Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The VFX Predictinator, 88th Academy Awards Edition

What is The VFX Predictinator? Start here.

Okay, enough small talk. Let’s dispense with the pleasantries and fire up The VFX Predicinator 2.0! We plugged the numbers into our wondrous formula, and here are our results!
  • 7.33 points for “The Revenant”
  • 6.56 points for “Mad Max: Fury Road”
  • 5.85 points for “The Martian”
  • 4.33 points for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
  • 3.01 points for “Ex Machina”
The VFX Predictinator predicts “The Revenant” will win the Oscar for visual effects in the 88th Academy Awards. Here’s the full breakdown of the how the competition played out:

“The Revenant” is riding a wave of critical acclaim and surprising box office success--surprising for a 2 ½ hour art house film. The film just won Golden Globes for Picture, Actor and Director, and was nominated for more Oscars than any other movie. In a little over two weeks, the movie has earned over $119M in North America and, in its third weekend of released, clawed to the top spot at the weekend box office. At the time of this writing, it has earned $223M globally.

The epicenter of the visual effects of “The Revenant” is The Scene. And if you’ve seen the film, you know exactly what The Scene is.

The bear attack in “The Revenant” is one of the most extraordinary scenes in motion picture history. The sequence is making audiences jump out of their seats and gasp with horror. Similar to the shocking shower scene from “Psycho”, the bear attack is the film’s pivotal event that moves our protagonists and antagonists into action. The attack is visceral, animalistic, honest and immediate, and could only be realized on film with the extraordinary coordination of performance, stunts, makeup, sound effects, and visual effects. It’s the show-stopping scene that everyone who has seen the film is talking about.

None of the other nominees have such a single, defining “oh, wow!” visual moment. The other four films nominated for visual effects have consistent, beautiful visual effects throughout the entirety of the films. While “The Revenant” has far more visual effects than audiences suspect (like creating and extending the film’s wilderness environment with set extensions, bluescreen work, and stitching multiple shots together into a single shot), the bear attack is the cornerstone of the film’s effects. Audiences may logically understand that the bear was created entirely out of pixels, but the extraordinary execution of the sequence allows the magic to take over. The attack feels spectacularly real.


“The Revenant” earned a boatload of Predictinator points from its Academy Score; the film earned a monstrous 12 Academy Award nominations (more than any other VFX nominee since “Benjamin Button” in 2008). It also earned a key point for its primary visual effects being organic creatures (the bear attack), but didn’t earn that second point for facial animation, because the bear didn’t talk. It also earned a full point for being a December release.

Interestingly, the top point-earner has the lowest Tomatometer score (81%) of the five nominees--this happened last year, too, when “Interstellar” won the Oscar with the lowest Tomatometer score among VFX nominees. But, like last year, it’s anomalous that the five visual effects films are so highly regarded with critics. Usually, there’s one big critical turd in the bunch (“The Lone Ranger” at 31%, “Transformers 3” at 35%, “The Golden Compass” at 42%, for example).


Closely behind, in second place, is the other strong contender for the visual effects Oscar, “Mad Max: Fury Road”. For most of the year, I thought “Mad Max” would certainly win the Oscar, and its strong score illustrates why it might upset “The Revenant”. George Miller’s fourth entry in the "Max Max" series shocked the world with its energy-bursting, nearly feature-length chase sequence. Stunningly elaborate and beautiful stunt and physical effects work were augmented and extended by computer graphics across the entirety of the film. The car chases simply could not exist without the tight cooperation between the digital and physical effects teams, and the results speak for themselves.

"Mad Max" had the highest Tomatometer score: an astonishing 97%, the highest critical acclaim of a visual effects nominee since “Gravity” (97%) and “Babe” (98%). “Mad Max” earned a boatload of Oscar nominations (10), and also earned a key point for Actor Prestige; Charlize Theron, a lead in the film, has previously earned an Oscar for acting (“Monster”). “Mad Max” was the only film this year to earn an Actor Prestige point. [update: Yes, "The Martian" star Matt Damon has an Oscar, for writing. When designing the formula, we specifically stated the criteria as "has the lead actor won an acting Oscar." So, no points for "The Martian".] However, the action-packed spectacle was penalized for being a sequel, and didn’t earn any points for organic creature animation, since its visual effects were environmental in nature and not character-based.

