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The Spoils: Could Oscar Award the Pig Tricks and Swamp-Rat Magic of 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'?

Photo of Jay A. Fernandez By Jay A. Fernandez | Indiewire November 7, 2012 at 1:42PM

Ever since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” has been a recurring theme in indie-film fans’ excited chatter about their favorite moviegoing experiences this year. As a result, the film has been charging toward awards season like an Auroch over the mud-hardened Southern steppes. And justifiably so.
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Eventually, visual effects supervisors Brendan Bollomo and Catherine Tate took over on the digital side, while additional post-production effects were farmed out to students at the School of Animation and Visual Effects at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University. This “extremely articulate handheld design,” as Zeitlin describes it, included compositing the pigs into shots with the human actors, erasing straps from the costumes and adding a hand-held camera effect so that the beasts’ footfalls made the frame shake from the impact. Even as the VFX work became more sophisticated in a “District 9”-“Children of Men” can’t-see-the-seams way, the dual mandate remained keeping things inexpensive and making them fit the overall aesthetic of a child fantasy in a realistic context.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild," auroch and Hushpuppy

The end result has been strangely effecting for audiences. The majestic presence of the aurochs is key to representing both Hushpuppy’s wonder at her tiny place in a gigantic universe and her resilience in the face of forces she can’t control.

What the film is unlikely to affect — despite its quiet power — is any kind of awards recognition for its use of visual effects. The Academy inevitably nominates a handful of the biggest blockbusters, and the Spirits don’t include the category at all. But in recent years, any number of lower-budget features that have been in contention for other Spirit awards have also made strategic use of visual effects — from “Black Swan” and “The Last Exorcism” to “Another Earth,” “Take Shelter,” “Melancholia” and “Monsters.”

While no one actually wants to see any awards ceremony get longer, if the goal of the Spirits and the Gothams is to reward filmmakers and crew for creating art with few resources, then visual effects is as worthy an aspect as best supporting male or best cinematography. The board of Film Independent, which runs the Spirits, annually reviews its categories but has no plans to add any this year.

Maybe it’s time to change that. “Let’s start that movement,” says Tintori, who suggests calling a new VFX award for indie films the “Broke-Ass Special Effects Award.”

Even if the VFX in something like “Beasts” don’t hit you on the Wow level of giant robots street fighting or entire cities folding in on themselves, they are perfectly capable of provoking a different, but equally powerful, emotional response. Just look at Jacques Audiard's "Rust and Bone," in which Marion Cotillard becomes legless for much of the movie. And when done with nickels and dimes — and not tens of millions of dollars — it seems to invite a different kind of praise.

“I never like to think that there are two worlds,” says Zeitlin. “You always want everybody to be playing major-league baseball. You don’t want to be a minor league team. I do feel the way that technical awards get credited is purely technical, and that’s not the way you would evaluate cinematography or acting. Cinematography has a personality, it has a tangible artistry to it. I would love for there to be more talk about the visual effects of this movie, because I think they’re incredibly beautiful. They’re real works of art that were a collaboration between a practical team and a visual effects team. We were very focused on, 'What is the personality of this visual effect? Does it have the personality of our characters? Does it emerge with the same texture as our story?' A lot of times that element gets ignored. When a visual effect comes into a film and it doesn’t have the right personality, that’s when the effect is bad. It doesn’t matter how well it’s composited in if it doesn’t ring the same way that the story does.”

This article is related to: The Spoils, Spirit Awards, Gotham Awards, Academy Awards, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin