This time last year, many of us felt the history of the Best Visual Effects Oscar in the 2020s would look hilarious, just switching back and forth between “Dune” and “Avatar” films every year from 2021 onward. But oh, how innocent we were. First, Disney delayed the next round of “Avatar” sequels. And then, Warner Bros. decided to hold “Dune: Part Two” off for 2024. As of a few weeks ago, you probably could not have found a single Oscar pundit who was predicting anything to win Best Visual Effects this year other than “Dune: Part Two.” And all of a sudden, just as with the announcement that Lily Gladstone was campaigning Lead for “Killers Of The Flower Moon,” we have a category that suddenly feels wide open.
The most obvious beneficiary of “Dune: Part Two’s” release change is “Oppenheimer.” Nolan’s latest is a surefire Best Picture nominee that will be a strong contender to win categories that often go hand in hand with a Best Visual Effects win, like Best Cinematography, Film Editing, Production Design, and Sound. Not to mention, Nolan’s “Interstellar” and “Tenet” previously won the category. And to be sure, if “Oppenheimer” is nominated, it stands a good chance to win. If for no other reason than because voters often vote for the film they liked the most overall in this category, as opposed to the film with the most notable visual effects, especially if the film is a Best Picture nominee. See “Hugo,” “First Man,” and “1917” for three recent examples of this trend.
However, to win, “Oppenheimer” needs to get nominated first. Frontrunners for below-the-line Oscar wins shockingly miss nominations sometimes. Look at “Top Gun: Maverick” in Best Cinematography last year or “First Man” in Best Original Score in 2018. The Best Visual Effects category is particularly ripe for surprise nomination misses. Why? Because, unlike most categories, voters select the five nominees based on behind-the-scenes presentations made by the VFX teams behind films. It certainly helps a film’s chances if voters like the film as a whole. But being a popular movie with the Academy as a whole isn’t enough. The bake-off presentation needs to impress. In years past, films the Academy as a whole loved, such as “The Shape of Water,” “Black Panther,” “Arrival,” “Mank,” “Skyfall,” “The Tree of Life,” and “Dunkirk” were outshined at the bake-off by films less admired overall but had stronger bake-off presentations like “Kong: Skull Island,” “The One And Only Ivan” “Love and Monsters,” “Christopher Robin,” and “Deepwater Horizon.”Much has been said about how little VFX work is used in “Oppenheimer.” According to the film’s VFX team, it only has between 100 and 200 VFX shots. Instead, Nolan and his team have emphasized just how much of the work onscreen was done practically, just as they did with “Dunkirk.” And “Dunkirk” ended up missing the nomination for Best Visual Effects. The Academy’s Visual Effects branch cares about practical work. Practical Effects Supervisors are also members of the branch. But they are out-represented by the Visual Effects Supervisors. And although “Oppenheimer” boasts several striking effects sequences involving practical effects, as a film focused more on character than on action sequences, any VFX reel it puts together for the bake-off will likely have fewer sequences to showcase at the bake-off than “Tenet,” “Interstellar” and even “Dunkirk.” Outside of the Trinity Test sequence, much of the VFX team’s work involved subtle creations like removing modern locations from backgrounds.
The VFX branch can be fickle. One truly never knows what will appeal to them at the bake-off. If “Oppenheimer” misses out on a nomination for the reasons above, who becomes the frontrunner then?
