Oscar Watch: Visual effects


Is a curious little robot named "WALL-E" a visual effect?

The lines between animation and visual effects are blurring, and the answer to that question has the potential to alter the Academy's list of seven films that will compete in the bake-off for three Oscar nomination slots in the visual effects category.

"There is nothing in the rules that excludes animated movies," explains Craig Barron, an AMPAS governor for the VFX branch. "Yes, there are crossovers -- an animated film may satisfy the requirements for VFX. The committee meets and interprets the movies."

That meeting, which will determine the bake-off selections, is slated to occur in December. Until then, speculation will continue as to whether "WALL-E" will go up against VFX heavyweights such as Warner Bros.' "The Dark Knight" and Paramount's "Iron Man."

"The industry is clearly mixed," said Bob Osher, president of Sony Pictures Entertainment's digital production division, which encompasses both Sony Pictures Imageworks and Sony Pictures Animation. "Animation is not a genre, it's a technique and a way to tell a story. Great work should have an opportunity to be considered."

Live-action films typically compete in this category. Still, "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" -- created with stop-motion animation -- did earn a VFX nomination in 1994, before the animated feature category was introduced.

And last year "Ratatouille" and "Beowulf" bucked the trend, making the Academy's VFX shortlist of 15 competitors, although neither made it to the bake-off of seven contenders. Additionally, "Ratatouille" won the Visual Effects Society Award for outstanding supporting visual effects, in a category where it competed against all live-action titles.

VFX supervisor John Knoll, who won an Oscar for 2006's "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," admits that he is on the fence about this subject. "Almost all of the same technology is employed, and the work is just as hard," he says. "But there are different standards -- as in live-action films, the VFX are judged against reality.

"This topic comes up more frequently because the work is getting better," he adds.

"The tools and techniques that are used to do visual effects in a CG film and visual effects in live-action film have overlapped now. And the roles of people doing the work are very similar," says Pixar Animation Studios GM Jim Morris.

Everyone agrees that this will be a highly competitive year during which a lot of exceptional work was done. The race includes a number of high-profile sequels, including those for "The Mummy," "Indiana Jones," "Hellboy" and "The Chronicles of Narnia." The work on these films has been well-regarded, but as was learned last year when "Spider-Man 3" and "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" failed to make the final seven, sequels to successful VFX films are not shoo-ins.

Meanwhile, there are still a number of potential contenders yet to open: Paramount's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," as well as Fox's "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and Lionsgate's "The Spirit."

While the category is not a popularity competition, like it or not, many agree that the movie's boxoffice can ultimately have some impact on the final selections.

As one insider points out: "If the movie doesn't do well, nobody sees the work."