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‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Sets Itself Up for Oscar Success with Record-Breaking Number of Visual Effects Society Nominations

The sequel bolstered its Oscar chances with 14 VES nominations.

(L-R): Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) and a Tulkun in 20th Century Studios' AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2022 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

“Avatar: The Way of Water”

Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

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This article contains IndieWire’s preliminary Best Visual Effects predictions for the 2023 Oscars, which were originally published January 17, 2023. We regularly update our predictions throughout awards season, and republish previous versions (like this one) for readers to track changes in how the Oscar race has changed. For the latest update on the frontrunners for the 95th Academy Awards, see our 2023 Oscars predictions hub.

Nominations voting is from January 12-17, 2023, with official Oscar nominations announced January 24, 2023. Final voting is March 2-7, 2023. And finally, the 95th Oscars telecast will be broadcast on Sunday, March 12 and air live on ABC at 8:00 p.m. ET/ 5:00 p.m. PT. We update predictions through awards season, so keep checking IndieWire for all our 2023 Oscar picks.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” got an enormous Oscar boost Monday with its record 14 Visual Effects Society nominations. That breaks the previous feature record of 11 nominations set by the first, game-changing “Avatar” film, and the 13 nominations for “The Mandalorin” in the broadcast/episodic category in 2021. (“Avatar” won six VES awards in 2010.)

The James Cameron sequel and Wētā FX led the way in the categories of Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature, animated character (Sigourney Weaver’s Kiri), two for created environment (Metkayina Village and The Reef), virtual cinematography, model (The Sea Dragon mothership), two for simulations (fire and destruction, and water), two for compositing and lighting (landing rockets forest destruction and water integration), special practical effects (current machine and wave pool), and three in the new category of Emerging Technology (depth comp, facial system, water toolset).

The other Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature contenders include “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore,” “Jurassic World: Dominion,” “The Batman,” and “Top Gun: Maverick.” All four are shortlisted for the VFX Oscar, as are “Thirteen Lives” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” which the VES respectively nominated for Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature and Outstanding Effects Simulations in a Photoreal Feature. There were no VES nominations for the three other films on the shortlist: “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness,” and “Nope.”

The “Avatar” juggernaut made a persuasive case for why it’s the frontrunner during Saturday’s “bake-off” at the Academy Museum, where branch members decided the five nominees from among the 10 shortlisted films, to be announced January 24.

“Avatar’s” presentation, led by Wētā’s senior VFX supervisor Joe Letteri, pulled back the curtain on its underwater performance capture and new muscle-based facial animation systems, among several other innovations, bolstered by informative behind-the-scenes and clip reels.

However, benefiting the most at the bake-off was the high-flying “Top Gun: Maverick,” which finally lifted the veil on its lengthy VFX embargo to explain the crucial role that its supplemental VFX (totaling 2,400 shots) played in the amazing aerial sequences, where we were put in the cockpit of Navy fighter jets with Tom Cruise’s Maverick. This was courtesy of Oscar-frontrunning cinematographer Claudio Miranda, and his innovative Sony Rialto Camera Extension System.

Production VFX supervisor Ryan Tudhope debuted clips of aerial photography, digital re-skinning textures to make one fighter look like another, and digital pyro, and was joined by the rest of his team to elaborate on shot design collaboration for “frenetic energy and clarity,” camera tracking using GPS, special gimbal work to fill in the gaps, and referencing missile tests for the CG explosions.

Other noteworthy presentations disclosed virtually matching the silicone-coated lensing of Oscar-winning cinematographer Greig Fraser on “The Batman”; enhancing Hoyte van Hoytema’s ingenious infrared and 65mm day-for-night cinematography with depth pass, CG shadows, and other subtle details on “Nope”; the great use of smoke and tanks as creatures on “All Quiet on the Western Front”; and pouring massive amounts of water into tank sets and capturing many shots in-camera on “Thirteen Lives.”

Frontrunners:

“Avatar: The Way of Water” (20th Century/Disney)
“Top Gun: Maverick” (Paramount)
“The Batman” (Warner Bros.)
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Disney/Marvel)
“Nope” (Universal)

Contenders:

“Thirteen Lives” (Amazon)
“All Quiet on the Western Front” (Netflix)
Jurassic World: Dominion” (Universal)
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (Marvel/Disney)
“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” (Warner Bros.)

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