It's taken Yann Martel's best-selling novel "Life Of Pi" close to a decade to come to the screen. Directors including Jean-Pierre Jeunet, M. Night Shyamalan and Alfonso Cuaron all flirted with the project, but for various reasons, elected not to shoot it. And it's fair enough, really, because it's difficult material, driven by a single character, mostly set in a single location at sea, and crucially, with the second lead is a wordless, enormous Bengal tiger.
Even with the technology of the early 2000s, it seemed almost impossible to make it happen, but thanks to the evolution in CGI in the last few years — and the advent of 3D — the film is finally hitting screens tomorrow (read our review here), with the great Ang Lee directing. The film is generally expected to be a big Oscar player, with Picture, Director and technical nods likely to happen, but perhaps its strongest chance at a victory comes in the visual effects category, thanks not just to that tiger named Richard Parker, but a host of other CGI animals, and plenty of other effects besides. As such, it seemed appropriate to focus our category microscope this week on the Best Visual Effects contenders as well as its closest cousin, Best Make Up & Hair Styling (which 'Pi' is unlikely to be contesting).
In terms of effects, there's no doubt that 'Pi' is the front-runner. In a year without the obvious innovations of an "Avatar" or "Inception," 'Pi' has the most immediately impressive stuff going on, thanks to its expressive, near-photorealistic animals. It might not be pushing the craft forward especially, but it's grabbier than some of its tentpole competition. Most crucially, it's also all but certain to be a Best Picture contender. Since visual effects got their own category, a Best Picture nominee, when up for an effects awards, has always won, even when up against more traditionally effects-driven films. Take last year, for instance, when the less showy effects of "Hugo" triumphed over "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."
So one could surmise that the only film that could beat it would be another Best Picture nominee, and there are a couple that should be competitive in the category. The "Lord of the Rings" trilogy won all three of the effects awards it was nominated for, and while its innovations with huge battle scenes and performance capture aren't going to be quite as novel with the first part of "The Hobbit: An Expected Journey", it's still certain to be a nominee. It's definitely the biggest challenger facing 'Pi,' but will certainly stand a better chance at upsetting it if it nabs a Best Picture nomination (something that we're far from sure of at this point in time).
The other awards-chasing film in this particular race is "The Impossible," and given that Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter" managed a nod a few years back for its similar scenes of tsunami destruction, we'd expect the film to contend. Even if it does sneak into the Best Picture field, it probably won't challenge for the win, and as an independent, mostly Spanish-backed project, could end up being a surprise omission from the bake-off shortlist, but we think its chances are pretty good. Also a possibility is "Flight," thanks to its impressive plane-crash sequence, but it's a longer-shot; films reliant on a single sequence, "Hereafter" aside, are less common as nominees, though it could end up making it in. Probably better placed is "Cloud Atlas," but again, it's far from a sure thing.
Otherwise, we're looking at blockbuster fare. Sometimes Best Visual Effects can be confused with "most visual effects" in this category, but there needs to be a veneer of quality of sort, so films like "Battleship," "The Amazing Spider-Man" and "Snow White & The Huntsman" can probably be counted out, while "The Hunger Games" isn't quite effects-driven enough to make it in. Despite underperfoming, "John Carter" shouldn't be excluded from the possibilities; it arguably had some of the most impressive effects of the year, and Andrew Stanton's animation heritage will carry it a certain way. A dark horse, perhaps, but one to keep an eye on.
Though "Inception" won two years ago, with its mix of highly publicized practical effects, few nominees since the advent of computer effects have made it through on that (a nomination for "Cliffhanger," in 1994, being one of the last, by our count). So it will be interesting to see how "The Dark Knight Rises," which takes a similar approach, factors into this race. That leaves two other big summer movies, "The Avengers" and "Prometheus." Effects were crucial in both, but neither feel like absolute home-runs either; "The Avengers" had some slightly patchy moments, while "Prometheus" was darker and dingier. Still, we suspect both will make the cut when it comes down to it. So, our five predictions for now:
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
"Life Of Pi"
Like we said, "Life Of Pi" doesn't have obvious enough hair/make-up elements going on to make it likely to figure into the category. Instead, the field is arguably led by a film with little chance at awards elsewhere — "Cloud Atlas." The task of transforming its starry cast into multiple characters that span the ranges of gender, race and age is an impressive one, and there's some really superb work going on in the film. Even if the film doesn't get traction elsewhere, the make-up branch have a history of marching to the beat of their own drum — hence nominations for things like "Barney's Version," "Hellboy II," "Norbit" and "Click," and wins for "Lemony Snicket," "Star Trek" and "The Wolfman."
That said, while some of the make up in the film is excellent, it's somewhat inconsistent, and as "J. Edgar" demonstrated last year, films that can seem like home runs in the category can fall short if the work isn't deemed to be up to scratch. Still, we think the breadth and ambition of the make-up work will get it through to the final three.
Again, "Lord of the Rings" went two for three (though "The Two Towers" missed out on a nomination entirely), and given the number of dwarves cropping up in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," it should be an easy return, for the first of the trilogy at least. In fact, it might even be the front-runner at this stage. Those two are probably locked in, leaving some fierce competition for that third slot.
"Hitchcock" might be the most obvious one to fill it, thanks to those prosthetic jowls that turn Anthony Hopkins into the great director. That said, if everyone else finds it as distracting as we do, it could also fall victim to "J. Edgar" syndrome. The work on "Lincoln" is subtler, but still impressive, and with a broader range of actors getting the treatment, and with the film looking like a major heavyweight across multiple categories, it's got a very good shot. One shouldn't forget another potential behemoth, "Les Miserables," with a cast of muddy-faced youngsters alongside the likes of Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe, who get to age a few decades across the story.
Beyond that, virtually everything else is merely hoping to get into the make-up, from deserving but unlikely nominees like "Looper" and "Holy Motors" (which should, in a perfect world, be the winner, but won't get the eyes on it), to prettily-hairstyled films like "Anna Karenina" and "A Royal Affair" (hell, if it was being given on haircuts alone, "The Hunger Games" would surely sweep the thing…)
But there's one potential spoiler in there — "Men In Black 3." Again, it's a film that feels unlikely to figure into awards elsewhere, but the original won out in 1998 (against "Titanic" no less) and the legendary Rick Baker, who's been nominated twelve times, winning seven of them, should never be counted out, especially with some genuinely impressive practical work in the film, particularly on Jemaine Clement's villain. As a sequel, it could still end up on the outside, but if it makes the cut, don't rule it ouy appearing as a surprise. If we had to make our three picks now, they'd be…
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"