This weekend, the biggest names in the film industry will gather in LA for the annual Oscars ceremony. But who will take home one of those gold, shiny statuettes? Here, we take a close look at the contenders in the visual effects and animation categories.
Visual effects movies continue to dominate at the box office, and the standard only continues to rise. It's notable that the likes of Elysium, Oblivion and Pacific Rim - all fantastic looking films - didn't get into the final five.
The animated feature film was probably easier to whittle down, with films like Smurfs 2 propping up the nominations, and is really a two-horse race between Frozen and Despicable Me 2. Pixar continues to disappoint and failed to feature in either of the animation categories. The winner of the best short film is harder to call, with five very different entries. We adore Room on the Broom, but the big money is on Disney doing the one-two.
First, let's take a look at the nominations for Best Visual Effects...
- Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk and Neil Corbould
For a movie which barely has a frame without some sort of VFX, Gravity has to be the favourite for the Oscar win. Three-and-a-half years in the making, it's a technological tour de force, pushing new boundaries in mixing live action and CG.
For the most part, the only real thing on screen is the actor's faces; Bullock and Clooney were shot using motion control rigs inside a 10m cube 'lightbox' filled with LED panels. As the camera spins and tumbles on its robotic arm, the LEDs recreate the lighting of the virtual world - sun, Earth, moon - casting light and shadow on the actors. If largely flawless visuals, immersive 3D and a brand new movie-making invention don't win it for Framestore, we're at a loss to know what will.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
- Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton and Eric Reynolds
Like Gravity, The Desolation of Smaug is a VFX-fuelled rollercoaster ride, filled with all manner of effects, from subtle set extensions to hordes of fully CG creatures. But unlike Gravity, TDOS is too patchy to pick up the award.
Smaug is the undoubted highlight of the film, beautifully animated, wonderfully characterised and genuinely unnerving. Likewise, the cascading mountain made from billions of coins is the best CG dynamics work we've ever seen. But the climactic scenes with molten gold are unconvincing, and at times the movie features some really synthetic-looking CG, often no better than those in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It's a no-win from us.
Iron Man 3
- Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Erik Nash and Dan Sudick
With 2,000 effects shots, Iron Man 3 required the combined efforts of Weta Digital, Scanline VFX, Digtial Domain, The Embassy, Fuel VFX and Framestore among others. Naturally, it's a CG-fest throughout with a terrific sequence of the destruction of Tony Stark's house, employing brilliant simulation and compositing work by Scanline VFX.
But star of the show is the climactic battle with multiple Iron Man suits doing battle with a glowing Guy Pearce. Weta did great job with a scene that is mostly CG - yes, including the giant cranes and even some of the human characters. It's all very slick and almost totally convincing. A worthy nomination.
The Lone Ranger
- Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich, Edson Williams and John Frazier
The Lone Ranger's biggest problem is that it was a monumental flop. And even though Oscar should be a reward of technical expertise not revenue, you just know it doesn't stand a chance. Which is a shame, as it features top quality work by ILM and MPC.
There are chase scenes galore, sweetened by completely flawless CG environments, and a thrilling train crash. For the classic 'train plummeting off a destroyed bridge' gag, ILM even went old-school, employing miniature work for close-ups, with CG for wide shots of the bridge. It's just a shame the budget of $250 million didn't include a few grand for a decent script.
Star Trek Into Darkness
- Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Ben Grossmann and Burt Dalton
JJ Abrams' second stab at the reimagined Roddenberry universe is a smarter, sharper flick, that's not short of gasp-out-loud sequences. Pixomondo did excellent work on the attack on Starfleet headquarters, as well as the flight down to Knoros and subsequent chase scene and gun battle.
But it's ILM's visualisation of a Constitution-class cruiser smashing into San Francisco, and a high speed chase through the elevated cityscape that left us wide-eyed and slack-jawed. Only the surface of the garbage barge and actors are real; everything else in the sunlit city is CG. Astonishing stuff. We still think Gravity will nudge it, but Star Trek Into Darkness comes a very close second.
Now, let's take a look at the nominations for Best Animated Feature Film...
- Chris Sanders, Kirk DeMicco and Kristine Belson
Dreamworks' latest is a heart-warming tale of exploration and discovery, when a stone age family find themselves ejected from the mundane security of their cave. The voice cast is strong with Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone and Cloris Leachman - although Nicholas Cage's whispery tones seem at odds with the bulky father figure.
As expected from the makers of How To Train Your Dragon and Madagascar, the animation itself is suitably dynamic, while the visual design - under the expert guidance of cinematographer Roger Deakins - is wonderful. The vibrant, Avatar-esque scenery is a delight, filled with all manner of imaginative flora and fauna. If only the same could be said of the storytelling. Close, but no cigar.
Despicable Me 2
- Chris Renaud, Pierre Coffin and Chris Meledandri
The first outing for Gru and his adopted family was a real surprise; laugh-out-loud funny yet sweet, without being cloying. The sequel is even funnier - thanks to the extra screen time afforded the mischievous goggle-eyed minions - plus Gru's ascerbic attempts at becoming the perfect father.
There's still plenty of zany action on offer and while it remains unashamedly silly, the animation avoids the frantic hyperkinetics of most kid-targeted cartoons. Fortunately the slight storyline is punctuated by enough gags to keep everyone happy. It's a really strong contender for the Oscar this year.
