visual effects

Deepwater Horizon


*Yes, I realize that this picture could be from any of Mark Wahlberg’s movies…*

MovieDeepwater Horizon
What it’s up for: Sound Editing, Visual Effects

This is the story of the April 2010 oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. It thoroughly humanized the tragedy. Much of the focus after the incident was on how terrible it was for the environment (which it was). However, human lives were lost and loss of life should always be taken seriously. The movie as a whole was engaging and intense. I may have been sobbing almost the entire time, but I still enjoyed it.

The visual effects immerse you in a hellish landscape. You can feel the terror as the rig explodes and starts falling apart. The sound editing was complex, but not too far out of the ordinary.

This is another one where the score stood out in a strong, positive way. Gina Rodriguez (who is amazing in Jane the Virgin) did a fantastic job as one of the engineers and the only woman in any position of authority. All of the actors seemed fully committed and they added to the authenticity of the film.

Sound Editing – Doubtful
Visual Effects – Doubtful


Rogue One


*Disclaimer: I don’t know who made the above image but whoever did is a genius.*

MovieRogue One
What it’s up for: Sound Mixing, Visual Effects

Rogue One, the first of what will surely be many “Star Wars Story” films, tell the tale of the theft of the Death Star plans by the Rebellion against the Empire. It takes place immediately before Star Wars: A New Hope (also known as Star Wars also known as Episode IV also known as the first created Star Wars film that came out in 1977).

I’m incredibly biased when it comes to Star Wars anything. The Star Wars universe is my first love. I’ll start off by saying I enjoyed Rogue One as a film more than I enjoyed The Force Awakens. (But I also love The Force Awakens.) The story is intriguing and different from the Star Wars saga films but still feels like it fits right into the rest of the stories. It’s a darker movie than the others. I won’t spoil anything (although if you haven’t seen it by now, you probably don’t care) but I will say that it and Episode III are the only Star Wars films I wouldn’t take young children to see.

The scoring was fantastic. Michael Giacchino (whose one of my favorite composers) did a great job combining John Williams’ scores into his own interpretation. The acting was…sufficient. I feel like they may have suffered from a screenplay that had to be cut down several times. My biggest objection to the film is that the characters are provided with very little development. Some of the characters have or will get some of that from the expanded universe (comics, books, etc). However, a film shouldn’t rely on those materials to support its characters.

The visual effects are the standard sci-fi level of amazing with one exception that makes it stand out from the crowd – the special motion capture that resurrected one of my favorite characters ever: Grand Moff Tarkin. Tarkin was played by actor Peter Cushing back in 1977. Since this movie takes place immediately before Episode IV, they needed to bring Tarkin back. So, they turned to the visual effects department. I personally found some of it to be off-putting. It falls into the uncanny valley a couple of times. But the effort and technological advancement can’t be denied.

As for sound mixing, there were no perceivable flaws so I guess that’s good? It’s hard to tell nowadays. There’s so many space/sci-fi/war movies that unless something is obviously wrong, it’s hard to knock it.

Sound Mixing – It could win this category just based on my statistics from the last few years, but after my Star Wars debacles from last year, I doubt that it will.
Visual Effects – This is an exceptionally complicated category this year. My gut says “no” though. 

Kubo and the Two Strings


MovieKubo and the Two Strings
What it’s up for: Animated Feature Film, Visual Effects

For the Animated Feature Film category, the reigning formula has been 1-2 Disney or Pixar films, 1-2 Dreamworks or stop-motion film, and 2 foreign films. That fits this year. Kubo falls into your typical stop-motion film standard, save for one crucial element – the visual effects.

Kubo and the Two Strings follows the story of Kubo as his mother tries to protect him from his malicious relatives. It’s a tale that leads Kubo to various enchanted environments and through several trials. Giving more detail will spoil some surprises.

It has a classic epic journey structure that’s predictable but in a positive way. Some things don’t make sense at first, but if you stick through it, all your questions will be answered and you’ll be left smiling. It’s severely underrated and I’d recommend it to anyone and especially to anyone with kids. It’s not a kids film per say, but there’s so many cool things about it that children would love it.

The visual effects are STUNNING. Basically, they painstakingly meshed together CGI effects and stop-motion effects to create these vast environments and characters, while maintaining the stream-lined feel of a stop-motion movie. There are water effects throughout the film that LOOK like they’re stop-motion but they’re actually CGI. It’s incredible. There was a lot of work put into these effects. If you’re interested in learning more, I’d recommend visiting this article about what they did to accomplish this feat.

