What comes to mind when you think of a special-effects-heavy movie? Likely it’s something set in space, or on a distant planet, full of creatures that could only be rendered by steady hands, meticulous eyes, and a decent-sized server farm. Or maybe you imagine something a little more grounded than aliens and orcs, instead picturing a British nanny who glides over London, or a team of dinosaurs stalking two kids through an amusement park kitchen, or a man who ages backwards as he journeys through time.
It might seem like there’s supposed to be some obvious correct answer here, but truly there’s not. Visual effects have become so immersed in cinema that there are few, if any, genres they haven’t touched. Yet, when it comes to how they’re perceived, how they’re valued, things are much different, especially when it comes to the Oscars. Each year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards one film for its achievement in visual effects; sometimes it’s a big action-adventure movie, sometimes it’s a cerebral sci-fi flick, rarely is it the offering that also wins Best Picture. The films that have done so in recent memory include Titanic, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and … that’s about it. On Sunday, another movie could join those ranks.
This year’s nominees for the Visual Effects Oscar include three non-surprising, Disney-generated popcorn movies—Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker—and two Best Picture nominees: Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Sam Mendes’ World War I thriller 1917. The latter is up against some stiff competition, not only from Scorsese’s movie but also from the likes of Parasite, Joker, Little Women, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But of all of them, Mendes’ movie, with its Academy-friendly subject matter and stellar execution, seems poised to win the top prize.
The larger matter, then, is determining how well 1917 will fare in the VFX category. In one corner, there are three massively successful blockbusters that each made more than $1 billion worldwide (Endgame holds the record, with a global box office return that exceeds $2 billion); two of those movies are big genre action films, and one is a reboot of a Disney classic made entirely in virtual reality. Then you have a war epic, cut to appear as one continuous shot, and a stoic mob drama, which sees its septuagenarian actors playing much-younger characters thanks to de-aging technology. Who will win? To figure out which will take home the golden statue on Sunday night, it helps to look back at how the Academy collectively appreciates the craft of visual effects in film.
The award has existed, in some form or another, since the first Oscars ceremony in 1929. That year’s Best Picture winner Wings, a silent World War I drama, also took home a prize for “engineering effects.” It wasn’t until nine years later that a special effects category was instated, and the Academy honored some pretty forgettable films in the award’s first three decades. (The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind both lost to … The Rains Came? Sure.) After the category was rebranded as a “visual effects” award in 1963, the winners were far more memorable: Mary Poppins, 2001: A Space Odyssey, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park, Forrest Gump, Titanic, and The Matrix, to name quite a few. These were all game-changers; they allowed human actors to dance with animated characters, made the vast expanse of space seem reachable, reanimated long-dead historical figures, and introduced the concept of “bullet time.” They weren’t all shoo-ins for a Best Picture nomination, but they were all blockbusters.