Vis­ual Ef­fects: Story Driver or Stepchild?

By some ac­counts, tastemak­ers and awards voters har­bor a long-held bias against movies that are heavy on VFX

Variety - - Artisans - Story by KAREN IDELSON

cin­ema lives or dies by il­lu­sion. To make sto­ries work, movies must take au­di­ences to an­other place, sus­pend their dis­be­lief and thrill them. And ef­fects, whether cre­ated in- cam­era or in post-pro­duc­tion or a com­bi­na­tion of the two, have al­ways been among the tools used by film­mak­ers to make that hap­pen.

But de­spite their vi­tal role, vis­ual ef­fects have qual­i­fied for a five-slot Os­car cat­e­gory in only the past decade, and films deemed “heavy” on VFX have of­ten found them­selves on the outs in the act­ing and writ­ing cat­e­gories.

The ef­fects cat­e­gory has evolved over time. In 1963, the spe­cial ef­fects award was re­moved and two cat­e­gories — one for vis­ual ef­fects and one for sound ef­fects — were cre­ated. Then, from 1977 to 1979, a max­i­mum num­ber of five VFX nom­i­nees were per­mit­ted, though 1979 was the first year to max out nom­i­na­tions. From 1980 to 1995, two or three films could be nommed in the VFX cat­e­gory; by 1996, the rules re­quired ex­actly three VFX nom­i­nees. Since the 82nd Academy Awards in 2010, the cat­e­gory has grown once again to five nom­i­nees.

Does this whip­saw­ing back and forth in­di­cate a re­luc­tance to ac­cept the im­por­tance of VFX in sto­ry­telling? If so, the stu­dios are partly to blame.

“There’s the legacy is­sue that VFX is the stepchild of the movie in­dus­try,” says Scott Ross, for­mer gen­eral man­ager of ef­fects su­per­power In­dus­trial Light & Magic and founder of Dig­i­tal Do­main. Ross was with ILM at the time of Robert Ze­meckis’ 1988 “Who Framed Roger Rab­bit,” a pioneering mix of live ac­tion and an­i­ma­tion and a land­mark film for VFX. “I wanted to tout from the high­est build­ing the work In­dus­trial Light & Magic did on this film,” Ross says, “but Dis­ney came down on me like Rea­gan on the Soviet Union. They said you can­not talk about it. Do not men­tion it.”

To over­come the stu­dio’s pro­hi­bi­tion on the use of im­ages or pho­tos from the film to pro­mote ILM’S work, Ross ex­pressed con­grat­u­la­tions to the film­mak­ers by run­ning an ad in the trades that showed an illustration of the ma­gi­cian who was in ILM’S logo pulling Roger Rab­bit out of a hat.

Vis­ual ef­fects su­per­vi­sor Kevin Bail­lie — whose cred­its in­clude “Star Wars: The Phan-

I wanted to tout the work In­dus­trial Light & Magic did on ‘Who Framed Roger Rab­bit,’ but Dis­ney came down on me like Rea­gan on the Soviet Union. They said you can­not talk about it.” Scott Ross, for­mer ILM gen­eral man­ager

tom Men­ace”; “Harry Pot­ter and the Gob­let of Fire”; “Trans­form­ers: Age of Ex­tinc­tion”; and Ze­meckis’ lat­est, “Wel­come to Mar­wen” — be­lieves that films that use VFX in lieu of nar­ra­tive are partly re­spon­si­ble for the neg­a­tive feel­ings to­ward his trade. “Peo­ple are re­ally look­ing to hear a story,” Bail­lie says. “Bob Ze­meckis be­lieves ev­ery shot should have a rea­son for be­ing there and that ev­ery shot is a vis­ual ef­fect in a way be­cause you’re cap­tur­ing light through a lens. You’re telling a story, and ei­ther peo­ple want to see it or they don’t.”

The para­dox is that while VFX are of­ten con­sid­ered a kind of mus­cu­lar film­mak­ing with lit­tle depth of story, many ef­fects-heavy films draw from beloved fan­tasy or sci­ence fic­tion books. Whether it’s “Lord of the Rings,” the Harry Pot­ter films or the re­cently re­leased “Mor­tal En­gines,” based on the novel by Philip Reeve, such books have a strong con­nec­tion with their read­ers, and in view of their con­tent, it would be dif­fi­cult if not im­pos­si­ble to bring them to the screen with­out plenty of VFX — and heavy­weight ef­fects talent.

In­deed, VFX su­per­vi­sors and tech ex­perts of­ten col­lab­o­rate to cre­ate pro­pri­etary tools that make the stun­ning shots in these films pos­si­ble. And each new story de­mands a fresh look at ways to bring ef­fects to the screen in a man­ner that au­di­ences — who have been ex­posed to so many VFX — can re­ally be­lieve what they’re see­ing. It’s the kind of mar­riage of art and sci­ence that made film pos­si­ble in the first place.

“There are lots of big films where there’s a sheer spec­ta­cle of VFX,” says Chris­tian Rivers, di­rec­tor of “Mor­tal En­gines.” “We wanted to be true to the book. We wanted real char­ac­ters sit­ting in the fan­tas­ti­cal set­ting of these ef­fects that fill out and sup­port the story. They shouldn’t be mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive. The films I loved when I was grow­ing up were char­ac­ter- driven sto­ries that had the spec­ta­cle of vis­ual ef­fects. I don’t buy that just be­cause a film has a lot of vis­ual ef­fects it should be a big back­ground for lots of prod­uct place­ment. ‘Ter­mi­na­tor’ and ‘Alien’ were great films that told great sto­ries and had lots of spec­ta­cle. You can have both things and tell a re­ally good story.”

Achieve­ment Clouded by Bias? Hera Hil­mar and Robert Shee­han travel aboard the air­ship Jenny Haniver in “Mor­tal En­gines,” thanks to the in­ven­tive­ness of VFX artists.

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