Ernest & Celestine
- Benjamin Renner and Didier Brunner
This French production recounts Belgian author Gabrielle Vincent's story of the conflicting societies of mice and bears. The mice reside in makeshift underground cities, while the bears live a human-like existence up above. Both are entrenched in an age-old distrust of the other, until an unlikely bond forms between the titular characters.
What follows is a charming tale of friendship overcoming prejudice and intolerance. Ernest & Celestine uses traditional hand-drawn animation, with no fancy 3D, was made in France, and was hugely well received. So sadly it's got no chance of winning the Oscar - but at least it was nominated ahead of dross such as Planes, Smurfs 2 and Free Birds.
- Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee and Peter Del Vecho
Weirdly, as Pixar slides into decline, Disney continues its ascendancy with the likes of Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, and now Frozen has become Disney's biggest animated money-maker of all time. Based on The Snow Queen, Frozen is typical Disney fairytale fare, featuring a princess with the power to freeze anything she touches. When she plunges the kingdom into permanent winter, she takes refuge in an ice castle, and her sister embarks on quest to bring her home. There's love interest, a wacky sidekick and songs aplenty.
But it's also a technical masterpiece, showcasing Disney's amazing CG snow technology, and the animation is up to the studio's usual quality. With the tech, the box office and the buzz, it may well just beat Gru to the punch.
The Wind Rises
- Hayao Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki
Possibly the final film by anime genius Hayao Miyazaki, The Wind Rises has divided opinions among fans and critics. It's a fictionalised biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, a young man who dreams of flying and decides to become an aeroplane designer.
The bittersweet, melancholy tale features the Great Kanto Earthquake, a wife suffering from tuberculosis, and a boyhood dream soured by having to work on WWII fighter planes, notably the A5M, forerunner to the infamous Mitsubishi Zero. The 2D animation is certainly up to (though no better than) Studio Ghibli's usual standard, but the sensitive subject matter probably prevents it from being a front runner.
Last, but by no means least, are nominations for Best Animated Short Film...
- Daniel Sousa and Dan Golden
Traditionally animated with scratchy, textured imagery and desaturated tones, Feral is a sombre little piece. A wild boy is discovered in the woods by a hunter and transported to the modern world, where his animal instincts come to the fore to defend himself.
The film is rife with symbolism and recurring images: wolves, a windmill, the passage of shadows over time. The boy is pale and fair-haired while the other characters are all dark and ill-defined, and if he touches them he absorbs their darkness. It's beautifully crafted and delivers a real sense of menace; but while it's imaginative and thought-provoking, it may be too impenetrable for the Oscar crowd.
Get a Horse!
- Lauren MacMullan and Dorothy McKim
Shown before Disney's feature, Frozen, Get A Horse! is an ingenious homage to the Micky Mouse cartoons of the 1930s. It begins just like an original 'Mickey Mouse Sound cartoon', in which Mickey is enjoying a haystack ride with his friends. When Peg-Leg Pete's car is blocked by the wagon, he tries to run them off the road, at which point Mickey is catapulted through the screen - literally breaking the fourth wall - as a fully CG 3D version of himself.
Mickey and Horace Horsecollar then use a series of gags based on time, physics and the cinema projection system to manipulate the cartoon, causing repeated harm to Peg-Leg. It's clever, genuinely funny and, with the Disney presence looming large, the lead contender in the category.
- Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares
The mechanical Mr Hublot (a riff on Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot) is an agoraphobic obsessive-compulsive, frightened of change and the outside world. His precise, ordered life is turned upside down when he takes in a cute robot pup, only to find it growing into giant robot dog.
With a steampunk aesthetic based on the work of sculptor Stéphane Halleux, Mr Hublot is a thing of beauty. Its detailed environments read like Wallace & Gromit meets Brazil, and the entirely mechanical world is laced with invention. Although the denouement is no real surprise, Mr. Hublot stands out from the crowd in the care that's been lavished on this three-years-in-the-making near-silent movie.
- Shuhei Morita
Possessions (aka Tsukomo) is the tale of a wandering handyman in Feudal Japan, who takes shelter in a desolate house during a rain storm. Based on the oriental belief that inanimate objects come to life after a hundred years, what follows is a parable on today's disposable society and the need for recycling. The man is tormented by discarded umbrellas and broken tools bemoaning their lack of use.
It's a poignant if slender tale, presented as a combination of 2D animation and CG using LightWave 3D, and offering up some colourful and spirited sequences. However, it would prove an unlikely winner up against some classy contenders.
Room on the Broom
- Maximum Lang and Jan Lachauer
Boasting the voice talents of Simon Pegg and Gillian Anderson, Room on the Broom is based on the popular children's book by Julia Donaldson. This 30-minute TV special is charming with a capital 'C', as the witch encounters more and more animals requesting to join her on the eponymous broom - much to the chagrin of her grumpy cat.
Created by the team behind The Gruffalo, it's a very traditional piece of stop-frame animation, but that doesn't prevent it being an absolute delight, with the cutest, most wonderfully expressive creatures. It'll put a big smile all over your face - but will it win the Oscar? Er, no.
Words: Steve Jarratt
Steve Jarratt is a freelance journalist covering CG art, technology, videogames and military history.
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So, who do you think will take home the award for best VFX, animated feature and animated short? Let us know in the comments!