Of Mixed Signals and New Narratives: The 2016 VES Awards

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ves_feature‘Tis the season when Hollywood is filled with rituals of self-congratulation culminating in, of course, the Academy Awards. These mostly occur every January and February weekend evening leading up to Oscar Sunday. Some, like the 14th Annual Visual Effects Society (VES) Awards, find themselves at the Beverly Hilton—one of the “ground zeros” for said rituals—midweek.

And so it was last week, with award results that are cast in an even more interesting light, given the Directors Guild of America (DGA) Awards that have happened since. There, Alejandro Iñárritu won for his work on The Revenant, casting the film back into the thick of the “likely Best Picture” debate (along with Spotlight and The Big Short).

But it also makes some below-the-line award-watching interesting too, particularly the Academy’s own “visual effects” category, which is more thoroughly honored—and sub-categorized—by the VES. Disney’s Star Wars reboot won the evening’s main prize, with VFX supervisors Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, and co. winning “Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature,” a reworking of VES’ former top category, which seems to concede that less and less is actually “real” in movies—but some are made to look more “real” than others.

But the intriguing subplot to Oscar season was the VES award for that “photoreal” bear in The Revenant, which grabbed Richard McBride and his group an “Outstanding Animated Performance in a Photoreal Feature,” statue, netting a total of 3 awards for the film to Star Wars’ 4.

While this year’s award narrative sets up increasing odds for a rare but becoming less so split between “Best Picture” and “Best Director,” it also sets up the possibility that that mo-cap bear could give Star Wars a run for its virtual money en route to the Oscar dais.

The fact that Revenant was nominated in Oscar’s visual FX category at all—along with the “practicals”-laden Mad Max: Fury Road (which was also up against the Skywalker family saga at VES), and no superhero films were, means the whole category for Oscar may be evolving past the general “whiz bang” aesthetics used in years’ past.

The Academy is now honoring, as it were, a wider range of “photoreal” work the way the VES has done for these past 14 years. Or perhaps there is a growing realization—outside of VES—that “you saved our asses, frequently,” the admonition of the evening’s Lifetime Honoree, Sir Ridley Scott, is becoming truer for a wider swath of filmmaking.

But if Star Wars was an expected winner, and Revenant is the intriguing counter-story, there were still some upsets, chiefly in VES’ animation category, where Pixar found itself in the strange circumstance of being upstaged by… Pixar.  That was for “Outstanding Visual Effects in an Animated Feature,” where The Good Dinosaur—not even an Oscar nominee—managed to trump the highly regarded tween-psyche tale, Inside Out.

In non-feature film categories, there were a handful of awards for Game of Thrones, spread among different episodes, and accolades for the British energy company SSE, whose commercial, Pier, showed a rendered orangutan having a nighttime adventure scored to a Nat King Cole tune.

Patton Oswalt once again hosted, becoming the VES analog to the Oscars’ Billy Crystal, in terms of familiarity, reliability, and durability (or a slightly less raunchy Ricky Gervais, perhaps?)

There was also hilarity. When Oswalt was mentioning the credits of designer Syd Mead, given a “Visionary Award” by VES for his work in films ranging from Blade Runner (1982) to TRON (1982), Mission Impossible III (2006), and more, he talked about drinking in Bar Basque, the Mead-designed upscale NY watering hole, but said it couldn’t really top the “Ray Harryhausen Road House in Texas,” where, after all, a cyclops served you your drinks.

The VES is nothing if not aware of its history. What history is made in the near term, of rewarding rendered digits both obvious and subtle, remains to be seen.

See more photos from the awards ceremony:

Images courtesy of VES

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