For this article, I will focus on who could become more likely to win, as opposed to who becomes more likely to be nominated. Superhero movies have had a shaky history with the Academy, even in the VFX branch. The MCU has been hit or miss in receiving nominations, and DCEU films have had even less success. Going a step further to winning would be even more surprising absent a superhero film that is a “The Dark Knight” or “Black Panther” level hit. So we can probably count out the year’s superhero films, although “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” will almost certainly be in the hunt for a nomination. To win, the film usually needs to be relatively acclaimed, even if not a Best Picture nominee. That means the likes of “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” “The Little Mermaid,” and “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” are probably out. The best bets would then seem to be films that could also be viable Best Picture Contenders or well-received non-superhero films that are VFX heavy. That includes…
“The Creator”Gareth Edwards’ “The Creator” is truly a wildcard. The film boasts impressive and inventive-looking VFX work involving dystopian landscapes and human-robot hybrids. That the film was purportedly completed for a budget of less than $90 million is also impressive when many modern CGI-heavy sci-fi/action films boast budgets north of $200 million. And if voters are looking at a showcase for VFX, the work in “The Creator” will certainly be obvious to them. That being said, the film will still need to perform reasonably well at the box office if it hopes to get not only a nomination but also a win. If “The Creator” can pull this off and there are no Best Picture nominees in the lineup, the film could take a “The Jungle Book” type route to the win.
“Killers Of The Flower Moon”As with “Oppenheimer,” Martin Scorsese’s “Killers Of The Flower Moon” will benefit from being one of the largest awards season films this year. With a budget north of $200 million, it also has its fair share of VFX work. However, as with “Oppenheimer,” the work on display may be more subtle than some contenders and could be insufficient to get a nomination. If “Killers Of The Flower Moon” is nominated, and “Oppenheimer” is not, it would seem the most likely successor as the “film voters are most likely to watch/like overall.”
“Napoleon”Ridley Scott’s latest is another wildcard in this race. His films always boast impressive visual effects work. Three of his prior films have won the Best Visual Effects Oscar. However, his track record, particularly in the 21st century, has been spotty at best. One never knows if they’re getting a classic or a flop with a Ridley Scott film nowadays. If “Napoleon” is poorly received and/or a box-office flop, boasting impressive VFX tends not to be enough. “The Last Duel,” “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” and “Alien: Covenant” all contained expensive and outstanding VFX work, but that wasn’t enough to get either of them nominated, let alone a win. The trailers for “Napoleon” promise a variety of battles that are enormous in scale, alongside meticulous recreations of historic locations. In other words, it was the exact same kind of work that won Ridley’s “Gladiator” VFX team an Oscar. But the film probably needs to be a “Gladiator,” or at least a “The Martian” type success and not a “Kingdom of Heaven” type flop to close the deal.
“Poor Things”Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest could very well end up being too “weird” for the Academy. The Academy has only widely embraced his work when it has been comparatively grounded in reality (“The Favourite“). “Poor Things” appears to be much more Lanthimos-y, which is to say, memorably weird. At the same time, the visuals on display in the trailer are absolutely stunning. The work appears to use a variety of methods, like old-school matte paintings and miniatures, that could work to create an impressive bake-off reel. And if the film does end up being a major contender across the board, that certainly helps.
“Rebel Moon”To date, no Zack Snyder film has ever been nominated for an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. His latest is non-franchise sci-fi that we know little about. The trailer for “Rebel Moon” emphasizes vast amounts of flashy CGI. Additionally, the film is being released close to Oscar voting. Thus, it has the opportunity to be fresh in voters’ memories. Still, it would need to be good. And it would need Netflix to push it hard. Other Netflix films in the past have delivered solid below-the-line work but have been forgotten by voters without a campaign. If the film ends up being a hit, and Netflix decides to push it, it could be worth considering.
There are a few other long shots worth mentioning. The Academy rarely decides mid-franchise to start embracing films it hasn’t in the past. Still, there is a world in which “John Wick: Chapter 4” or “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” end up as frontrunners by virtue of comparatively better reviews if the VFX lineup ends up being particularly strange. Additionally, the Academy rarely embraces animated films here. Only “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Kubo and the Two Strings” have been nominated, both stop-motion. Neither won. Still, at least other fully animated films have made it to the bake-off. “Soul,” most recently. If “Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse” were to over-perform as some believe it will, maybe it could make history.
What do you think will be the most likely Best Visual Effects Oscar winner now that “Dune: Part Two” is out of the picture? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account and check out our latest Oscar predictions here.