Tech Support: Visual effects Oscar race features apes, raccoons and ‘Interstellar’

The Best Visual Effects is often the place where the Academy recognizes what it is frequently accused of avoiding elsewhere: mainstream spectacle. Blockbusters reign in this category, at least at the nomination stage, with fantasy films, franchises and other money-makers always featuring prominently. The branch also has its specific fetishes, at least historically (talking animals immediately jumps to mind), though, in recent years, it has seemingly been all 3D, all the time.

There are dozens if not hundreds of individuals who work on a film”s visual effects but the nomination can ultimately be shared by only four of them – usually the special effects supervisor and three visual effects supervisors.  While some names are “favorites” of the branch (John Frazier, Joe Letteri), this branch is hardly the most insular and tends to be more concerned about the work on display. We will receive a hint of the way they are leaning when 10 bake-off finalists are announced later in the season – the nominees will be chosen after the branch views reels featuring the effects work from those films.

Christopher Nolan has accomplished many impressive tasks in recent years. One of them is having made visual effects-heavy blockbusters that are beloved by critics, the general public and, to an extent greater than usual, AMPAS. Though he is still awaiting his first directing nomination, it seems to be foolish to bet against a respected Nolan film in this category (“The Dark Knight Rises” aside), especially something like “Interstellar.” Anchored by Paul Franklin and Andrew Lockley, who won this award for Nolan”s “Inception,” this seems the safest of bets this season (not unlike “Gravity” last year).

Oh to be Joe Letteri. Beloved by Peter Jackson and James Cameron, Letteri and the team at Weta are Hollywood”s go-to guys for performance capture visual effects. This year, he appears well-positioned to do something he has yet to do in his career: earn two nominations in one year. First, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” was the latest apefest with eerily realistic visual effects. It was a notable step above the nominated work on 2011's “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which was robbed of a win here three years ago (I”m sure it would have won if only the visual effects branch had voted, but it's worth reminding that all branches of the Academy vote on the winners – you're welcome, “Hugo”). While I doubt that will be avenged with “Interstellar” in the running, I”d be surprised if Letteri and fellow “Rise” nominees Daniel Barrett and Dan Lemmon don”t return to the fold.

Letteri and Weta also have “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” in the race. This remains the only category for which every entry in this series has been nominated. Though “Star Wars” failed to go 6/6, with “Revenge of the Sith” missing here, I doubt that will repeat itself with the Middle Earth saga. Though this series is nowhere near the peaks it reached in days of “The Lord of the Rings,” Letteri”s crew seems too respected to miss out, especially after “The Desolation of Smaug” improved upon “An Unexpected Journey” in terms of quality of visual effects and overall filmmaking. But you never know.

Those three titles seem pretty solid. Beyond that, however, I see a very open race. Beyond that, it might be useful to group the other contenders into “categories”.

In the first category would be “summer blockbusters” – but I”d divide that further into franchises and non-franchises. When a franchise is embraced by this branch, frequently its successors have an easier time (seen above with “Apes” and “Lord of the Rings”/”Hobbit”), though eventually the novelty wears off. When the original doesn”t score, it is difficult – though not impossible – for the successors to follow suit.

With that being said, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” would appear to be in trouble. None of the many highly successful entries in this franchise has scored a nomination to date. While the fact that this is practically a merger of two sides of the franchise may make things slightly more interesting, I”m ultimately not sure that will be enough to lift Richard Stammers and his team into the final five.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is also following on the heels of a predecessor that didn”t score here (unless you count the behemoth that was “The Avengers”). Admittedly, this film was even better received than “The First Avenger” and “Captain America” is probably a more verified brand now. Even so, “Marvel” has had difficulty in this category outside of “Iron Man” so I wouldn”t bank on this nod, despite the nine nominations that Daniel Sudick, Edson Williams, and Russell Earl have between them to date.

In the realm of Marvel but outside “The Avengers”, “Spider-Man” did well in this category when Sam Raimi was at the helm, with the first entry earning a nomination and “Spider-Man 2” winning the statuette. Since then, however, times have been tougher for the series, and despite the plethora of visual effects on display and the esteem in which John Frazier is held by the branch, I”m not sure “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” can buck the trend.

Things for “Spidey” are especially tricky given that “Transformers: Age of Extinction” is also in the race, led by Frazier and Oscar nominee Jeff White. Two of its three predecessors earned nods here. Moreover, despite the scorn critics heap upon Michael Bay, audiences keep coming back; it's tough to deny the quality of the effects and sound work on these films. At the same time, while the third entry in the series was considered a step up (however small) from the second, this one is not. I”d say this is a title on the edge of a nomination.

Whether “Transformers” scores will depend largely on how the branch receives the new franchises and non-franchises. I”m keen on the chances of “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Yes, it”s another Marvel series, but it surprised many people with its popularity and just how fun it was. There”s also explosions, stop motion, 3D, talking animals – a whole host of things this branch loves. Is it a sure thing? Obviously not. But I”d say branch favorite Paul Corbould is in decent shape.

Another “franchise,” if not in the traditional sense of the word, is “Godzilla.” Though Gareth Edwards' reboot didn”t exactly set the world on fire, it was widely considered a step up from previous American takes on this story. With a crew including Tommy Frazier (John Frazier”s nephew) and Oscar winner Guillaume Rocheron, it might well show up in this Oscar race.

Could “Maleficent” be said to be part of a franchise? Some people love this revisionist take on “Sleepy Beauty,” and passion matters with Oscar. It definitely ought to be considered here, having effects in practically every scene. It”s not a sure thing, but Michael Dawson earned a nomination recently for another revisionist fairy tale (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) and overall I like the chances of this crew, which also includes Oscar winner George Murphy (“Forrest Gump”) and is led by Oscar nominee Carey Villegas (“Alice in Wonderland”).

“Edge of Tomorrow” was a well-received, well-made, high concept box office disappointment. Whether that is because of difficulty marketing the story, Tom Cruise”s presence, lazy audiences or some combination thereof, I”d be surprised if the crew, including Gary Brozenich (“The Lone Ranger”) and Nick Davis (“The Dark Knight”), makes the final cut. But you never know.

While being a Best Picture contender is not a tremendous boon in terms of landing a nomination, it certainly doesn”t hurt. In this sense, I”d look at “Unbroken” (led by Oscar winner Bill George), “Birdman”, “Into the Woods” and “Fury.” I suspect the effects may ultimately end up proving too subtle in each of these features but let”s not discount them just yet.

Despite these sequels, summer blockbusters and Best Picture contenders, I am perhaps most intrigued by the potential of the biblical epics. “Noah” was actually an effects showcase, and this branch frequently likes both animals and water. Special Effects Supervisor Burt Dalton is a three-time nominee/one-time winner (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) while Visual Effects Supervisor Ben Snow has been nominated four times. Plus, Paramount is really hitting the campaign trail hard below the line on this film. Will it be remembered in January? I have a strange hunch it might be.

Finally, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” will come to the screen in all its glory in December, being yet another take on the tale of Moses. The story already led to one Oscar for Best Special Effects 58 years ago (“The Ten Commandments”). Technology has changed quite a bit and two-time winner Neil Corbould (“Gladiator,” “Gravity”) is a master in the field. Let”s watch with interest.

Who do you see at the forefront of the race? Sound off in the comments section below.