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Rethinking the Visual Effects Category Ahead of the 2021 Oscars

After the COVID-19 pandemic hit the film industry hard last year, the 93rd Oscars has found a way to go on. One category that’s been particularly shaken up as a result of the chaos is Visual Effects. Throughout the 2010s, the products of Marvel and Lucasfilm have dominated the category, despite rarely picking up a win. These films are very big in scope, big at the box office, and big in VFX. 

History shows us that this category is where blockbusters soar. Interstellar, Inception, Avatar, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Life of Pi, Gravity, and Jungle Book, to name a few. But due to the pandemic, 2020 saw few of these films release. Instead, theaters closed and streaming/PVOD became a risk some film distributors were willing to take. Tenet, Mulan, Love and Monsters, The One and Only Ivan, and The Midnight Sky survived this shift; in turn, they became readily available to the Academy and all of us. It may not be fair to compare these films to pre-pandemic releases. But it proves that recognition for great VFX work in films doesn’t require billion dollar box office success. Though, the success does indeed help keep these films fresh in the Academy’s minds for consideration.

A young man and a robot sit next to each other on a couch.

Paramount Pictures

Though, if 2020 went as planned would these nominations look different or the same? With the majority of its highest anticipated films delayed, there’s a little more room for films that may have flown under our radar this year. There could be room for more if the Academy would increase the nominee count to eight like in Best Picture; VFX narrows down to only five nominees. After the Bake-Off, VFX in other deserving films often don’t make the cut. On the surface, it may seem like numbers are everything. But if we revisit past nominees and winners, the skill and innovation of the many layers and techniques of VFX the team brings to the table is what the Academy focuses on when selecting nominees and the winner among them.

Still, it’s hard to deny that the effects biggest blockbusters use do a great job at taking you to new worlds or making aliens and superpowered beings look believable. Of course, the more money these production companies make, the more of an opportunity they have to acquire the technology and people needed to take VFX in their future films to the next level. These films usually shoot nearly everything in a studio on green screens; teams put in so much work—to the point of blurring reality and fiction. And yet, there remains a stigma about green screens and CGI. But it takes an astronomical amount of talent to achieve this and these VFX teams deserve all the praise they get.

Astronauts in a space shuttle surrounded by floating blood droplets.

Netflix

With films like Tenet, however, you don’t need any of that for great VFX. You can have great mind-bending VFX if your film was shot more practically and on location with as few VFX shots as possible, rather than in a studio. Believe it or not, Love and Monsters used a practical, on location shoot too. The creature design in the film is top-notch, and it’s impressive what they did with something you’d think would be shot in a studio. Even if certain parts of your film require a studio, like The Midnight Sky’s outer space scenes, VFX can evoke an emotional response from the audience. If you’ve seen the film, you may think of its famed blood droplets sequence.

I hate that it took the absence of certain genre films to make me further explore a category I’m guilty of overlooking. But the silver lining: my newfound appreciation for this category and the people who make VFX possible. Movies use VFX for much more than making us say “oooh” and “ahhh”—it’s a critical part of storytelling in film. Yeah, some VFX might be questionable and some mind-blowing. But going forward I hope we can all appreciate VFX teams and the work they do so much more. No matter if they’re box office successes and Oscar-nominated or not.