Battle of the bakeoff

Visual effects experts are torn about what factors will play a role at this year's Oscar race.

As Optimus Prime, Sandman, Davy Jones and a host of other digital characters prepare to battle for Oscar gold in the visual effects category, experts are already laying odds as to which seven films will make it to this year's bake-off. Yet few are willing to place their money on any clear-cut front-runners. Although an abundance of outstanding work is making this a highly competitive year, there are a number of factors -- such as compressed work schedules and hybrid techniques -- that are making it a difficult one to handicap.

Contrary to previous years, in which a few major films stood out above the rest, the 2007 VFX dialogue is likely to extend beyond attention-getting digital characters to include the integration of CG and live action, lighting, practical effects, CG environments and CG elements such as water and sand. Exciting, to be sure, but the more complex work makes for a contest that's hard to predict.

"We've had years where Gollum was more important, where King Kong was more important, but that's not what we are getting this year," says visual effects veteran Tim McGovern.

In fact, this year's palette of work reflects a wider variety of VFX than ever before. "You're seeing a lot more virtual sets; you're seeing a lot more camera motion," says Scott Squires, visual effects supervisor on Fox's "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer." "Basically, the filmmakers are getting more and more freedom every year to what they can create on the screen and the believability to what they can create."

There's no better example than Paramount's motion-capture-animated "Beowulf," which has already blurred the lines betweenvisual effects and animation, and has made the short list for best animated Oscar consideration.

"It's a blend of both mediums. I consider it a hybrid between live action and CG," says visual effects supervisor Jerome Chen.
However, another issue making this year's race difficult to handicap is schedules. Experts are torn about how the trend toward increasingly compressed schedules will impact voting -- particularly for Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" in which the lion's share of visual effects shots were completed in four and a half months.

"(Visual effects branch voters) really consider quality and groundbreaking approach," McGovern explains. "They are not going to give somebody an additional benefit unless the work is entirely above all the other work and then additionally handicapped by the time frame."

But Jeff Okun, who served as visual effects supervisor on last year's "Blood Diamond," disagrees: "At the Academy level, I think schedules will be (a factor). Everybody knows each other, and we all talk. Whether you want it to or not, I think that plays into it."

Visual effects supervisor Mark Stetson, whose work on 2006's "Superman Returns" earned him an Oscar nomination, agrees that the quality of the work is the most important factor, "But in addition to that, you try to take into account the number of shots they are doing and the amount of time they had to do it. It's hard to avoid comparison between a film that has a small number of shots and a large number of shots. I tend to look for creative contribution more than anything else. Depending on how well those shots mesh into the movie and forward the story, it could very well be that a smaller count show could certainly shine above."

VFX pros also are addressing the potential impact on the large number of effects-heavy films that were sequels this year, including "Pirates," Sony's "Spider-Man 3," Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," and New Line Cinema's "Rush Hour 3."

"It's a hindrance," Okun says. "One issue is that you are familiar with the franchise, so you are less likely to be wowed by what you see. The second thing is, you have the onus of trying to top yourself on the next project. What's been refreshing about this year's crop is that most of the sequels out-did themselves."

Stetson points out that there is no clear track record for sequels. "I think each year the film competed against itself in terms of the quality of work in a sequel compared to its predecessor, and it's gone both ways. Some sequels have been winners, and there are some sequels that were not."

Outside of this year's film franchises, the Warner Bros. March release "300" and Danny Boyle's "Sunshine" could factor into the race. And year-end releases like New Line's "The Golden Compass" (Dec. 7), Warner Bros.' "I Am Legend" (Dec. 14) and Paramount's Tim Burton-helmed "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (Dec. 21), demonstrate that it's been a robust year for the artists toiling away in front of computer monitors.