The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Oscar category that best reflects the state of film isn’t best picture. It’s visual effects.

“The Irishman,” left, in which Robert De Niro is digitally de-aged to play the same character at different points in his life, and “Avengers: Endgame,” featuring Chris Hemsworth as Thor, are two of the films up for best visual effects. (Netflix; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Marvel Studios/Film Frame)
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Wedged each year among the smorgasbord of critical darlings, art house films and prestige dramas that fill the various Oscar categories sits what is quietly the most relevant one to casual moviegoers: best visual effects.

The below-the-line, insider category is generally the one place on awards night where box-office successes and nominees match up, as the films competing for the trophy are the few blockbuster movies that people actually pay to go see.

Just look at the numbers: The nine movies nominated for best picture this year collectively made roughly $2 billion worldwide. The five up for best visual effects made $5.7 billion. While the best picture category has long been where Hollywood presents the best version of itself, visual effects is where we see what Hollywood really is — and increasingly, what it might become in the near future.

The visual effects nominees for 2019 include two major franchise pictures, per usual (“Avengers: Endgame,” “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”); a CGI-rrific remake of a beloved animated classic (“The Lion King”); and two “classic” Oscar movies, each of which was promoted partially by its nifty visual tricks (“The Irishman,” which employed technology to de-age its actors, and “1917,” which was shot and edited to look like one continuous take). These last two were also nominated for the academy’s highest honor, a crossover that isn’t unprecedented but remains an anomaly.

The number of visual effects nominees has grown alongside technology, expanding from a slate of two or three each year to a consistent five in 2010, more often than not encompassing multiple franchise films.

“Endgame,” “The Rise of Skywalker” and “The Lion King” are emblematic of that trend, as each is part of an established series and, notably, all are Disney products. The company acquired Marvel Studios in 2009 and Lucasfilm in 2012 and, with the exception of 2011, a superhero or Star Wars film has been nominated for best visual effects every year of the past decade.

“The Disney model is basically, if you can’t create it, you buy it. And [Disney CEO] Bob Iger has gone and bought almost every major brand that there possibly is,” said industry vet Scott Ross, who co-founded and previously served as chief executive of visual effects company Digital Domain.

Disney’s latest trend of turning animated classics into “live action” is already awards fodder, as evidenced by the nomination for “Lion King’s” photorealistic animals in a movie that has virtually the same script as the 1994 hand-drawn animated version.

Ross pointed out we can expect many more of this kind of film because there’s “no creative, marketing or sales risk.” That box-office success — those three nominees each made more than $1 billion worldwide — ensures these types of films aren’t going anywhere.

The familiarity of these sorts of movies resonates with audiences in the United States and also works well in foreign markets where the “translation of a volcano going off and crushing cities is much more easily understood in Mandarin than some pithy dialogue of a British drama,” Ross said.

That’s why it’s particularly surprising that the category this year also includes Martin Scorsese’s mob drama and Sam Mendes’s World War I epic, two types of movies that generally attract more praise from the academy in above-the-line categories such as acting and directing.

These movies have become as buzzy for their plots as the technology used to tell the stories. As a result, this is the “only category where you have ‘The Irishman’ and ‘The Avengers’ competing head to head,” pointed out Adam Nayman, film critic and author of “The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together.” But visual effects have become more accessible and are arguably more necessary for films of any stripe, just in a different manner.

“It’s interesting that in the special effects category, you have these two big prestige movies in ‘The Irishman’ and ‘1917.’ And in both cases, you could argue the special effects are quite invisible or in the service of realism,” Nayman said. While the other movies “want spaceships and creatures to look realistic, they are movies in a fantastic universe. ‘The Irishman’ and ‘1917’ are trying to be as realistic as possible. So you’ve got these schisms between commercial and personal filmmaking and illusionism and realism.”

In other words, digital special effects are being utilized in new and more subtle ways.

“Movies are all about magical mythmaking, enhanced by the new ‘toys’ of technology,” Columbia University film professor Annette Insdorf said via email. “These often become a fad, used for a brief experimental period (like 3-D in the 1950s, or Sensurround in the 1970s for ‘Earthquake’ and ‘Rollercoaster’). But advances in digital technology increasingly impact storytelling: we now can rejuvenate (De Niro in ‘The Irishman’) and resurrect (Carrie Fisher in [‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’]).”

Those advances are already happening on a larger scale: In the near future, Magic City Films will release a movie co-starring a digitally re-created James Dean, a man who’s been dead for 65 years.

Even casual filmgoers know to expect more action blockbusters and cartoon reboots. But Nayman believes a “subtler” type of effect, that takes “an incredible amount of time and resource and skill but doesn’t necessarily announce its presence,” will become more prevalent in our more classical dramas.

So perhaps in addition to more of the same in this age of spectacle, the future includes space for a quieter, more reserved type of film — one that uses grand special effects, even if the audience doesn’t realize it.