Sadly, I don’t think Kubo will win either of these categories. It’s possible there could be an upset win here in the Animated Feature Film category, but it’s unlikely.

Visual Effects: Doctor Strange and The Jungle Book


Movie: Doctor Strange
What it’s up for: Visual Effects

I will honestly say that I am not the best person to accurately assess the visual effects for Doctor Strange. I have some astigmatism so I tend to prefer seeing movies in 2D over 3D. My astigmatism also led me to be completely tripped out by the distortion effects in this film. (I’m glad I didn’t see it in 3D. It wouldn’t have gone well.) However, the visual effects are the primary focal point of Doctor Strange and it’s easy enough to perceive why.

Doctor Strange is based off the Marvel comics character by the same name. This film is Steven Strange’s origin story. Strange, a highly skilled surgeon, injures his hands in an accident and must learn to cope with life outside the hospital. In his search for meaning and healing, he discovers a realm of sorcery and finds a power within himself that he never imagined.

This is a Marvel movie. It’s good. It’s quite good. I, personally, didn’t like it as much as some of the other films, but there’s no denying its quality. The story line is intriguing. The characters are complex and interesting. But the effects are what makes this movie stand out. Part of the sorcery in the film includes creating alternate realities and opening portals to new areas. The result is basically what would happen if you filmed a movie through a kaleidoscope. It’s amazing to watch. All the CGI effects were seamless and impressive. However, it pales in comparison to the innovative effects in The Jungle Book and Kubo and the Two Strings (which is getting its own post).


MovieThe Jungle Book
What it’s up for: Visual Effects

When they first announced the concept for this movie – live action with motion capture animals – I, like many, was quite confused on how it would play out. Little did we know how WELL it would work.

The Jungle Book is….The Jungle Book. It is the live-action adaptation of the Disney animated feature. It does include some additional elements from the book. It is not simply a shot-for-shot remake. In fact, although it keeps much of the plot from the cartoon (as well as some musical elements), the story ventures far enough away from the original to keep you engaged and guessing what will happen next. I absolutely loved it. It is my favorite of the live-action remakes so far. It was better than Cinderella and immensely better than Maleficent. I think they finally figured out that if they change the plot around too much, people won’t like the film. This one has just the right balance.

Now, for the effects: SWEET MOTHER OF MONKEY MILK. Sorry for the lack of professionalism but seriously…it’s like they trained real animals to talk and act. The evolution of the animation of fur and hair has really reached its peak. I was blown away by how real everything looked – animals and environment alike. Neel Sethi (Mowgli) was the only one on set for most of the filming of this movie. He acted by himself to imaginary animals in an imaginary environment on a green screen set. He should get a special award just for that. He also did a great job as an actor.

Having seen 4 out of 5 of the Visual Effects movies at this point, I’m going to have to go with The Jungle Book.

Straight Outta Compton

Movie: Straight Outta Compton
What it’s up for: Original Screenplay, Visual Effects

Straight Outta Compton tells the tale of the rise of hip-hop group N.W.A. in the late 80s/early 90s. As someone who knew nothing about rap, hip-hop, or the histories of either, this was an educational experience for me.

As a whole, the movie is solid. It is well-crafted, well-written, and well-executed. The original screenplay flows elegantly through the story, providing just enough detail for people like me to know what’s happening, but not so much that it waters down the script. The actors used what they were given convincingly. The scenes were set up beautifully and helped communicate what was happening. It created all the emotions you could hope for in a well-written story.

The visual effects are virtually invisible (which is, of course, a good thing). I had to search for what exactly was done in the visual effects realm to realize what they had accomplished. Most of the effects were to create crowds or to assist in making scenes look dated. It was well done, but I’m not sure it deserved the nomination. Meanwhile, the production designers should have been nominated for their monumental efforts in this film. They incorporated symbolic uses of color and light. They transformed locations into their early 90s counterparts. It was just gorgeous.

Original Screenplay – I actually think it might win this one.
Visual Effects – Really unlikely


The Martian

Movie: The Martian
What it’s up for: Best Picture, Leading Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects

Everyone probably knows the basic premise of The Martian by now. Basically, an astronaut named Mark Watney (Matt Damon) gets stranded on Mars and everyone tries to get him back. I don’t say that cynically or tongue-in-cheek. The end result of this storyline is a fun and engaging adventure with a fantastic ensemble cast.

