Visual effects Oscar race features apes, talking raccoons and, of course, 'Interstellar'
The Best Visual Effects is often the place where the Academy recognizes what it is frequently accused of avoiding elsewhere: mainstream spectacle. Blockbusters reign in this category, at least at the nomination stage, with fantasy films, franchises and other money-makers always featuring prominently. The branch also has its specific fetishes, at least historically (talking animals immediately jumps to mind), though, in recent years, it has seemingly been all 3D, all the time.
There are dozens if not hundreds of individuals who work on a film’s visual effects but the nomination can ultimately be shared by only four of them – usually the special effects supervisor and three visual effects supervisors. While some names are "favorites" of the branch (John Frazier, Joe Letteri), this branch is hardly the most insular and tends to be more concerned about the work on display. We will receive a hint of the way they are leaning when 10 bake-off finalists are announced later in the season — the nominees will be chosen after the branch views reels featuring the effects work from those films.
Christopher Nolan has accomplished many impressive tasks in recent years. One of them is having made visual effects-heavy blockbusters that are beloved by critics, the general public and, to an extent greater than usual, AMPAS. Though he is still awaiting his first directing nomination, it seems to be foolish to bet against a respected Nolan film in this category ("The Dark Knight Rises" aside), especially something like "Interstellar." Anchored by Paul Franklin and Andrew Lockley, who won this award for Nolan’s "Inception," this seems the safest of bets this season (not unlike "Gravity" last year).
Oh to be Joe Letteri. Beloved by Peter Jackson and James Cameron, Letteri and the team at Weta are Hollywood’s go-to guys for performance capture visual effects. This year, he appears well-positioned to do something he has yet to do in his career: earn two nominations in one year. First, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" was the latest apefest with eerily realistic visual effects. It was a notable step above the nominated work on 2011's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," which was robbed of a win here three years ago (I’m sure it would have won if only the visual effects branch had voted, but it's worth reminding that all branches of the Academy vote on the winners — you're welcome, "Hugo"). While I doubt that will be avenged with "Interstellar" in the running, I’d be surprised if Letteri and fellow "Rise" nominees Daniel Barrett and Dan Lemmon don’t return to the fold.
Letteri and Weta also have "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" in the race. This remains the only category for which every entry in this series has been nominated. Though "Star Wars" failed to go 6/6, with "Revenge of the Sith" missing here, I doubt that will repeat itself with the Middle Earth saga. Though this series is nowhere near the peaks it reached in days of "The Lord of the Rings," Letteri’s crew seems too respected to miss out, especially after "The Desolation of Smaug" improved upon "An Unexpected Journey" in terms of quality of visual effects and overall filmmaking. But you never know.
Those three titles seem pretty solid. Beyond that, however, I see a very open race. Beyond that, it might be useful to group the other contenders into "categories".
In the first category would be "summer blockbusters" – but I’d divide that further into franchises and non-franchises. When a franchise is embraced by this branch, frequently its successors have an easier time (seen above with "Apes" and "Lord of the Rings"/"Hobbit"), though eventually the novelty wears off. When the original doesn’t score, it is difficult – though not impossible – for the successors to follow suit.
With that being said, "X-Men: Days of Future Past" would appear to be in trouble. None of the many highly successful entries in this franchise has scored a nomination to date. While the fact that this is practically a merger of two sides of the franchise may make things slightly more interesting, I’m ultimately not sure that will be enough to lift Richard Stammers and his team into the final five.