Tuesday, February 24, 2015

2015 Oscar Recap/Space-Themed VFX Winners of the Past

Sunday night was the 87th Academy Awards, an event that always provides plenty of pomp, some touching tributes, passionate speeches, so-so jokes, and several "train wreck" moments. It looks like the ratings weren't great this year, and there seemed to be little interest by the Academy in mixing up the format to address the same complaints you always hear about the ceremony (running time, pacing, caliber of jokes). Out of all the nominees, Birdman's far-out concept, dream-like cinematography (by back-to-back winner Emmanuel Lubezki), and terrific performance by Michael Keaton (one of my favorite actors) made it easy to root for in the Best Picture category. It was being heavily promoted last year when I was working at the Fox Studios lot, and I'm glad to see so many others enjoyed it. Fox proved to probably have the best 2014 out of all the studios, coming in #1 with market share, earning the most Oscar nominations, and winning the Best Picture award. The cherry on top was a music tribute to the studio's 1965 box office smash and five Oscar-winning The Sound of Music (a mural of Julie Andrews in those iconic Swiss Alps still hangs at the studio lot).

Since I entered the Oscar pool at work this year, I paid extra attention to who was winning at the Screen Actor's Guild Awards, the British Academy of Film and Television (BAFTAs) Awards, the Golden Globes, and the Visual Effects Society (VES) Awards. In a year with many heavy favorites, the "Best Visual Effects" winner seemed harder to determine. Director Christopher Nolan's space epic Interstellar ended up taking home the Academy Award, which not only surprised those in the VFX industry who assumed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes would win, but also broke Todd Vaziri's "Predictinator," a formula specifically devised to predict all of the VFX Oscar winners from 1989 to the present day. The formula weighs the factors of critical acclaim, box office returns, total nominations, release date, whether the movie was a sequel or not, the caliber and type of CG creatures it contains, and actor prestige, and predicted the dark horse space comedy Guardians of the Galaxy would win the award.
"Predictinator, you are flawed, and imperfect! Execute your prime function!"
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (another movie with lots of creature animation) had won the VES Award earlier this year, which was viewed by many to be a strong contender. The voting body of the VES Awards are visual effects artists who are well-informed of the latest technology and have extremely critical eyes toward this aspect of filmmaking. Before the Oscars, I read a post by Todd which took a closer look at how good a predictor the VES Awards are for the VFX Oscar, and it turns out that the BAFTAs have been slightly better since 2002 when the VES Awards began.

Even though it won the BAFTA for Special Visual Effects, a possible knock on Interstellar's chances at getting the Academy Award was that Gravity won last year for Best Visual Effects, and an argument could be made that it would be unlikely that two movies with the same setting of space would win back-to-back. Despite this nagging thought and a clear Predictinator pick for Guardians, I sided with Interstellar, which had strong Las Vegas odds and a BAFTA win that could not be ignored. I ended up winning our Oscar pool by one point for a total of nineteen correct picks out of twenty-four.
With a two-year trend now established for space movies winning the Best Visual Effects Oscar, I became curious about how the genre had done historically throughout the Oscars, including back in the early years when the award was for "Special Effects" and "Special Achievement in Visual Effects." How many times had space-themed movies won? How many years had one or more been nominated? Did the Academy tend to reward the genre once it became nominated?

I returned to the familiar sight of the Visual Effects Oscar winners Wikipedia page, which was the main resource back when I wrote my "VFX Oscar Elite" post. I counted how many years that a story involving outer space had been nominated for Best Visual Effects (or its equivalent), and then compared it to its fellow nominees for those years. I kept track of how the "terrestrial" movies (ones that did not significantly involve outer space) did in these years as well. The breakdown is below:

bold  space-themed winner
blue  year with multiple space-themed nominees
red  terrestrial beat a space-themed nominee
purple  terrestrial beat two space-themed nominees