The production design worked perfectly. Space movies have been done many times and it’s easy to get stuck in a space movie rut when it comes to design. This one, however, felt natural and realistic. It felt like something that could be happening in this day and age, not in the future. The modern take on the design is accentuated by an artful, semi-futuristic attention to detail. The interior scenes were the most intriguing to me. There’s a consistency and flow to each location that keeps everything connected.

The adapted screenplay meshed well with the overall design to create that sense of authentic reality. The timeline for the movie spans over several years but the screenplay seamlessly transitions across time without kitschy tropes or over-used transitions. The progress of the story was well-paced without being too predictable. They avoid the awkwardness of Watney talking to himself by having him do “daily logs”. My one technical objection was to some over-the-shoulder POV camera angles (primarily near the beginning) that ruined some of the illusion of Watney being stranded alone on Mars.

The script was clever and concise and integrated the talents of the cast involved. There were a couple minor exceptions to that involving Watney and Jeff Daniel’s character (NASA administrator Sanders) where a few of their “one-liners” seemed forced. I can’t understand how that happened when much of the rest of the script smoothly incorporates humor without feeling contrived. I loved the variety of characters and the choice of actors. The threat with using that many well-known actors is for characters to feel unnecessary. Each character played an important role and each actor filled those roles well. They worked well together and each contributed to the story. My favorite moment is a scene where Sean Bean and some of the others discuss a plan called “Elrond”. If you don’t know why that’s funny, look up “Sean Bean” and “Lord of the Rings”.

Matt Damon‘s character, Mark Watney, is the centerpiece of this ensemble. After Watney is left on Mars, he must figure out how to survive and let Earth know that he’s still alive. Damon makes these terrible events amusing and makes talking to yourself seem normal. For about 80% of the movie, Damon is his typical charming self. The 20% where the walls break down and you see what’s really going on for Watney are what make his performance Oscar-worthy.

The sound editing was high class. Space movies always require a significant amount of sound creation and foleying. The sound editing was flawless, as far as I can recall. Everything felt natural and there weren’t any abrupt moments caused by sound.

The visual effects were perfect. Like I’ve said about everything else, the film felt real. The spaceship scenes were the most complex with gravity effects and the integration of the sets into outer space. Mars was convincing. It was all just good. Visual effects are somewhat difficult to examine nowadays. The only times they aren’t good are if there are some glaring problems (like The Revenant‘s fur rendering issues).

Best Picture – Unlikely
Leading Actor – Unlikely
Adapted Screenplay – Possibly
Production Design – Possibly
Sound Editing – Possibly
Sound Mixing – It’ll get both sound categories or neither
Visual Effects – Unlikely

Ex Machina

Movie: Ex Machina
What it’s up for: Original Screenplay, Visual Effects

Artificial Intelligence movies tend to be relatively predictable. That proves true in Ex Machina but only to a certain extent.

Ex Machina tells the story of an employee of a tech company (essentially a fictional version of Google) named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) who wins the opportunity to spend a week at the estate of the CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Nathan’s real intention for Caleb is for him to be a Turing test for Nathan’s new A.I. technology. Caleb meets Ava (Alicia Vikander), a humanoid robot, and he and Nathan work together to test the authenticity of her intelligence.

Before I even mention the nominated categories for this film, I have to make a note on behalf of Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander. Oscar Isaac’s character might be one of my favorite characters from any movie this year. Isaac creates the feel of the film all on his own. There’s something completely engrossing about Nathan. He’s eccentric and affable yet threatening at the same time. Isaac pulls it off so well. Vikander’s triumph comes from the fact that she plays a robot with whom the screenwriters needed the audience to make an emotional connection. She acts in a bodysuit the entire time in order to become Ava. This required the extra effort to speak and move as a highly advanced robot, not as a human. Her acting and the visual effects combine into a believable and realistic A.I..

Those visual effects for Ava turned Vikander’s bodysuit into segments that were completely see-through with visible mechanical components. The effort that went into this process is monumental. They did not use greenscreens. They did not use motion-capture. They used a bunch of processes that I don’t understand. The effect is incredible. After a bit of time passes, you forget that she’s fake.