In third is “The Martian”, which was the #2 box office earner of the bunch, and was tied for second for critical acclaim. Ridley Scott’s crowd-pleasing space drama featured hundreds of effects shots transforming the Jordan location set into the Martian landscape, Martian storms, spacecraft liftoffs, and a dramatic space rescue. The Matt Damon film earned a lot of Oscar nominations (7), and was released late in the year, which helps its chances. Like “Mad Max”, however, the film didn’t earn any crucial creature points, since it didn’t have organic creatures.


In fourth is the phenomenon “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”. The film contains over 2100 visual effects shots, and required the tight collaboration between digital effects, the brilliant makeup & creature team and the physical effects team. Equal parts spectacle (planets being destroyed by a giant laser beam, the Millennium Falcon flying inside a crashed Star Destroyer) and solemn, understated moments (Rey resting outside her home, a downed AT-AT, the expressive animation of a rolling volleyball robot), the film's visual style has been praised for its aesthetic fidelity and consistency.

"The Force Awakens" has earned 3.5x as much money at the domestic box office as the next nearest film (a whopping $879M when we ran the numbers), giving it 1.04 points in Box Office score. And since we calculate Box Office as a relative value, its nearest competitor (“The Martian”) only earned .27 points. A strong Tomatometer score and 5 Oscar nominations certainly helped the “Star Wars” cause; however, very little else helped the film. It took a double hit on the sequel criteria (being a sequel, and being a sequel to a previous VFX Oscar winner), and didn’t earn any points for organic creatures (Maz and Snoke are not considered the ‘primary’ visual effects of the film), nor did the film earn any Oscar Prestige points (Harrison Ford has been nominated for an Oscar, but has never won). Of course, for pure nostalgia reasons, Academy voters might feel like awarding the film a visual effects Oscar as a token gesture, since the film may not win any other awards. Perhaps voters might want to acknowledge the visual effects behind the behemoth that has earned nearly $2 billion at the box office with a trophy.


Finally, the haunting and beautiful film “Ex Machina” rounds out the scores. With its relatively paltry box office take ($25M), it garnered only .03 points in that criteria. With only 2 total Oscar nominations, it didn’t earn any points in Academy Score (we only award Predictinator points to films with 4 nominations or more), and earned the lowest Month of Release score, as it was released in April. The film features flawless and exquisite visual effects design and execution. The work in "Ex Machina" revolves around a humanoid robot (played by Alicia Vikander), featuring a patchwork of human parts and exposed robotic mechanics. Many were surprised that the film made it past the bake-off, considering its modest, non-spectacle-based imagery, but no one should be surprised at its meager Predictinator score.

This is the first time in modern history that three nominees for visual effects are also nominated for Best Picture. We’ve been tracking the Predictinator since 1989, and only three years had two nominees for Best Picture in the visual effects category (1995, 2003, 2009). By the way, six out of the last seven VFX winners were also nominated for Best Picture.

Ironically, after we added the Comic Book criteria to The Predictinator 2.0, the alteration to the formula doesn’t make any difference in this, its first year of use. “Ant-Man” and “Avengers 2” would have been the films that would been affected by the minus one point if based on a comic book criteria, but they aren’t nominated for the Oscar.

The resulting point values for each of the films pretty much matches our gut instincts. Before running the numbers, my wife and I agreed that “The Revenant” has clearly earned the most awards-season momentum of any film this year. We think that Academy voters will be swept up in the momentum of “The Revenant”’s Oscar campaign. The movie is still making a lot of money at the box office, and will probably win award after award in the lead up to the Oscars.

This is a potentially tricky year for our visual effects prediction; “Mad Max”, “The Martian” and “The Revenant” are all certainly strong competitors in this year’s contest. All three are nominated for Best Picture, so there’s a ton of ‘prestige’ in the visual effects category, which is unusual. Also, “The Revenant” might be dismissed with the reductive thought: “well, that one scene was brilliant, but it was just one scene.”

