Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Academy Visual Effects Bake Off, Part 1

This is the boring part of the post in which I explain the background of the Bakeoff to those who do not know. The fun stuff is all in the second part, if I write it.

The Bakeoff is tonight which is why I can not attend. It used to be the second or third week in Februrary but it has been moving up earlier and earlier. Now it is Jan 3. And instead of 7 excruciating and boring films to see sections of, you now get to watch 10 boring films.

If you have never attended this event and you are the least bit interested in visual effects, then you should make a point of trying to attend one year. The way it works is that the general public is welcome on an available seating basis. You are not permitted to vote, of course, nor are you permitted to ask questions, or sit in the reserved seating.

We're here for the bakeoff! 

1. Here is how a film gets nominated for visual effects. A smoke filled room of "worthies" meet and choose some number of films that are called the "long list". These films have to fulfill certain rules about how and when the film was screened to be eligible, and the producers of the film have to nominate it in this category, listing four people, generally as the people who will be nominated or win, should they be so lucky. The smoke filled room reviews this list and in a completely impartial manner (ha!) chooses the films that will be considered. You can be quite sure that there are no politics in this choice, as we will discuss at some point. (The politics are not too bad, generally there are always a few questions about which films get on the long list, but the major contenders are always there).

2. Then there is a screening in which each of these "long listed" films is presented. This is now called informally the "Bake Off" but I used to call it "Hate Night" for reasons I will explain below. One person introduces each film, then 10 minutes of the film are shown, then the four people who are listed on the application get up and answer questions if any. In the days when there was film, the print that was screened was pristine and was only shown at the screening and then put in the archives. Now of course it doesn't matter, being digital, and all legacy of this field will be destroyed when the digital data is destroyed or lost. That is certainly progress.

3. Only people from the subsection may ask questions of the four worthies. The visual effects subsection will vote at the end of the night to send some subset of the long list to the academy awards for voting by the general membership. Thus the films that are nominated are nominated by the visual effects subsection (e.g. people who are nominally qualified to judge) and all academy awards themselves are voted on by the general membership.

4. The voting procedure is arcane and I do not understand it, nor do I have to understand it, as I am not a member of the subsection.

5. Technically, the nominations and final award are not for the "best visual effects". They are for the "visual effects that best serves the movie". Of course, those visual effects that serve the film are often very good or they would not be being considered.

6. I used to attend before it became popular for all the digital scum to attend because I stupidly loved visual effects and considered it a fascinating topic. Then for a while, everyone wanted to attend and they did and you could not get a seat. Then people realized that attending was not going to get them a job or make them a giant success, and they stopped going. Now I can always get a seat, when I can find out when it is in advance, that is.

7. I find that even on the most boring years there is something to learn. One year was the year of water, for example. (Castaway and Perfect Storm). Its a good way to get a feel for the state of the industry and the work.

8. Many of the best visual effects films were not awarded Academy Awards in my humble opinion. The joke at one time was that nominations were earned but awards were luck. I am not sure that nominations are earned these days, but who knows.

9. I used to call it Hate Night because it was one of the few nights of the year that the visual effects industry would get together, and they all hated each other with a passion, but of course, pretended not to. The interesting thing was to learn the details of why they hated each other, they hated each other for really good reasons.

10. Another tradition that I had helped to create, in my minor way, with the other little people who hung around, was the tradition of going to Kate Mantillini's before and after the event. But I am happy to say that the large corporate visual effects companies put an end to that. Now the big companies simply reserve the restaurant before the event and dont let anyone else in unless you are on the approved list. But anyone can show up later.

11. I am generally friends with some of the people who are nominated or on the long list.

12. There are some people I see no other time of the year but at this event, so it is a major annoyance when they move it around like this and I can not attend.

But the bottom line is that it is dreadfully boring, and getting worse each year. Why you may ask. Well, you see, its because all they show, naturally enough, is visual effects films, and these are often dreadful films, films without plot and character, that emphasize spectacle over thought and substance. It would be much more interesting if they would show excerpts of 7 or 10 good films, but that is not the way these things work. 

We will expound on this idea in the next part of this essay:

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