The original screenplay for this film truly shines. The clever script mixes perfectly with gorgeous scene structures. Although there is an element of predictability to the story, it is engaging enough that it doesn’t matter.You still want to find out what happens. They bring in emotion, urgency, and mystery at just the right times. The exterior scenes on this fictional estate are breathtaking and create a striking symbolic contrast with the interior scenes in Nathan’s house. The production designers deserve some recognition for their efforts as well.

Original Screenplay – Unlikely, but well-deserved
Visual Effects – Unlikely

The Revenant

Movie: The Revenant
What it’s up for: Best Picture, Leading Actor, Supporting Actor, Director, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects

The Revenant tells the story of Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) who gets left for dead in the wilderness of the 1820s by his team. Glass’ grim determination for revenge drives him to use all the survival skills he possesses to try and get back to their fort. As a whole, the film is engaging and enjoyable. From a technical standpoint, there were certain things I just could not get past. We’ll start with the positives though.

Leonardo DiCaprio completely sells his forsaken character. He commits himself fully physically and emotionally. This is another nomination for a role with little dialogue. Even though he rarely speaks, he effectively communicates his story through his actions. However, it seems that DiCaprio had little to work with when it came to his character’s story. We are given virtually no background information or character development for Glass. In spite of that, DiCaprio creates a character that bonds with the audience and creates an emotional connection.

Similarly, Tom Hardy‘s character, John Fitzgerald, the antagonist of the film, makes himself known and hated fairly quickly despite having minimal character development. His strong character has a believable authenticity that makes him seem like he’s actually from the 1820s. The one thing that causes his character to suffer was not his fault. You could not understand half of what he said. I spent a significant amount of time lost when he was talking due to some terrible sound mixing (which I’ll get into more later).

The gorgeous cinematography captured the elements perfectly and drove the story along. They used natural light almost exclusively throughout the entire shooting process resulting in surprisingly clear and realistic shots. Lubezki is just a genius. Combine the painstaking cinematography with the unique film editing and you have a wilderness film that feels kind of like a Terrance Malick piece. There are certain scenes where Glass’ perception of reality shifts into dreams and hallucinations. There’s no transition into these stages. They just happen. Consequently there are moments where you have no idea what’s going on until it’s over. It takes nothing away from the story. It’s simply odd.

The production design also helps communicate Glass’ reality and strongly frames the impact of nature on our lost hero. The crew works with the elements in order to explain the story. That aspect was beautiful. The artificial locations (the fort, Native camps) felt authentic and kept the illusion of the historical aspect of the film intact.

The makeup and hairstyling team had an insane amount of work for this film. The makeup artists in particular had to create a number of flesh wounds and injuries for various characters as well as Native American body art. The costume design team created authentic (I assume) and intricate costumes. Each costume had a number of different elements to it.

I like Alejandro Iñárritu as a director. He made some bold choices with this film. They shot chronologically to make the experiences feel more authentic. This caused major budget problems for them when the snow melted at the end of shooting, forcing them to fly to Argentina to finish. He effectively directed several silent characters and characters speaking different languages. Overall, he did a great job. However, there were some minor issues that he had some control over that he should have resolved. Which leads me to…

The ridiculously awful sound mixing. The sound editing (creation of sounds for the film) was perfectly fine. Superb even. Elements of the mixing were good too, particularly with the incorporation of natural sounds into stereo. However, the biggest issue of the whole film has to do with dialogue. Half the time, you can’t hear the dialogue that’s in English. AND THEN a significant amount of the Native dialogue had to be redubbed after filming so the words don’t match the actors’ mouths. Iñárritu (supposedly) thought the latter wouldn’t matter because people would be focused on the subtitles. Mixing the dialogue into the background noises should have been given more of an effort. It’s possible that due to the time constraints of their post-production process, they just neglected it. I guess the Academy ignored that glaring issue when they nominated The Revenant for sound mixing.

Lastly, the visual effects. I know the whole motion-capture-bear thing has become a high-toned and fancy to-do in the technical circles. Yes, the technology is impressive. However, the end result for the bear and almost all the other animals leaves much to be desired. They all looked fake. Hair is hard to animate, but look at the recent Planet of the Apes films and you know it’s possible to create realistic looking animals. I think this may have been another area that suffered due to their time constraints. The real star of the effects team is whoever was in charge of the practical effects. So…many…fake dead animals. So…much…blood and guts. Seriously, this movie had significantly more gore than The Hateful Eight.

