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What Chance Does the Rest of the 2023 Oscars VFX Shortlist Stand Against ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’?

Can the technical feats of "Top Gun: Maverick," "Nope," or "The Batman" match those of the mighty James Cameron sequel?

Avatar: The Way of Water

“Avatar: The Way of Water”

Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

This article contains IndieWire’s preliminary Best Visual Effects predictions for the 2023 Oscars. 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.

The Best Visual Effects shortlist certainly summed up the season’s “artistry, diversity, scope, and innovation,” as one branch member proclaimed. There was plenty of spectacle (“Avatar: The Way of Water,” “Top Gun: Maverick,” and “Nope”); the usual battle between Marvel (“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”) and DC (“The Batman”), a franchise-ending sci-fi adventure (“Jurassic World: Dominion”), and the surprising inclusions of the World War I epic “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the Thai cave rescue dramatization “Thirteen Lives,” and the Harry Potter spin-off “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.” The VFX “bakeoff” on January 14 at the Academy Museum will determine the category’s five nominees

Not making the cut were Marvel’s “Thor: Love and Thunder” and DC’s “Black Adam,” “Beast,” and the engaging “Gigi & Nate,” along with the supporting efforts of “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths,” “Devotion,” and “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio.” A trio of indie dark horses likely didn’t offer enough cutting-edge work to pass muster with the Visual Effects Branch: “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” “RRR,” and “Good Night Oppy.”

Looking over the field, the most innovative film is obviously James Cameron’s “The Way of Water” — the overwhelming favorite. Led by Wētā FX and three-time Oscar-winning senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, the ocean-centric sequel featured groundbreaking underwater performance capture, a rebuilt global simulation tool set (including an FX water and fire system called Loki) for a new level of photorealism, and a game-changing muscle-based facial animation system called APFS (Anatomically Plausible Facial System).

Elsewhere on the list, Jordan Peele’s deconstruction of the UFO film, “Nope,” not only contained unique wind creature and cloudscape work by MPC (led by production VFX supervisor Guillaume Rocheron), but also a new approach to converting plates shot during the day into nighttime, in conjunction with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s innovative technique for shooting large format day-for-night.

Joseph Kosinki’s high-flying “Maverick” contained the best supporting VFX of the season, in tandem with the amazing practical, in-camera flying scenes (achieved with the innovative Sony Rialto Camera Extension System overseen by cinematographer Claudio Miranda). The work was principally done by Method — now part of Framestore — and production supervised by Ryan Tudhope, and entailed more than 2,000 shots, with lots of comps (including inside the cockpits), matte paintings, environment and sky replacement, plate augmentation and cleanup, and full CG jets after takeoff and during dogfights — especially those involving gunfire and explosions.

Amazon’s “Thirteen Lives” required nearly 800 environment shots from MPC (led by VFX supervisor Jason Billington), principally water simulation in tandem with scenes shot in water tanks, and atmospherics in the cave. Netflix’s All Quiet on the Western Front (Germany’s shortlisted international feature contender) impressed with its VFX enhancement on the battlefield and in the trenches (led by production VFX supervisor Frank Petzold), including the integration of practical explosions. Fantastic Beasts offered impressive set pieces from Framestore (led by production VFX supervisor Christian Manz), including the chaotic Berlin political rally, and the final battle in Bhutan between Dumbledore (Jude Law) and dark wizard Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen). The studio also benefited from its new pre-production services toolkit, which helped with the planning of these sequences with the art department.

Frontrunners:

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

Contenders:

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

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