Oscars 2015 Category Breakdown: Best Visual Effects

Every year before the Oscars I break down each of the 24 categories. I do this to familiarize everyone with the category, how it works, what its history is, how it usually turns out, and also as a precursor to my picks article, allowing me to get most of the heavy lifting out of the way beforehand.

How these work is — I go over each category’s history, give you all the previous winners and nominees, then list the current year’s nominees. And then I’ll go over how each of the guilds (if there is a corresponding guild) have went, and how that corresponds to the Oscars (some guilds mean a lot to how a category will play out. Others mean nothing). It’s basically everything you need to know in order to make an informed decision when you make your picks on Oscar night. And then I also rank the nominees at the end in terms of where I see them in terms of their likelihood to win.

Today is Best Visual Effects. Otherwise known as Best Movie Made Mostly on a Computer.

Year Best Visual Effects Winners Other Nominees
1927-1928 Wings The Jazz Singer

The Private Life of Helen of Troy

1938 Spawn of the North (Special Achievement Award) No Category.
1939 The Rains Came Gone With the Wind

Only Angels Have Wings

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex

Topper Takes a Trip

Union Pacific

The Wizard of Oz

1940 The Thief of Bagdad The Blue Bird

Boom Town

The Boys from Syracuse

Dr. Cyclops

Foreign Correspondent

The Invisible Man Returns

The Long Voyage Home

One Million B.C.


The Sea Haw

Swiss Family Robinson


Women in War

1941 I Wanted Wings Aloma of the South Seas

Flight Command

The Invisible Woman

The Sea Wolf

That Hamilton Woman

Topper Returns

A Yank in the R.A.F.

1942 Reap the Wild Wind The Black Swan

Desperate Journey

Flying Tigers

Invisible Agent

The Jungle Book

Mrs. Miniver

The Navy Comes Through

One of Our Aircraft is Missing

The Pride of the Yankees

1943 Crash Dive Air Force


The North Star

So Proudly We Hail!

Stand for Action

1944 Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo The Adventures of Mark Train

Days of Glory

Secret Command

Since You Went Away

The Story of Dr. Wassell


1945 Wonder Man Captain Eddie


They Were Expendable

A Thousand and One Nights

1946 Blithe Spirit A Stolen Life
1947 Green Dolphin Street Unconquered
1948 Portrait of Jennie Deep Waters
1949 Mighty Joe Young Tulsa
1950 Destination Moon Samson and Delilah
1951 When Worlds Collide No other nominees.
1952 Plymouth Adventure No other nominees.
1953 The War of the Worlds No other nominees.
1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Hell and High Water


1955 The Bridges at Toko-Ri The Dam Busters

The Rains of Ranchipur

1956 The Ten Commandments Forbidden Planet
1957 The Enemy Below The Spirit of St. Louis
1958 Tom Thumb Torpedo Run
1959 Ben-Hur Journey to the Center of the Earth
1960 The Time Machine The Last Voyage
1961 The Guns of Navarone The Absent-Minded Professor
1962 The Longest Day Mutiny on the Bounty
1963 Cleopatra The Birds
1964 Mary Poppins 7 Faces of Dr. Lao
1965 Thunderball The Greatest Story Ever Told
1966 Fantastic Voyage Hawaii
1967 Doctor Dolittle Tobruk
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey Ice Station Zebra
1969 Marooned Krakatoa, East of Java
1970 Tora! Tora! Tora! Patton
1971 Bedknobs and Broomsticks When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth
1972 The Poseidon Adventure (Special Achievement Award) No Category.
1973 No Award Given. No Category.
1974 Earthquake (Special Achievement Award) No Category.
1975 The Hindenburg (Special Achievement Award) No Category.
1976 King Kong (Special Achievement Award)

Logan’s Run (Special Achievement Award)

No Category.
1977 Star Wars Close Encounters of the Third Kind
1978 Superman (Special Achievement Award) No Category.
1979 Alien The Black Hole



Star Trek: The Motion Picture

1980 The Empire Strikes Back No Category.
1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark Dragonslayer
1982 E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial Blade Runner


1983 Return of the Jedi (Special Achievement Award) No Category.
1984 Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Ghostbusters


