When Best Isn't Enough
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 1 (Jan 2003)

When Best Isn't Enough

In Hollywood, Happy New Year brings happy anticipation as a slew of awards competitions and ceremonies begin leading to the big one, the Oscars in March. This year, a new awards ceremony will be slipped in amongst the venerable Golden Globes, AFI (American Film Institute), New York Film Critics, BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) and others: the first annual Visual Effects Society Awards.

Does the world need another competition? I can't speak for the world, but I think it's great...and about time. Great that there is now a venue in which the practitioners of the craft can evaluate and honor the best work of their peers. And about time that the process of making an effect can help voters evaluate the work.

Ironically, although the category is called "visual" effects, these days, you often can't see whether a scene in a film has effects in it or not. Who can tell? "Visual effects people are paid to hide their work," says Tom Atkin, founder and executive director of the 800-member Visual Effects Society. "The better they hide an effect, the better it is." And if you can't tell, how can you judge? For Atkin, this conundrum was brought into clear focus during an Academy Awards Visual Effects "bake-off" two years ago.

During a bake-off, potential Oscar nominees can show 15 minutes of excerpts from their film and are allowed five minutes for questions and answers. That's it. Although studios can send written materials to Visual Effects Branch members prior to the bake-off, no "making of" footage is allowed before or during the nomination process. Branch members vote right after the last presentation, and their three nominees—that is, the nominated films—go to the 6000-plus members of the Academy who vote on Oscar winners for all the categories.

"After John Nelson did the presentation for Gladiator," Atkin remembers, "the first or second question was whether the tigers in the coliseum were real or CG. The Branch is a very exclusive club. If its members couldn't distinguish between CG and real, then I knew a lot of other people couldn't either. It made us realize that it was important to have VES awards."

The first VES nominations will be announced on January 13, with the winners announced at a gala ceremony in February. During this process, nominees will be able to show "before and afters" and "making of" footage. "You don't always get a full presentation at the bake-off, so it's nice the industry has this chance to spend more time on specifically what we do," says Craig Hayes, a partner in Tippett Studios. But that's not the only thing that distinguishes this awards competition.

Although VES is not the first organization to have visual effects peers picking winners—for example, the branch rather than the membership at large selects BAFTA's visual effects award—VES has taken the idea of visual effects awards further than any other organization.

In addition to Best Visual Effects in several genres (film, various television programs, music videos, and commercials), the society will also honor the best character animation, matte painting, compositing, visual effects photography, models and miniatures, art direction, special effects (physical or practical effects), and best performance by an actor in an effects film and in a television program, music video, or commercial. Highlighting these categories could help give Academy voters and the public a deeper knowledge of the many areas included under the label "visual effects." It will definitely recognize more of the craftspeople who work in various areas within visual effects as studios enter films in categories such as visual effects photography or matte painting, not just best visual effects. And, it will no doubt allow the effects work in more films to be recognized.

ImageWorks, for example, will enter Spider-Man and Stuart Little 2 in most film categories as expected. But who would have guessed that there were 200 matte paintings in Stuart Little 2? ImageWorks also has high hopes for I Spy.

Rather than offering only one Best Visual Effects award, VES has two: Best Visual Effects in an effects-driven motion picture, and Best Supporting Visual Effects in a motion picture. I Spy will be entered in the latter category, as will effects created at ILM for Gangs of New York, at Cinesite for The Mothman Prophecies, and others. There probably aren't enough effects in these films to make the Oscar cut, but that doesn't lessen their importance to the films they're in, nor the quality of the work. "The climax of the The Mothman Prophecies was the bridge collapsing," says Dan Lombardo, vice president of production at Cinesite Hollywood. "Working alongside the miniature group, we created the river, the factory, the bridge, and the cars on the bridge. I think it's great that the Visual Effects Society is giving an award for work that plays an important supporting role."

Of course, some people might also consider invisible effects scattered throughout a film as "supporting effects," rather than, as Lombardo does, effects that play a pivotal role. "We're going to watch and learn how the members define these categories," says Atkin. "This is our inaugural year. We've already changed the 45-page rulebook twice, and we'll learn how to get it right over the next year or two. The important thing is that we have visual effects people selecting visual effects work."

And, in addition to recognizing that visual effects extends beyond film into commercials, television programs, music videos and commercials, perhaps the VES would like to help educate Academy voters along the way? Absolutely. It's no coincidence that the Academy announces its nominees on February 11 and the VES announces its winners on February 19.

"Our intent is to be a bellwether for the Academy Awards," Atkin says. "Our award may or may not have an influence, but it could be another resource for Academy members to use in their [final] evaluation. Just like the Director's Guild and the Writer's Guild, the visual effects people will have this opportunity to say what they think is best."

"I'm just thrilled that so many aspects of what visual effects artists do will be recognized," says Ellen Pasternak, director of public relations at ILM, "that someone is recognizing these great unsung crafts."

As for me, I hope the VES awards will become even more granular. Perhaps someday we'll see awards for best digital vehicles (photoreal and fantasy) in a motion picture, commercial, television program, or music video, and best synthetic animal (animatronic and digital), best explosions, best fire, best water, best digital double, best skin.... I could go on...and on... ..

Barbara Robertson is a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World and a freelance journalist specializing in computer graphics, visual effects, and animation. She can be reached at: BarbaraRR@attbi.com.

Spider-Man image ©2002 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. Spider-Man character ©2002 Marvel Characters, Inc.

© Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.

Images from The Mothman Prophecies c 2002 Screen Gems. All Rights Reserved.