Best Picture – Probable but there might be a dark horse that takes the main prize
Leading Actor – I mean…if they don’t, there will be rioting
Supporting Actor – Possible
Director  – Highly likely
Cinematography – Highly likely
Costume Design – Unsure…
Film Editing – Unlikely
Makeup and Hairstyling – Highly likely
Production Design – Unlikely
Sound Editing – Unlikely
Sound Mixing – Please, lord, no
Visual Effects – Unlikely

Mad Max: Fury Road

Movie: Mad Max: Fury Road
What it’s up for: Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Makeup, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects

I, like many, scoffed at the ten nominations for Mad MaxFury Road. On the outside, it doesn’t seem to fit your standard Academy film. It seems like a post-apocalyptic version of Fast and Furious. This is a perfect example of how you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

Mad Max: Fury Road tells the story of a woman named Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who helps a group of female slaves escape from a mad dictator. She attempts the escape through an expansive desert, hoping to find a place of peace on the other side. As she journeys, she’s joined by Max (Tom Hardy) who is battling his own demons.

George Miller had quite the undertaking as the director. First of all, there’s virtually no dialogue. The story is built and pushed almost entirely through the action going on. Secondly, the pace of the movie stays about the same (hectic) almost the entire time. There are stunts practically every five seconds. I don’t know how many extras worked on the film (or which extras were real and which were virtual) but they were numerous. Miller pulled an amazing number of variables together to create a seamless experience. I wish I’d been able to see it in theaters for the full effect.

The cinematography was intentional, creative, and effective. It set the tone for the film. It felt like a modern version of a 1980s film – which makes sense considering this is part of the Mad Max film franchise. (Full disclosure: I’ve never seen any of the other Max films. I did quickly skim the plots of the other three on Wikipedia before watching this one, though.) It was unique and memorable. Of course, this would all mean very little if the film editing wasn’t just as good. Which it is. Everything flows well from one scene to the next. It flows so well, that you just find yourself falling into the next moment without realizing that a scene change is happening. For a movie with so much action, it would be easy to get tired of things blowing up all the time. For a movie with very little variability in pacing, it could be easy to get overwhelmed. However, the editing – combined with a narrative score (which should have been nominated) – keep you interested and engaged the entire time.

The costumes and makeup designs tell their own stories. Both are intricate and dramatic, while subtly helping to explain things. The screenplay provides little in the way of background information for the societies that are encountered in the film. The costuming helps display the state of degradation that these people have found themselves in while also helping to distinguish between different groups or types of people. The makeup brings everything full circle by providing the futuristic sense that these people are not like us.

The visual effects of the film are almost indistinguishable from the practical special effects. Although most of the scenes are simply set in the desert, there are some truly epic moments starring the visual effects. Most of the film is one huge car chase that is creatively enhanced through some CGI work. Oh, and Charlize Theron is missing an arm the whole time. I had not even realized the broad scope of the visual effects work until I had to think about it for this post. While you’re watching the movie, the CGI/greenscreen effects don’t stand out from the actors and real vehicles.

The sound editing helped create the illusion of reality almost flawlessly. For the sound mixing, I felt like there were some off moments when the vocals were mixed in. Particularly with Tom Hardy’s lines (of which there were maybe five). I’m not sure if that’s just me being picky or if they did have some dubbing issues. Everything else related to mixing seemed strong.

Production design is my last to analyze for this post because everything I could say has probably been said about any of the previous categories. The production design stands out because all the other categories are so strong. They each work together perfectly to form this immersive environment. The fact that this film stands solidly in the realm of well-crafted stories without a significant amount of dialogue is evidence of exceptional production design.

Overall, it is a great movie. It’s not my normal type of film but I enjoyed it. Something that stood out significantly to me is the fact that there were numerous times where the filmmakers had an open moment for some gratuitous nudity and they chose not to do it. There was also very little profanity. In a time where those two elements are usually crutches for filmmakers, it’s impressive to see someone make a good movie without them.

Best Picture – Unlikely. Even though it’s very good.
Director  – Unlikely. Just because of the other contenders.
Cinematography – Possible….
Costume Design -I hope so! I think it’s in the top two.
Film Editing – Not sure yet.
Makeup – Possible. Old age makeup is usually the give away for this award so I’ll have to see what happens in The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared first.
Production Design – Unlikely…but I think it’ll be between this and The Revenant
Sound Editing – Unlikely
Sound Mixing – Unlikely
Visual Effects – Possible

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