1985 Cocoon Return to Oz

Young Sherlock Holmes

1986 Aliens Little Shop of Horrors

Poltergeist II: The Other Side

1987 Innerspace Predator
1988 Who Framed Roger Rabbit Die Hard


1989 The Abyss The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Back to the Future Part II

1990 Total Recall (Special Achievement Award) No Category.
1991 Terminator 2: Judgment Day Backdraft


1992 Death Becomes Her Alien 3

Batman Begins

1993 Jurassic Park Cliffhanger

The Nightmare Before Christmas

1994 Forrest Gump The Mask

True Lies

1995 Babe Apollo 13
1996 Independence Day Dragonheart


1997 Titanic The Lost World: Jurassic Park

Starship Troopers

1998 What Dreams May Come Armageddon

Mighty Joe Young

1999 The Matrix Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Stuart Little

2000 Gladiator Hollow Man

The Perfect Storm

2001 The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

Pearl Harbor

2002 The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Spider-Man

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

2003 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl

2004 Spider-Man 2 Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I, Robot

2005 King Kong The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

War of the Worlds

2006 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest Poseidon

Superman Returns

2007 The Golden Compass Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End


2008 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button The Dark Knight

Iron Man

2009 Avatar District 9

Star Trek

2010 Inception Alice in Wonderland

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1


Iron Man 2

2011 Hugo Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Real Steel

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

2012 Life of Pi The Avengers

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


Snow White and the Huntsman

2013 Gravity The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Iron Man 3

The Lone Ranger

Star Trek: Into Darkness

2014 Interstellar Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Guardians of the Galaxy

X-Men: Days of Future Past

This year is interesting. Since the one thing I always say in this category (which has applied six out of the past seven years) is that, in a post-Star Wars era, any time a Best Picture nominee is in the field, it has always won (unless it lost to another Best Picture nominee). And here we are, with the potential for Star Wars to have giveth and taketh away.

I’m not gonna go deep into VES, since they have a lot of categories, and there’s a lot of stuff going on there. But VES has been around since 2002, and the winner of The Effects in an Effects-Driven (now “Photoreal”) movie has gone on to win the Oscar in 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, and 2013.

And, they also have a category for Animated Character in a Live-Action Feature, which also went to the film that won the Oscar in 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, and 2012. So most of the time, your Oscar winner is gonna win more than one of the categories at VES.

Also, of the years where VES didn’t pick the winner of the Oscars in the main category…

  • 2004 — Spider-Man 2 won the Oscar, even though Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban won both VES categories. I can only guess that was do to the major critical and commercial success of Spider-Man.
  • 2007 — Transformers won VES in the Effects Driven category, but somehow lost the Oscar to (Academy Award Winner) The Golden Compass. To this day, I don’t know how to explain that one. I don’t know if anyone can.
  • 2011 — Hugo won the Oscar, and also won Supporting Visual Effects from VES. Rise of the Planet of the Apes won Effects in Effects Driven.

But either way… you can kind of telegraph from how VES goes. (Oh, and also, just looking at 2004, Spider-Man 2 did win a couple of other awards from them too. So you can see where the effects people go, and the rest of it is just gauging where the Academy at large is gonna go.)

The VES awards were announced a last week, so we’re gonna use those to gauge how to rank.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens won four awards this year: Effects in a Photoreal Feature, Created Environment, Virtual Cinematography and Models.

The Revenant won for Supporting Visual Effects, Composting and Animated Performance.

Mad Max won Effects Simulations.

Now, how this translates to the category…

Ex Machina barely got nominated, and isn’t particularly effects heavy. So I’m not feeling that one.

The Martian was also barely nominated and didn’t win anything. I might even say Star Wars has a bigger chance of winning than it at this point.

Mad Max only has the one token win, which will be interesting, going into Oscar night. Then again, that’s what happened with Interstellar last year, and that went on to win the whole thing. So really it comes down to how the Academy is going to vote more than these awards. Which is important to keep in mind (and yet people don’t do that every year).

The bear scene in The Revenant is the majority of the visual effects, and it’s impressive, but will they vote for it? Tough call.

