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Oscars: Best Visual Effects Predictions 2021

Will “Welcome to Chechnya” and "Soul" get nominated along with favorites "The Midnight Sky" and "Mank"?

“The Midnight Sky”

Netflix

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Thanks to the pandemic and the absence of big budget, VFX-intensive studio films, this is the wildest, most idiosyncratic VFX shortlist in Academy history. How else do you explain the inclusion of such outliers as HBO’s “Welcome to Chechnya” (the first documentary entry in the category), “Bloodshot” (Sony), the low-budget Vin Diesel comic book actioner, and “Love and Monsters” (Paramount), the even lower-budgeted post-apocalyptic monster comedy? The VFX branch included them alongside the sci-fi trappings of George Clooney’s “The Midnight Sky,” David Fincher’s black-and-white “Mank” (both from Netflix), and Christopher Nolan’s time-inversion thrill ride, “Tenet” (Warner Bros.).

Whatever the reason for singling out smaller films at the expense of commercial fare as a result of online viewing and streaming, the surprising exposure for “Welcome to Chechnya” is fascinating. It proves that the executive committee is willing to be more daring during this new normal. Director David France knew he would need to protect the identity of the LGBTQ Chechens who risked their lives to participate in his film, but he was determined to find a way to do it that was both safe and engaging. After six months of research and consultation, he landed on using “deep fake” technology – replacing his subjects’ faces with 22 people (mostly New York City-based queer activists) who lent their likenesses to the project.

“Soul” also made history for Pixar, with its ethereal and semi-transparent world of The Great Before. It represents the studio’s first CG-animated feature to be shortlisted by the branch (“Incredibles 2” and “Ratatouille” previously advanced to preliminary lists). Since the all-CG “The Lion King” was classified as live action, this is a greater recognition of CG animation’s contribution to VFX.

Soul Disney/Pixar

“Soul”

Disney/Pixar

Additionally, the inclusion of “Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” over “Wonder Woman 1984” (both from Warner Bros.) can be viewed as a validation of less commercial work. Yet the branch still found room for proficient live-action family fare from Disney with both “The One and Only Ivan” and “Mulan.” The first singled out MPC’s virtual production workflow for the CG zoo and animals, and the second touted Weta Digital’s effective CG Imperial City (populated by digital extras).

While there is no clear frontrunner, the likely favorites will be “Midnight Sky” and “Mank.” The former offers cutting edge facial capture by Framestore, especially during the stunning ballet of blood death scene, as well as a pop-up version of Industrial Light & Magic’s innovative LED wall tech (from “The Mandalorian”) for on set exterior backgrounds. The latter delivers a monochromatic recreation of ’30s-era LA (including Artemple’s matte paintings, Territory’s LED screens for rear projection, and ILM’s CG animals and Victorian zoo cage). “Tenet,” which only contains 3,000 VFX shots, featured experimental work from DNEG to figure out how to execute the timing of action going forward and backward with the help of previs.

Frontrunners
“Mank”
“Soul”
“Tenet”
“The Midnight Sky”
“Welcome to Chechnya”

Contenders
“Mulan”
“The One and Only Ivan”

Long Shots
“Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn”
“Bloodshot”
“Love and Monsters”

Key Oscar Indicators

The Academy’s visual effects branch currently has 630 members, of which 588 are active and 42 are retired. The Visual Effects Society, which has more than 4,000 global members, often diverges from the Academy in its top award. Last year, for instance, “The Lion King” won, whereas the Academy at large voted for “1917.” But whereas the VES has long honored animated feature VFX, the Academy has only nominated two stop-motion works: Laika’s “Kubo and the Two Strings” and Disney’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

Key Dates

Monday, February 1, 2021
Preliminary Oscar voting begins

Saturday, February 27, 2021
VES L.A. nomination judging panels hold vote

Sunday, February 28, 2021
Submission deadline for the Oscars

Tuesday, March 2, 2021
VES nominations announced

Friday, March 5, 2021
Oscar nominations voting begins

Wednesday, March 10, 2021
Oscar nominations voting ends 5:00 PM PT

Monday, March 15, 2021
Oscar nominations announced; VES online viewing and voting (members only) begins and runs through Monday, March 29.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021
19th annual VES Awards (date subject to change)

Thursday, April 15, 2021
Oscar Nominees Luncheon
Final Oscar voting begins

Tuesday, April 20, 2021
Final Oscar voting ends

Sunday, April 25, 2021
Winners announced at the 93rd Academy Awards (Oscars)

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