At the Visual Effects Society’s annual awards on Feb. 2, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” took home four of the seven prizes given for work on “photoreal features.” That was no surprise; the “Star Wars” movies have always been heralded for their technical achievements regardless the quality of the individual episodes.
What was surprising about those awards were the three races won by “The Revenant,” a movie that is almost entirely a reality feature, brilliantly photographed in stunning and generally inaccessible locations with actors doing exactly what they seem to be doing.
I say almost entirely real because one sequence, that of the momma bear mauling a prostrate Leonardo DiCaprio, is the most realistic feat of visual effects done for any movie of last year and perhaps ever.
How did they do that, we wondered after the movie was over and we caught our breath? Did they superimpose Leo’s head over the body of a suicidal stunt double? Did they train a bear by pissing him off with Raggedy Andy dolls and then substitute Leo with computer software?
It seemed too real to be, well, photoreal.
The question now is whether that one extended sequence in “The Revenant” will carry the day with Oscar voters, who have only the one visual effects award to give?
The Visual Effects Society is comprised of about 3,000 VFX craftspeople throughout the world and in nominating work in their seven photoreal categories, they were no doubt influenced by the omnipresence of visual effects in the movies being considered. And they chose “Star Wars” as the best overall.
“The Revenant” won for “supporting,” “animated” and “compositing” visual effects, whatever that last one is.
And “Mad Max,” which a majority of the Gold Derby experts think will win the Oscar, had a single VES win for “simulation.”
The supporting award for “The Revenant” is an obvious choice. Like an actor who steals a movie with one scene, the bear — whether animatronic, computer-animated or Andy Serkis inside a bear suit — left its audience breathless while establishing the parameters of DiCaprio’s likely Oscar-winning performance.
There are about 360 members of the visual effects branch of the academy and they did their job by nominating “Star Wars,” “The Revenant” and “Mad Max,” along with “The Martian” and “Ex Machina.” Now, the fate of that award is in the hands of the academy voters at large, a body whose knowledge of exceptional visual effects is no greater than that of focused movie buffs, and a different criterion is in play.
That criterion is the specific memory they have of transformative visual effects among the nominated films. Is it the see-through body of Alicia Vikander playing an android in “Ex-Machina?” Charlize Theron’s missing arm in “Mad Max?” The Millennium Falcon once again going into warp speed in “The Force Awakens?” How about the solar windstorm that strands Matt Damon at the start of “The Martian?” Or, is it momma bear in “The Revenant.”
Ask yourself how you would vote because that’s what most academy members will do.
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Photo: “The Revenant” (Fox)