Ironically, the single biggest stumbling block for “The Revenant” winning a visual effects Oscar might be the filmmakers themselves. While director Alejandro Innaritu and Twentieth Century Fox have been loudly trumpeting the challenges of shooting the film, there has been near-complete radio silence on promoting the visual effects of the film. Dozens upon dozens of articles have been written in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety on Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in the film, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s difficulty of shooting the film with natural light only. Fox even has an entire YouTube playlist of ‘behind the scenes’ videos they’ve produced. Where are the articles and videos about the challenges of creating the visual effects for bear attack in “The Revenant”?

The director is apparently actively blocking any details about the process of creating The Scene, ostensibly to protect the magic tricks that went into creating The Scene. At the time of this writing, only a scant few articles have actually exposed how the bear attack was created with any kind of detail. In December, DiCaprio has said he was "not at liberty" to talk about how the bear scene was accomplished. Soon, a Cinefex article will be published. But will it be too late for Academy voters to understand the scope of the visual effects work? Do Academy members even realize the extent of the visual effects in the film?

Even as late as the Golden Globes awards ceremony, the filmmakers were still actively suppressing information about the film’s visual effects work:
If this active suppression of the film's visual effects techniques continues through the Academy voting period (February 12-23), “The Revenant”’s chances of winning the visual effects Academy Award become severely diminished. But if information about the creation of the bear attack makes its way to Academy voters, we feel the film has a solid chance of taking home the gold.

This is a tricky year; no film is a slam-dunk, or has the 'totally gonna win' vibe of films like "Inception", "Gravity", or "Avatar". While not as wild as the "Hugo" year, this year's competition will once again test the foundations of The Predictinator; it will hopefully confirm our main thesis, that Academy voters typically get swept up in awards-season momentum, and want to reward films that have a (perceived) 'prestigious' reputation.

The Academy Awards ceremony takes place on February 28, 2016.


scp said...

I think the nostalgia-factor and the emphasis on the integration of practical effects point to Star Wars.
Also this year since the others in this category are nominated multiple times, this may actually be a drawback this year (as in 'they will win in other categories, so let's give this one to Star Wars).

Billy said...

My gut keeps telling me that Mad Max will win because (seemingly counter-intuitively) of the huge amount of press it had gotten for all the practical effects it had in it.
I think this combination of practical effects plus vfx will get a lot of support from the average academy voter

Unknown said...

The makers of 'The Revenant' are totally prepared to throw the VFX team under the bus in order to get the Oscars they really care about; Best Film, Directing and Cinematography.

Nothing much has changed since 'Life of Pi'.

Jakris said...

Really good read, Todd. The points system you have going here is pretty darn accurate. It's such a shame though that the VFX is getting the shaft in publicity for The Revenant. I think it's going to win, but mainly because of the momentum of numbers. Voters are just going to see that check box and automatically select it.

darkmoon3d said...

Interesting read. Still not sure who final winner will be but feeling Mad Max will win it rather than Revenant. Mentioned in previous post how new variables for calculating winner being amount of physical effects and whether movie is in large format or 3D. Don't think that voters would really pay attention to these criteria however looking at this year's likely Revenant win brings up new criteria which might single it out from winning. You mentioned before that producers are not promoting effects of film. Not to mention VES has Revenant nominated for supporting vfx rather than central to film. Can't think of any film in past winning that won with only supporting effects. This might be new category to add (Is film's effects central or supporting?). Another additional criteria might be how much the movie is being marketed based on its effects (given that Revenant isn't at all).

Todd said...

"Can't think of any film in past winning that won with only supporting effects." Hugo won the VES for "supporting" effects, as well as the Oscar.

Josh Lange said...

Great info as always, Todd. It is amazing how slippery this category can be to predict. It will test my theory that Star Wars will win based on past space movie winners, but I'm surprised that it's not even the favored film out of the two space movies in the running this year.

Usually the Bafta winner is a good indicator (Star Wars) along with the most nominees as you say. In all, this year could undermine a LOT of predictors.

rassel said...


scp said...