) was a fairly good predictor of the winner of the visual effects Academy Award.

"Compass's" win throws our theory for a loop. A huge loop. It garnered the least amount of critical acclaim amongst the three nominated films. In 23 years of charting (1984-2006, Part 2 of the series), in years where there were three nominees for Best Visual Effects, the film with the lowest critical acclaim never won the Oscar. In addition, the film with the least box office return never won the Oscar, as well. Thumbing its nose at the historical statistical data, the 80th Academy Awards gave the visual effects Oscar to "The Golden Compass," the film with both the lowest critical acclaim (by a slim margin) and the lowest box office tally, amongst its fellow nominees.


So what happened here? How did the Academy voters circumvent historical precedent? Usually, as our theory surmises, the film that garners the most critical acclaim can ride that momentum of energy into Oscar season, thus influencing the Oscar vote. The most obvious example of this is 2000's "Gladiator," which rode a wave of acclaim and popularity to win the Oscar for visual effects, even when the general consensus in the visual effects community was that other films deserved Oscar's highest honor for visual effects.

Our assumption is that vast majority of the over-6000 Academy voters, as we pointed out in Part 1, are not as industry-savvy as one might think. They are, as history suggests, quite susceptible to aggressive marketing campaigns (think Miramax in the '90s) and pop culture phenomenons ("Titanic," "Forrest Gump"), especially since, as we all know, they don't actually see all the films for which they are voting.

Industry watchers almost unanimously predicted that "Transformers," directed by Michael Bay, would win the visual effects Oscar for several reasons: its celebrated visual effects, its enormous popularity at the box office, and the fact that the movie was generally entertaining. So exactly how did "Compass" claim Oscar gold over the robots in disguise? Here are a few ideas that I've heard over the past few weeks.

Theory 1: The Academy is biased against ILM. This myth, still repeated among some visual effects fans and professionals alike, proclaims that old Hollywood is still fuming at George Lucas, founder of ILM, for his departure from Hollywood, and his hoarding of "Star Wars" riches. The theory also says that Hollywood is tired of ILM 'bullying' the effects community, and after years and years of success, needed to be brought down a notch (which is what caused a 12 year 'drought' of Academy Award wins for ILM). Therefore, Academy voters shunned the ILM productions, "Transformers" and "Pirates 3" and voted for the non-ILM production, "Compass."

This theory is bunk. The general membership of the Academy is not as savvy as one might think. Certainly, they may understand that ILM is an industry leader in visual effects, and that ILM is owned by George Lucas, but I find it highly unlikely that any one Academy voter could tell you which film ILM worked on. This is not the reason "Transformers" didn't win.

Theory 2: The vote was split between "Pirates 3" and "Transformers," giving "Compass" the win. This theory postulates that the majority of Academy voters actually wished that either "Pirates 3" or "Transformers" take home the Oscar, giving a plurality to "Compass."

How would this work? Let's say that 60% of the Academy voters marked either "Pirates 3" or "Transformers" as having the best visual effects of the year, which isn't entirely unreasonable. Well, if that 60% is split right down the middle, that leaves the 40% earning "Compass" with a plurality, and the Oscar win.

Personally, I think this theory is hard to swallow. Both ILM pictures would have to had to earn no greater than 66% of the total vote, with neither film earning more than 32% of the vote, for this theory to hold water. Those are some slim margins, people, and although ILM loyalists would really like to believe it, I just don't think this is true.

Theory 3: "Compass" is the best family-friendly choice. "Compass," on paper, is the most family friendly of the three nominees, starring cute child actors, the handsome Daniel Craig, the beautiful Nicole Kidman, and-- gasp! -- cute, cuddly, talking animals. In fact, one cannot forget a similar upset from 1995, when "Babe," the G-rated family-friendly film defeated the overwhelming odds-on favorite, "Apollo 13." What did "Babe" have that "Apollo 13" didn't have? Cute, cuddly, talking animals.

Although all three films carried the PG-13 rating, "Transformers" and "Pirates 3" were hard PG-13's, in my opinion, with some serious mean streaks of violence and intensity, while "Compass'" action sequences were less intense.

When presented with a choice of these three films-- three films that the majority of voters probably did not see-- the elder Academy members may have thought to themselves, "Which of these three films could I safely take my kids to?" or even "Which of these three films could I safely take my grandchildren to?"

Their answers probably went something like this: "Well, I don't really want to take them to another long 'Pirates' movie, and that 'Transformers' has a lot of gunplay and violence... I think I'll choose the Nicole Kidman picture." A checkmark goes besides "The Golden Compass" for visual effects.