2014: Interstellar
2013: Gravity
2012: Life of Pi
2011: Hugo
2010: Inception
2009: Avatar
2008: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
2007: The Golden Compass
2006: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
2005: King Kong
2004: Spider-Man 2
2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
2002: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
2001: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
2000: Gladiator
1999: The Matrix
1998: What Dreams May Come
1997: Titanic
1996: Independence Day
1995: Babe
1994: Forrest Gump
1993: Jurassic Park
1992: Death Becomes Her
1991: Terminator 2: Judgment Day
1990: Total Recall (uncontested)
1989: The Abyss
1988: Who Framed Roger Rabbit
1987: Innerspace
1986: Aliens
1985: Cocoon
1984: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
1983: Return of the Jedi (uncontested)
1982: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial 
1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark
1980: The Empire Strikes Back (uncontested)
1979: Alien (4 space nominees)
1978: Superman (uncontested)
1977 ("Best Visual Effects" from this year onward): Star Wars
1976 ("Special Achievement in Visual Effects"): King Kong
1975 ("Special Achievement in Visual Effects"): The Hindenburg
1974 ("Special Achievement in Visual Effects"): Earthquake
1972 ("Special Achievement in Visual Effects"): The Poseidon Adventure
1971 ("Best Visual Effects"): Bedknobs and Broomsticks
1970 ("Best Visual Effects"): Tora! Tora! Tora!
1969 ("Best Visual Effects"): Marooned
1968 ("Best Visual Effects"): 2001: A Space Odyssey
1967 ("Best Visual Effects"): Doctor Dolittle
1966 ("Best Visual Effects"): Fantastic Voyage
1965 ("Best Visual Effects"): Thunderball
1964 ("Best Special Effects"): Mary Poppins
1963 ("Best Special Effects"): Cleopatra
1962 ("Best Special Effects"): The Longest Day
1961 ("Best Special Effects"): The Guns of Navarone
1960 ("Best Special Effects"): The Time Machine
1959 ("Best Special Effects"): Ben-Hur
1958 ("Best Special Effects"): Tom Thumb
1957 ("Best Special Effects"): The Enemy Below
1956 ("Best Special Effects"): The Ten Commandments
1955 ("Best Special Effects"): The Bridges at Tokyo-Ri
1954 ("Best Special Effects"): 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
1953 ("Best Special Effects"): The War of the Worlds (uncontested)
1952 ("Best Special Effects"): Plymouth Adventure
1951 ("Best Special Effects"): When Worlds Collide
1950 ("Best Special Effects"): Destination Moon
1949 ("Best Special Effects"): Mighty Joe Young
1948 ("Best Special Effects"): Portrait of Jennie
1947 ("Best Special Effects"): Green Dolphin Street
1946 ("Best Special Effects"): Blithe Spirit
1945 ("Best Special Effects"): Wonder Man
1944 ("Best Special Effects"): Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
1943 ("Best Special Effects"): Crash Dive
1942 ("Best Special Effects"): Reap the Wild Wind
1941 ("Best Special Effects"): I Wanted Wings
1940 ("Best Special Effects"): The Thief of Baghdad
1939 ("Best Special Effects"): The Rains Came

In seventy-four years of the award's existence, a space-themed movie has won for Best Visual Effects nineteen times and lost twelve times. Twenty times in the last thirty years there has been at least one nominee of this kind. Not only have there been multiple back-to-back years of space movie winners, there was even a four-year streak between 1977-1980 where the visual effects of space movies were apparently irresistible to the Academy. Life of Pi has been the only terrestrial movie which was able to win the Best Visual Effects Oscar in a year with multiple space-themed nominees.

On the flip side of these wins, there have been some notable losers with a space theme: Star Wars Episode I and II, The Avengers, Prometheus, Apollo 13, Alien 3, Predator, 2010, Starship Troopers, and more. Transformers moviesStar Trek movies, and Star Wars prequel movies have never won in their seven total nominations. Interestingly, Star Trek movies have only lost to other space movies. Three times out of seven did a terrestrial movie beat a Star Wars, Star Trek, or Transformers movie (The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and Hugo). To summarize, when space-themed movies get nominated for the Best Visual Effects Academy Award, history shows that they win 61.3% of the time (19/31). If they are not a Transformers movie or Star Wars prequel, they beat a "terrestrial" movie 67.9% of the time (19/28).

Some other things I noticed:

1) Comic book movies are almost all doomed to lose the Best Visual Effects Oscar, with a mere two wins out of thirteen nominations. A record-setting three comic book movies were nominated this year, and all came up short. All three Iron Man movies lost--two of those three times to terrestrial movies. The Avengers lost, despite its space content and plentiful CG aliens. Every Batman movie has lost, and a Superman movie only won in an uncontested race. Both Spider-Man nominees were in contested races though, and one ended up winning, however that win was in a year with no space nominee.

2) Peter Jackson movies are two-for-three in defeating space-themed contenders for a Best Visual Effects Oscar. Christopher Nolan movies are two-for-three in this category.

3) Since 2002, the BAFTAs are now +2 over the VES awards in predicting the VFX Oscar winner.

4) The Return of the Jedi is probably the most intentionally-funny space movie to win the Best Visual Effects Oscar, which is saying something (and no, the exploding head moment in Total Recall doesn't count). As it does in the other Oscar categories, the Academy sides overwhelmingly with dramas over comedies. So much in fact, that it's amazing the outright-goofy Guardians of the Galaxy was considered a contender for the award at all.


After taking this long look from another angle at the history of the Best Visual Effects Oscar award, I have learned that space-themed movies tend to do very well overall. Audiences have now seen black holes, worm holes, exploding planets, and aliens of every shape and size, and it seems like everything they can imagine has been covered at this point. Conversely, there is practically no limit to what the VFX industry can visualize at this point in its history, and the sci-fi genre will never cease to be interesting to moviegoers, so there will assuredly be many more nominees and winners. Not only did Interstellar's lead actor Matthew McConaughey have "actor prestige," but its Oscar-winning supporting cast of Anne Hathaway, Matt Damon, Michael Caine, and Ellen Burstyn, (did I miss anyone?) might have been worth a bit more weight in Todd and his wife's formula to tilt Interstellar over Guardians of the Galaxy, whose cast only had Oscar nominees as far as I can tell. This could also be seen as a win for the space drama genre over the (all too rare) space comedy. These factors might be worth considering when Todd pops the hood on his Predictinator and looks around for parts to upgrade.

"You're gonna need a bigger wrench."

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