2/22/02: Guest columnist: Vladimir C. Sever on "The Case of ILM"

Havo dad, ILM
or, The Strange Case of the Premier Visual Effects Facility Being Denied the Effects Oscar…
After the Effects Oscar Became Reputable

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As a teen geek I used to pride myself on knowing exactly who would win the Visual Effects Oscar each year. Sure, the higher up you went in the Oscar categories the more intangible would the voters’ criteria become, but in the VFX department justice reigned. And justice more often than not meant meting the award out to Industrial Light and Magic, the one company which defined the field with Star Wars, and even more so with The Empire Strikes Back, done after it relocated to Marin and started sprouting deep roots and unimaginable branches — one of which, mind you, was Pixar, in its earliest inception. The level of quality ILM routinely achieved was in a league of its own: look at any other show from 1980 and compare it to Empire and you’ll see what I mean. And that state of being way ahead of the competition remained their attribute forever since — or only up until Jurassic Park and Forrest Gump, if you listen to AMPAS. Those two films introduced the possibilities of CG in such a spectacular / invisible way that everyone knew, overnight, that the age of the optical effect had become a thing of the past. Those were watershed achievements: ILM continued ploughing the effects field, of course, but something was amiss. Namely, after getting the Oscar for Gump in March 1995, ILM was to be denied it from then on.

We’re talking about a company here that had been winning for every single year between 1980 and 1994, except on two occasions —
Aliens, which won for 1986, and Total Recall, which won for 1990, were done by others. (I say for just to acknowledge the fact that the actual Oscar is given the following year. Truly anal, I know. Just watch me.) And most of the time their wins were more than justified — I actually felt bad about only one, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which beat 2010 and Ghostbusters for 1984, even though both of them were superior works. It was a taste of the reversal of fortune ILM would suffer a decade later.

A New Boss in Town

Those two films were the initial projects of Boss Film Corporation, the LA-based firm built on the foundations of Douglas Trumbull’s Entertainment Effects Group, which previously did, por ejemplo,
Blade Runner, and was therefore among the very, very few serious competitors ILM had. The boss of Boss became Richard Edlund, hitherto ILM’s top supervisor, and an Oscar winner for the first three Star Wars films, plus Raiders of the Lost Ark. With his leaving Lucas’ nest, everyone felt that the most serious threat to ILM had arrived: Edlund’s expertise, combined with that of the former EEG staffers, and such technological advantages as the Compsy system and filming in 65mm would, surely, challenge ILM’s VistaVision and go-motion? Ghostbusters and 2010 were certainly some of the most spectacular shows ever seen up until that time.

Yes, but they didn’t garner the Academy Award: and that would prove fatal to Boss. Despite the good work done on, say,
Poltergeist II and Die Hard, Edlund would start losing bids to ILM more and more often — both Ghostbusters II and Die Hard 2 would end up being done up in Marin, and despite notching up several more nominations, Boss would never win an Oscar. More alarmingly, the company started work on several projects which it would prove unable to complete — Predator and The Hunt for Red October among them — and had to finally close its doors in late 1997, after Air Force One, having never really developed into a truly digital facility, despite the efforts of one J. Rygiel. In this, Edlund would follow the trajectory of another ILM veteran, John Dykstra, and his Apogee: but whereas Dykstra went freelance and continued doing supervisory work, Edlund did only one film since — Bedazzled, of all things.

Don’t laugh, because the man actually didn’t sink that low. In fact, he rose higher than ever: and his rise dovetails most interestingly with ILM’s sudden exclusion from the podium of the Oscar winners.

Sprouting a New Branch

In 1995, just a few months after the
Gump win, AMPAS established a new branch: the Visual Effects Branch was designed to raise the craft to the same level of academic recognition as the more traditional ones, like cinematography or set designing. From its inception, the Branch was presided over by Edlund.

Getting Branch status didn’t, however, raise the maximum number of nominees, or really make any visible chance to those of us outside the industry. Well, now they have the
bakeoffs, where the initial longlist of eight films is whittled down to the three nominees. So in theory the process is a bit more visible, although I would laugh long and mirthlessly in the face of anyone who thought that Cats & Dogs had a shot at the nod. And the ILM gets nominated as often as it used to, even though 1995 was the first year since 86 when it didn’t get a single nod…

No, on face value, the Visual Effests Branch seems to be doing its job just right. It’s the voters who have, inexplicably and from the very same 1995 onwards, started to foil the predictions of this longtime Cinefex subscriber.

And Bearing Strange Fruit

Right off the bat, we had
Babe winning, inexplicably, over Apollo 13 — for some mammalian muzzle replacement shots which had been done before and have since become the scourge of the Earth in shows such as Dr. Dolittle, not to mention the utter nadir in the directing career of George Miller. For 1996, we had Independence Day winning for quantity over the groundbreaking ILM’s work in Twister and Dragonheart — whatever you might think of the films, they did open the door on simulating chaotic phenomena and creating breathing and talking characters in the virtual realm. We had The Matrix winning over The Phantom Menace for 1999, mainly due to a well-timed DVD which told Academy voters that gimmick shots were somehow integral to storytelling, as opposed to believable locales and characters as nuanced as Watto. And, finally and most horrendously, we had Gladiator win last year for a few industry-standard 2D and 3D digital mattes and crowd replacement shots, over Hollow Man and its mindbogglingly detailed ganglia of an anatomically correct digital human — a Grail of sorts in effects — and Perfect Storm’s hilariously detailed hurricane oceans. (The remaining two wins were okay by me — Titanic for 1997, when the competition was the strongest ever, and What Dreams May Come for 1998, pitted only against the abominable Mighty Joe Young.)

And so, coming into the Oscars for 2001, we have at least one clear-cut winner, right here in this branch, since only one show among the three is not done by ILM. In other words, opposed to ILM’s magnificently photoreal work in
A.I. and Pearl Harbor, we have WETA’s magnificent if-not-always-photoreal work in The Fellowship of the Ring. (Look, Mommy! There’s Saruman walking out of the Alan Lee painting of Isengard! Ain’t it the same one as in our big fat book you bash Daddy over the head with? — Hush, child.) Not to be critical in any fundamental way, though: there are acres upon acres of truly excellent work in there, especially with regard to miniaturising Hobbits and creating (how many ways can I rephrase that already?) convincing digital characters. And there are ways in which digital enhances Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography that far outweigh anything done by Roger Deakins in last year’s nominee O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Still, as Deakins has a black-and-white film up for an Oscar this year, look for him to win there — AMPAS wouldn’t be what it is if it didn’t think BW infinitely more artistic than colour. But that’s another discussion, ne?)

Yet the largest single contributing factor to
The Fellowship’s win might be the four people nominated. Apart from Richard Taylor, the near-divine co-creator of effects, makeups and costumes in the film (and nominated for all three this year, which may be some sort of a record), the overall supervisor, Jim Rygiel, the animation supervisor, Randall William Cook, and the modelshop supervisor, Mark Stetson, are all veterans of one single defunct company… Boss Film Corporation.

And I’m really not implying anything here, just laying out layers upon layers of statistics off the top of my head… who will unravel this mad mystery for me?
Read about the 2002 FX bakeoffs at the L.A. Times
(Cleo's note: No, it's not just you. I have a recurring nightmare that I'm on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and Regis says, "What was the Best Picture of 1992?" And I stare at him, cotton-mouthed, and finally say, "You mean the Best Picture that came out in 1992, or that was awarded in 1992?," and all Regis says back is, "Is that your final answer?")