Theory 4: The Academy doesn't want to reward Michael Bay. The poster child for 'all that is wrong in today's cinema' is Mr. Bay, according to the Hollywood establishment, and the theory states that the Hollywood establishment would go out of its way to avoid rewarding Bay by not voting for the film that bears his name.

Bay's crimes include: legitimizing quick MTV-style editing; making films that celebrate explosions, cars, car chases, and boobs; creating the world's shoutiest movies, where a quiet moment is an anomaly; creating dizzying shaky-cam action sequences with so much frenetic camera movement whose ultimate outcome is confusing and disorienting, leaving the audience wondering 'what the heck is going on?'; creating one-dimensional characters; essentially filming misogynistic, racist, jingoistic, product-placement-dripping, military recruitment movies with only as much integrity and honesty that 13 year old boys can handle... and all along the way, driving home with giant dumptrucks full of cash. Bay's cinematic transgressions have been well-documented; here are a few articles from AVClub that succinctly state cinephiles' attitudes towards Bay: their review of his DVD commentary of "The Island," their review of "Bad Boys II," one, or their review of "Transformers."

Personally, I think it's a combination of Theories 3 and 4.

What do you think? Or, is it insulting to the crew and talent behind "The Golden Compass" to even theorize why its fellow nominees didn't win the Oscar?

And, just to re-restate the previously stated, this entire discussion about "Predicting the Oscar" is framed by our statistical and quantifyable analysis of the Academy Awards nominees and winners over the past three decades. I am not making any kind of subjective statements about which film actually deserved the award for innovation and quality of visual effects.

7 comments:

El Pollo Loco said...

Would it not be great for the academy award for best visual effects to be voted by a jury of the nominees peers. I find it quite ridiculous that these "suits", old men or who ever vote for the academy, judge excellence in work without even knowing what excellence in that chosen field is...for shame and a curse on both their houses. And to think that some never even watch that film, and yet have the audacity to vote on it. Transformers should have won strictly because of its technically superior effects over the others, pirates and talking bears are very outdated and have been accomplished with great success in the past. Visual effects awards should be given to movies that leap tall buildings in a single bound. Compass's talking animals was already done in Narnia and past pirate movies have already exhausted and usurped world's end effects. Predictions and voting are more based on what the Academy "thinks of certain companies or directors" rather than the award being given to people and places that push and expand the medium into visions that not even Christ can see. Nuff said.

Vladimir Sever said...

Hi, Todd! Been a reader of VFX HQ for ages -- well, the ages past -- and I just recently discovered your blog. I can't tell you how glad I am to see you posting again: your comments are golden, and your analysis is usually spot on (well, aside from the one bit where you confused the Al DiSarro live-action pyro with Boss Film compositing work, but that's all in the past). And to see you work as a TD at ILM of all places -- wohoo! Couldn't have happened to a better person.

As for the Oscars -- while I was as stunned as everyone with the TGC win, I don't think it's as implausible as the consensus is.
For starters, Mike Fink has been in the industry for ages, and a lot of people recognize his name. Another thing, POTC:AWE was a third sequel in a franchise where the second film just won the Oscar, and the Academy perhaps felt that another award only a year later would be overdoing it for "more of the same" (as perceived by them). That left us with a contest between TF and TGC, both character animation shows that started new franchises (one successful Stateside, one successful internationally -- your B.O. numbers wouldn't be so skewed if you figured in the major international success of TGC, $300M and counting). Transformers had hard-body models galore, but The Golden Compass had oodles of furry animals, birds and whatnot, along with major digital environments and stunning new vistas. Both films depended on those to tell their story, TGC to an arguably larger extent (as half the cast there were speaking and performing CG creations, while the Transformers were apparently considered an addendum to the actual characters).

Yes, the effects work in TF looks more photoreal, but the challenge of all that fur and integration into synthetic environments might have been perceived as greater; i.e. less of the case of "been there, done that", even if that's not factually true.

Plus, even in its presently cut and mangled form, TGC is intellectually a more intriguing movie than either of the competitors. This isn't readily apparent among the film geeks online, nor among my fellow US critics (who abhor ambition above all), but might have been felt among the Academy members.

Finally, this might have been a sympathy vote for a movie that was mercilessly critiqued by some facets of the religious establishment, sight unseen. Again, mostly in America -- it did well with both audiences and critics elsewhere, but RT won't tell you that.

So while I do hope that this win leads to the His Dark Materials sequels, I'm convinced that ILM's good work will be honored by the Academy soon enough, perhaps as soon as next year.

