Oscar Handicap 2018: Visual Effects

We begin our annual Oscar Handicap series with one of this writer’s favorite categories.

One of the greatest things about being a film geek growing up in the early 1980s was the sheer amount of access one had to information about their favorite movies. Sure, the bonus features on today’s Blu-Rays are nice and all, with their slick, studio-produced infotainment segments, but those short interludes pale in comparison to the mountainous, detailed reporting one got from somewhat detached, independent, third-party writers from glossy magazines like Cinefantastique (affectionately known as CFQ to fans), Cinefex and Fantastic Films.

I might have been reading The Hollywood Reporter and Variety regularly since I was a pre-teen, but nothing could have thrown me down the rabbit hole of cinemania quite as much as my first issue of CFQ, which was a double-sized extravaganza literally covering both “Blade Runner” and “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” the two expected sci-fi blockbusters for the Summer of 1982. (If you are unfamiliar with CFQ, you can get a small taste of that Summer 1982 issue here.)

You had to be a serious film nerd to shell out $7.95 for a magazine in 1982 (nearly $20.50 in 2018 dollars), and although that was nearly two weeks of allowance, it was worth it. And then you’d have exquisitely lengthy documentaries about movies like “Return of the Jedi” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” that would show on PBS, often during pledge drives, that would be taped and watched as many times as one might watch the actual movies they were documenting the making of. (Probably more often, considering some of our favorite movies would take years to be released on home video.) So while you might not have ever become the next Steven Spielberg or George Lucas, you really felt like you understood and could really appreciate what they were going for, thanks to the incredible scope spent detailing what happened behind the scenes to make it all work, especially when it came to the practical effects painstakingly created to make these movies feel real.

Computer-generated visual effects have come a long way from those early tests in movies like Tron and Star Trek II. Some might argue that the ability to truly create anything one can imagine has actually stolen some of the magic of the movies, and if we’re talking about movies like “Man of Steel,” where Superman and Zod spend half an hour beating the living crap out of each other while the camera defies both gravity and logic zooming and panning and whipping around from here and there to everywhere and nowhere, I would support that argument. Visual effects should enhance a movie without showing too much attention to itself. In 1977, we felt like we were traveling through space with a farmboy from Tattooine, and a space pirate and his walking carpet, because the effects didn’t scream for attention like a kid with ADHD who lost his Adderall. In 1978, we really did believe a man could fly. In 1982, Rick Deckard’s flights around and through an urban hellscape felt like we could have been watching some documentary from the future unfold in front of our eyes. This year’s Oscar nominees for Best Visual Effects might be predominately CG-based, but they hew closer to the old school aesthetics of practical effects that enhance instead of distract. I might know Baby Groot (GotG2) or Caesar (Apes) are 100% CG, but because the artificiality of the characters feel so natural, the mind can easily let go of that artifice and enjoy their interactions with the real human characters. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the stories work so well.)

But you didn’t really come here to read a several hundred word diatribe about effects. You came here to get one more opinion about the awards, to help you with your office Oscar pool. So, whether this is your first time around these parts, or you’ve been a long time follower of our Handicap series, here’s how this works… Every year, we track a variety of historical voting patterns since the Academy Awards for the films of 1979. Some categories will have a lot of historical voting patterns listed, while some will only have a few, because the category might be relatively new to the Big Show, or there might not be a whole lot of things to compare it to. So, to give an example of one category you’ll see below, ten of the fifteen times the Visual Effects Society has had their own awards (since 2002), the winner of their award for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature has gone on to win the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. That’s 66.67% of the time. This year, the winner of the VES Award for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature went to War for the Planet of the Apes. So Apes would get 10 points for the number of comparable winners in this category, while the other four nominees would only get five points for the times the Oscar went to another nominee that did not win that VES award. Then we total all the points up and give you a score that signifies the chances of each film winning here, based on historical voting patterns in this category. It’s not a perfect system, but you might be surprised how often it does work.

So for this year, here are the breakdowns…

Although the Academy Awards are celebrating their 90th Anniversary this year, an Oscar for Outstanding Visual Effects wasn’t always a competitive award and wasn’t always given every year. (For example, in 1972, 1974 and 1975, there were no nominees announced and a single winner was given a Special Achievement Award, while in 1973, no nominees were announced and no award was given.) Thus, our data has encapsulated 35 years of properly competitive years from 1963 (the 36th Awards) on.

1) A movie that was not the highest grosser of the nominees at the time of the nomination announcement has won 26 of the 35 active competitions we have monitored (74.3%). Advantage: Blade Runner 2049, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, Kong: Skull Island, War for the Planet of the Apes.
2) 10 of the 15 winners of the Visual Effects Society’s award for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature has gone on to win the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects (66.67%). Advantage: War for the Planet of the Apes.
3) A movie nominated here that has also been nominated for Best Production Design has won 23 of the 35 active competitions we have monitored (65.7%). Advantage: Blade Runner 2049.
4) The winner of the Outstanding Visual Effects Oscar also won the BAFTA Award for Best Visual Effects 21 times out of the 33 times both the American and British awards have both given out these awards (63.6%). Advantage: Blade Runner 2049.
5) This award has been given to a film that was not nominated for Best Picture of the Year 20 of the 35 years we’re tracking (57.1%). Advantage: all, since none of them were nominated for Best Picture.

By the Numbers
For all its faults, and admittedly there were more than a few, the long-gestating sequel to one of science fiction cinema’s greatest films will land the award the original was robbed off 35 years ago.

“Blade Runner 2049” (John Nelson, Gerd Nefzer, Paul Lambert and Richard R. Hoover): +1, -2, +3, +4, +5 (95 of 153, 62.09%)
“Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2” (Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Jonathan Fawkner and Dan Sudick): +1, -2, -3, -4, +5 (75 of 153, 49.02%)
“Kong: Skull Island” (Stephen Rosenbaum, Jeff White, Scott Benza and Mike Meinardus): +1, -2, -3, -4, +5 (75 of 153, 49.02%)
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (Ben Morris, Mike Mulholland, Neal Scanlan and Chris Corbould): -1, -2, -3, -4, +5 (58 of 153, 37.91%)
“War for the Planet of the Apes” (Joe Letteri, Daniel Barrett, Dan Lemmon and Joel Whist): +1, +2, -3, -4, +5 (75 of 153, 49.02%)

Thank you for taking the time to check us out.

All articles in this series:

Best Picture of the Year
Best Director
Best Actor and Best Actress
Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress
Best Cinematography
Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Foreign Language Film
Best Animated Feature
Best Production Design
Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Best Editing
Best Costume Design
Best Score
Best Sound Effects and Best Sound Mixing
Best Documentary Feature
Best Visual Effects