The use of special effects in Hollywood, and the ability of movies that rely heavily upon special effects for their earnings potential and critical appeal, has become a large debate recently with the success of Avatar both commercially and critically at various awards shows. The fact that Avatar could win both the coveted Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for James Cameron at the 2010 Academy Awards has only served to intensify the debate.
Movies that rely on special effects to help further their atmosphere are no stranger to the Academy Awards. As a fan of the Lord of the Rings series, I can remember quite well watching documentaries about the films discussing the level of special effects work done both physically and post-production. The creature Gollum was filmed much the same way the main characters in Avatar were, and many of the movie’s frames were enhanced through the use of green screen technology. Despite all of this, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King managed to win a Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards with little questioning.
The difference this year is that Avatar did such a stellar job of creating an alternate place with depth and detail that it blurred the lines between traditional film making and special effects to an extent that has traditionalists shuddering. As reported in Guardian, Avatar’s director, James Cameron, spent a great deal of time creating enhancements in the CGI process and developed improved skull caps that were able to capture even highly subtle eye-movements and facial expressions. This translated onto the screen in a very captivating manner that could open the door to a new level of creativity in films.
As with any change, there are holdouts who argue that some of the purity of films is being lost when a CGI creation fueled movie can not only be hugely popular but win prestigious awards such as the Oscar as well. On one hand, I can see the point of this argument. As lovely as Avatar was, the actual dialogue of the movie was not as inspired as one would hope. The fact that it could win Best Picture at the Academy Awards would be largely a salute to the film as a new frontier in film-making instead of a pat on the back for an exquisite screen play.
Critics of excessive special effects and CGI have to realize that as this technology is further developed and becomes second nature to filmmakers, better screen plays will spring forth that will utilize the new tools with a story as compelling as any other critically acclaimed movie.
That the message of the movies has not yet fully caught up with the technology behind the films is a current given, but CGI and special effects are here to stay. As time goes by and these portrayals become main stream, the Academy Awards may even consider creating a best CGI performance category that awards an actor or actress as well as the team responsible for translating the CGI input into a vibrant being.
If the Oscars want to continue to attract viewers in the coming decade, then these types of decisions will have to be made in the very near future when CGI laden movies will be more common. As for 2010, it looks likely that Oscar will bow to the power of CGI and Avatar for Best Picture – a victory for technology and development in film.
Bobbie Johnson, “The Technological Secrets of James Cameron’s New Film Avatar.” Guardian.co.uk.