Take care, and don't lose heart!

Todd said...

el pollo loco wrote:
>Would it not be great for the academy award for best visual effects to be voted by a jury of the nominees peers.

That's actually how the British Academy Awards work - the full Academy decides on the nominees, and the individual branches vote on the winners in each categories.

Todd said...

Vladimir Sever wrote:
>Hi, Todd! Been a reader of VFX HQ for ages... your comments are golden, and your analysis is usually spot on

You're too kind.

>(well, aside from the one bit where you confused the Al DiSarro live-action pyro with Boss Film compositing work, but that's all in the past).

Oh, boy, I'm racking my brain and I can't remember to what you're referring. Refresh my memory. Was this an error on the site?

>For starters, Mike Fink has been in the industry for ages, and a lot of people recognize his name.

Really? He may be a big name in the effects business, but I doubt that the majority of Academy voters are familiar with him and his career.


>POTC:AWE was a third sequel in a franchise where the second film just won the Oscar, and the Academy perhaps felt that another award only a year later would be overdoing it for "more of the same" (as perceived by them).

Yes, but remember, just recently "Lord of the Rings" won the Oscar three consecutive years for visual effects.

Thanks for writing Vladimir! I really appreciate all your comments.

Anonymous said...

Would it not be great for the academy award for best visual effects to be voted by a jury of the nominees peers.

> That's actually how the British Academy Awards work - the full Academy decides on the nominees, and the individual branches vote on the winners in each categories.


Keep in mind that The Golden Compass also won the British Academy Awards (BAFTA) for best VFX this year amongst 5 nominees. Transformers wasn't even nominated using this methodology.

The Golden Compass had some pretty phenomenal digital character integration.. not only in terms of photoreal imagery, but also in terms of acting/performance that helped the story along. Since most of the academy voters are/were actors.. maybe they just voted for the movie from their point of view

J Farrell said...

Hi there Todd. I liked your write-up on the awards prediction. I wanted to chime in here with perhaps an insider point of view, having been the compositing supervisor on both Transformers and Compass here at Digital Domain.

I spent 8 months on TF establishing hard body look development for a the robot shots and 4 months on Compass doing a variety of stuff. By far the hardest I have ever worked was on Compass due to its timeframe but also how complex the visuals were needed to be.

I must say that I think Compass was the most violent and darkest of the three films. Bear jaws ripped off and children being severed from their soles or shot at by soldiers. So I disagree that the academy would have thought Compass should win because they could take their kids to it.

Pirates did not win because it won last year for exactly the same visuals. Transformers will win next year with T2. Talking animals have been done before but no where near as complex.

On a side note, Transformers was made by two FX houses, thus alot easier to keep the look consistent between the shots. Compass was made by 15 FX houses, due to its scale and timeframe. Sometimes 5 houses working on the same shot. To have kept that all looking consistent for 1100 shots compared to 600 for Trans just blows my mind, and my hat is off to Mike Fink for having pulled this off.

And as Mike said in his speach, it is much harder to create an intimate character driven scene than a splashy spectacle. Think of Gollum and King Kong, the reasons those films one.

Todd said...

Joe, thanks for writing and sharing your thoughts on the topic. While I agree with you on most counts, I should comment on a few of your points.

>I must say that I think Compass was the most violent and darkest of the three films... so I disagree that the academy would have thought Compass should win because they could take their kids to it.

Please remember the context within which this whole discussion is framed; the point of view of the Academy voters is limited, and they are very susceptible to suggestion, advertising, buzz, etc. The *perception* is that "Compass" is the better family-friendly film (based on the one-sheet, the marketing similarities to the Narnia films, children featured prominently in the film, talking animals, etc.), regardless of the reality of the situation. This is why I believe voters favored "Compass" over the other films.

>Pirates did not win because it won last year for exactly the same visuals.

I disagree - the Maelstrom was prominently featured in the marketing of "Pirates 3," and was not similar, thematically, to imagery in the other films. In a broad sense, you might also argue that "Two Towers" had the same visuals as "Fellowship," as did "Return of the King," and yet *they* all won Oscars.

>Transformers will win next year with T2.

I find that extremely unlikely.

>And as Mike said in his speach, it is much harder to create an intimate character driven scene than a splashy spectacle.

All things being equal, I agree. And your point about Gollum and Kong drive home the point that the Academy generally rewards films with character-driven visual effects, rather than spectacle - especially over the last 10 years.

Again, thanks so much for commenting and sharing your thoughts.

-todd