When Ex Machina made the final five nominees for Best Visual Effects at the Oscars last year – and won – many people were shocked and surprised. Not because of the quality of the work. The VFX by Double Negative and MILK VFX were seamless and outstanding.
It was, instead, because the other films nominated were perhaps classic examples of ‘effects films’. Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Mad Max: Fury Road. The Revenant. The Martian. Arguably, each of these nominees contained many story-driven effects too (shouldn’t all films?), but Ex Machina easily had the most subtle, if not still obvious and crucial, effects work in the body replacement work for the robot Ava played by Alicia Vikander.
Watch a breakdown of Double Negative’s work for Ex Machina.
So why did Ex Machina win, and what could that teach us about this year’s Oscar contenders and a possible ‘surprise’ winner amongst what is a rich tapestry of both effects-driven films and several with much more subtle work?
Getting to an answer to that question is tricky, partly because winning awards isn’t necessarily a scientific concern. Not that that has stopped people from trying. Visual effects artist Todd Vaziri has for the last few years attempted to call the winner of the VFX Oscar with his ‘VFX Predictinator’ (http://fxrant.blogspot.com.au/2016/01/the-vfx-predictinator-88th-academy.html). It uses several inputs Vaziri has gauged over time from past winners to score each nominee. For this past Oscars, the Predictinator scored The Revenant the highest. The lowest score? Well, that went to Ex Machina.
So, how did Ex Machina win, then? Firstly, as noted, the effects were simply incredible. And that’s reason enough. But Ex Machina had something else, and that was an absolutely compelling story. It gave voters a chance to consider something that wasn’t effects-heavy, perhaps also tapping into a recent phenomenon in which films with a lot of CG have been generally criticised (that may also be why the marketing campaigns behind The Force Awakens and Fury Road pushed heavily on the practical effects work, and why The Revenant hardly had any discussion about its fantastic CG bear work at all).
Some of the intrigue about the the visual effects Oscar race comes from the actual voting process itself. In general terms, visual effects practitioners ultimately decide the final five nominees, but then the winner is voted by members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which include, of course, other branches of filmmakers and actors). It’s arguable that the ‘general’ voting public is looking for different things than seasoned VFX voters, but in each case it’s not like the reasons for the voting decisions need to be given.
Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the films that has made the final list of 10 contenders for the VFX Oscar race.
With all this in mind, which films in the race this year might have the ‘Ex Machina’ factor? That is, which films may have a more subtle approach to their visual effects, but still with effects that are crucial to the storytelling? Again, many films in contention have these kinds of effects at some level, in individual scenes or even shots. But a small number have what could fit the mould. These are:
Kubo and the Two Strings
Arrival, for example, is unlike most alien invasion films and much more of a cerebral thriller. And it has the subtle effects to match, with beautiful vistas of the oval shaped spaceships, CG creatures and some other clever environments and shots. But all of this VFX work is rather withheld, a reminder of the approach made in Ex Machina.
Deepwater Horizon is perhaps a more effects-heavy film, given the subject matter of a drilling platform exploding into flames. But the subtlety comes from a seamless mix of on-set practical fire and lighting, digital fire and digital compositing. Few will probably know which is which. Hint: it’s mostly digital.
Kubo and the Two Strings…wait, isn’t that a stop motion film? It is, but the way Laika approach their work these days is with a combination of stop motion, puppets, CG and visual effects. It’s almost like a live-action film and that means oftentimes a stop motion animated sequence is indistinguishable from something done in CG or with multiple elements, composited together, to form a final shot.
None of this discussion should take away from the glorious work on show in films released in 2016. Just look at the photorealistic jungle and animal life in The Jungle Book, the psychedelic effects seen in Doctor Strange and the way in which Rogue One: A Star Wars Story manages to throw back to an old-school effects era in its space-themed adventure.
But given the past win by Ex Machina and the prevalence of these ‘non-effects’ films this year – which really actually do have a lot of effects in them – could we soon be up for another upset? We’ll know soon enough.