“First Man” has had a rocky road to the Oscars, but there is a good chance it walks away with the statuette for Best Visual Effects. The Neil Armstrong biopic is the only film in the Best Visual Effects race this year with additional nominations outside of the category, and recent trends show how often this helps films win. Yet, “First Man” would actually be bucking a different trend, in that its effects are less showy compared to most Visual Effects winners. The question is whether its realistic effects can win over the fantastical CGI showcases in “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Christopher Robin,” “Ready Player One” and “Solo: A Star Wars Story.”
“First Man” just picked up its first industry win at the Visual Effects Society Awards, winning in Best Supporting Effects. Nominated visual effects supervisors Paul Lambert, Ian Hunter, Tristan Myles and J.D. Schwalm worked to recreate the Apollo 11 mission and the moon landing with digital augmentation, miniatures and an LED screen. While the VFX work is certainly remarkable, especially when compared to the real footage from 1969, the effects are clearly supporting what is for all intents and purposes a grounded drama. This explains its placement at the VES Awards in Best Supporting Effects, though winning in that category very rarely signals an Oscar win. In fact, since the VES’s Best Supporting Effects award was invented in 2002, only one film nominated there has won Best Visual Effects at the Oscars: “Hugo” in 2011.
While “First Man’s” supporting VFX will make a Best Visual Effects win an uphill battle, there are some parallels with that 2011 race. Some of “Hugo’s” competition was nominated in other races, but the Martin Scorsese drama was nominated in 10 other categories including Best Picture, far more than any other film it was nominated against. “First Man” has three other nominations, in Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing, while “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Christopher Robin,” “Ready Player One” and “Solo: A Star Wars Story” only have the one.
There is also an unspoken pattern with recent Best Visual Effects winners in that Best Picture nominees (“Inception,” “Hugo,” “Life of Pi,” “Gravity”) or that arguably had the best chance of getting into Best Picture (“Interstellar,” “Blade Runner 2049”) tend to emerge victorious. None of “First Man’s” competition had that kind of Best Picture heat, so it could very well defy the Supporting Effects odds.
Winning Best Visual Effects would be a nice ending to this rollercoaster ride “First Man” has gone through since its release. Plagued by the flag controversy and a disappointing box office, the film’s awards chances gradually sputtered out as it started missing out on nominations at the Golden Globes, SAG and more. Its heat picked back up when the guilds began to weigh in, but when the Oscar nominations came around, it missed out on multiple categories pundits were predicting it to get in, including Best Supporting Actress for Claire Foy, Best Cinematography and Best Original Score. Gold Derby odds have “First Man” in second behind “Avengers: Infinity War” to win Best Visual Effects, but its chances may just be stronger than predictors think.
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