Friday, February 03, 2017

The VFX Predictinator Was Completely Wrong, Part 2

What is The VFX Predictinator? Start here.

After much thought, we believe that the visual effects industry may have entered into a new era of its storied history. The first chapter of the digital era, launched with 1989’s “The Abyss” and its never-before-seen visual effects of the pseudopod, has ended, and a new chapter of visual effects history, the "post-digital" era, may have already begun. The high expectations of stellar-quality visual effects because of digital effects’ democratization and easier accessibility have exploded; a greater-than-ever diversity of films that can harness the power of visual effects is now a reality. If true, this destroys previous assumptions about the predictability of Visual Effects Oscar winners; the "post-digital" era cannot support the same criteria of The Predictinator, which provided accurate predictions of Best Visual Effects Oscar winners from 1989-2014, the digital era.

In 2015, after the 1.0 version of The Predictinator incorrectly predicted “Guardians of the Galaxy” instead of “Interstellar”, we made a slight tweak to the algorithm. We managed to plug the hole in our formula by giving negative points to comic book movies, as we believe Academy voters think films that are based on comic books are less worthy of award. Ultimately, the formula remained accurate through to 1989 (and even strengthened many historical races). In last year’s article, my wife and I pondered a fundamental question, to determine if a larger change is occurring with how the Academy votes for visual effects winners, one that would ultimately break our formula:

• Has there been a slow change in how visual effects films are perceived by the Academy, causing members to vote differently?

We discussed this at length, and I’d like to expand upon a couple of our original ideas, as well as add new thoughts.

Last year, after examining the changes that have been emerging over the last seven years, I wrote this about digital characters: “Audiences now expect Gollum-quality digital characters in their films, and the Academy may no longer reward a film solely for hitting this quality standard.” I now realize that I was probably too specific with this sentiment, limiting the idea to only digital characters. Academy voters and audiences not only expect stellar synthetic characters and creatures, but expect world-class, quality visual effects in every film--not limited solely to synthetic characters, and not solely from big-budget blockbusters like “Titanic”, “Lord of the Rings” or “Pirates of the Caribbean” films.  Expect smaller, more intimate, less spectacle-based films like “Hugo” and “Ex Machina” winning visual effects Oscars in the future, if this is indeed the case.

We may have also underestimated the impact of the visual effects moving from three nominees to five.  Films that would might not have made it past the bake-off with only three slots are now sliding in with five nominees, and sometimes winning the Oscar. Arguably, “Ex Machina” and “Hugo” would not have made it past the bake-off if our category still only was given three nomination slots. (As a reminder, the nominees are decided upon at a bake-off of films, and are chosen by the visual effects branch of the Academy.) 

In fact, the expansion of the Visual Effects Academy Award from three to five nominees in 2010 represents an indication of the industry’s maturation, potentially marking the start of the post-digital era. No longer is the craft of visual effects a second-class citizen; this change was long overdue and richly deserved.

In addition, three years ago, I wrote about the correlation of Visual Effects nominees and Best Picture nominees. With up to ten Best Picture nominees and the bump to five Visual Effects nominees, we foresee more films traditionally ignored in the visual effects race winning Oscars.

Furthermore, we see a trend of Academy voters actively shunning giant, franchise movies. Without the aid of some kind of visual effects breakthrough, we foresee reboots, sequels, Marvel comic book movies, and Star Wars movies not winning Academy Awards as often as they used to. Just look at the last eight visual effects Oscar winners for proof: “Ex Machina”, “Interstellar”, “Gravity”, “Life of Pi”, “Hugo”, “Inception”, “Avatar”, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “The Golden Compass”.

The first chapter of the digital age of filmmaking might be over, and a new post-digital chapter may have begun. Needless to say, The VFX Predictinator operates within a series of assumptions and quantifiable data to support those assumptions that may no longer be valid in the post-digital era.

In 1989, “The Abyss” marked the dawn of the digital era of Hollywood visual effects: computer graphics and digital compositing supplanted physical models, traditional matte paintings, and optical compositing and ultimately expanded the filmmaking possibilities. The digital era heralded storytelling of a different kind (a liquid metal Terminator, ultra-realistic dinosaurs, bullet time), and audiences have reaped the benefits for over two decades. The ubiquity of digital filmmaking and the maturation of the visual effects community has turned visual effects into a commodity, a value that is no longer exclusive to a certain type of film.

Our entire philosophy behind the predictability of Oscar voters has changed. With five nominees, the nominated movies frequently represent a greater variety of films. No longer are mind-blowing visual effects relegated to a precious few tentpole films, no longer are digital effects relegated to the few directors (Robert Zemeckis, James Cameron, Peter Jackson) who dared swim the dangerous waters of digital technology and turn it into art. Filmmakers like Ang Lee, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher and Alex Garland have access to the world’s talented visual effects artists and technicians, and the landscape of filmmaking is better off because of their access.

I can hear you asking from across the internet: “Yeah yeah yeah, well, are you going to run the numbers?” As you have just read, we’re not entirely convinced The VFX Predictinator, in its current state, is still valid. But we’ll run the numbers. Stay tuned.


Kevin Williams said...

If there was a shift, one could make an argument that it started in 2010, when the number of nominees went from 3 to 5. The winners from 2010 on have not been part of a franchise and have been projects with respected directors.

It also seems like since then, it's gone from an award based on the "most" vfx or the "best" vfx to one that goes to whichever movie has more "prestige" or "credibility". There's a few cases where that standard is arguable (Inception vs Hearafter & vs Ex Machina vs The Revenant).

My guess is Deepwater Horizon wins this year.

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