'Innovation' key for effects Oscar

'07 'Pirates' makes cut; 2 other big-name sequels don't

The sequel to last year's visual effects Oscar winner is on the shortlist for this year's nod, but the follow-up to the 2005 winner is not.

"Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" will try to follow in the wake of 2007 winner "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," while "Spider-Man 3" watches from the sidelines.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said seven films remain in contention for nominations in the visual effects category at the 80th Annual Academy Awards, down from a list of 15 released last month. Surprising some, the seven are "The Bourne Ultimatum," "Evan Almighty," "The Golden Compass," "I Am Legend," "300," "Transformers" and "At World's End."

"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" failed to make the list, though all four other "Potter" films were shortlisted in past years.

The closely watched performance capture-based "Beowulf" also was passed over this year.

"It was close this year, more than any other year, in terms of the quality," visual effects branch member Jeff Okun said.

Tim Sarnoff, president of Sony Pictures Imageworks — lead VFX house on "Spider-Man 3," "I Am Legend" and "Beowulf" — said the shortlist "really seems to highlight that they are looking for innovation. The movies that were (selected) are very different from each other and very different from those that preceded them in previous years."

Some visual effects branch members, including Tim McGovern, said sequels can be at a disadvantage, "especially if the (key) breakthrough work happened in the movie before."

Added Okun, "I think what (the shortlist) says is, for a sequel to become a viable option in terms of awards, it has to step up significantly and push brand-new envelopes."

He said that in the case of "At World's End," the schedule also might have been a factor.

"It was every bit as astonishing as the last one, and they did a really interesting job of letting it be known that the post schedule on it was ridiculously short," he said. "It's phenomenal work given that they had no time at all."

Okun also believes that omissions from the shortlist underscore some confusion and a blurring of the lines between what is considered a visual effect and what is considered animation.

In addition to "Beowulf," another film in contention in both the visual effects and animation category, "Ratatouille," did not make the cut. Both received a lot of attention when they made the first VFX list of 15 films, as it was a rare feat for an animated film.

"I don't think it's a mandate for or against performance capture," Sarnoff said of the "Beowulf" omission, adding that "I Am Legend" also used that technique.

Members of the Academy's visual effects branch will view 15-minute excerpts from each of the seven shortlisted films Jan. 16. Following the screenings, the members will vote to nominate three films for final Oscar consideration. Nominations will be announced Jan. 22.