And Star Wars will be breaking almost forty years of precedents with a win here. I’m not sure if the Academy at large cares about it enough to actually make that happen. Maybe they’re feeling nostalgic. That, to me, is one of the five most interesting decisions they’re going to make this year.

Before we get into rankings, let’s repost what I wrote about this category last year. It won’t really matter to us this year (maybe), but it’s worth keeping up). I went through and pulled all the times in the past 25 years where a non-Best Picture nominee was won this category:

  • 2007: The Golden Compass
  • 2006: Dead Man’s Chest
  • 2005: King Kong
  • 2004: Spider-Man 2
  • 1999: The Matrix
  • 1998: What Dreams May Come
  • 1996: Independence Day
  • 1993: Jurassic Park
  • 1992: Death Becomes Her
  • 1991: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

In 25 years, a Best Picture nominee hasn’t won the category 10 times. And when you look at that list, I see four glaring entries that we need to talk about.

One is Terminator 2. James Cameron, the acclaim, the effects themselves, and the amount of money it made. It was up against Backdraft and Hook. No one is surprised it won. The movie won 4 Oscars and was nominated for 6, including Editing and Cinematography.

Two: Jurassic Park. Spielberg, the acclaim, the effects themselves, the amount of money it made. It was up against Cliffhanger and Nightmare Before Christmas. Won three Oscars out of three.

Three: Independence Day. Mostly, the amount of money it made. It was up against Dragonheart and Twister. Maybe Twister is considered better effects, but when you factor in the money, that’s the tipping point.

Four: The Matrix. The acclaim, the effects themselves, the amount of money it made. It won four Oscars, including Editing. It was up against The Phantom Menace and Stuart Little. Is anyone surprised this won?

To me, those were the glaring four. These are all pre-VES, but they’re obvious when you look at the categories. Now for the other six:

  • 1992: Death Becomes Her beats Alien 3 and Batman Returns. This is so long ago, I’m not even sure how to rate it. Batman Returns is more of a Production Design and Makeup kind of movie, being a Burton. Alien 3, maybe they didn’t like it? I don’t know. I can’t explain this one.
  • 1998: What Dreams May Come beats Armageddon and Mighty Joe Young. Ape movie. And a Bay movie. Bay seems to just be disliked. Adding in 2007, his movies have never won this category. Because of perception, I guess. I’ll also admit that What Dreams May Come did have beautiful visuals. So I’m sure that and the class factor played into it. Though Armageddon had all the money, and was nominated for four Oscars. What Dreams May Come didn’t make money and was only nominated for two. So this is a bit of an outlier in that regard.
  • 2004: Spider-Man 2 beats Azkaban and I Robot. Potter has had a rough go at the Oscars, never winning a category ever. And Spider-Man 2… remember that movie? It made like $400 million and was the highest grossing movie of the year. Even though this was during the VES days, where precursors had Azkaban taking it, Spider-Man 2 made more money domestically, and was nominated for three Oscars to Azkaban’s two. I will also say that, if you want to argue for Planet of the Apes, this could also be a good one to use (even though it also can argue against it as well), since here’s a sequel that won Visual Effects with its predecessor losing to a Best Picture nominee. (Though this didn’t win at VES, so you’d be selectively choosing your information, which would be a dick move.)
  • 2005: King Kong beats Narnia and War of the Worlds. Here’s a movie that was in the conversation for Best Picture or Best Director at one point (didn’t the Globes nominate Jackson that year?), made assloads of money (though Narnia did too), had the class factor over the other two, and was nominated for four Oscars, winning three. Narnia was nominated for three Oscars and won one (Makeup), and War of the Worlds was nominated for three Oscars, winning zero. But in this case, it was a combination of money and class factor that did it.
  • 2006: Dead Man’s Chest bats Poseidon and Superman Returns. Superman Returns was thought of as a huge turd at the time, especially by Oscar voters. I don’t think people even knew Poseidon. And if they did, it was like Captain America. They weren’t voting for it. Plus, Dead Man’s Chest made assloads of money that year, people were high on the pirates, and it was nominated four times. When something is nominated four times, they’re gonna look to give it something.
  • 2007: And now, The Golden Compass. Beating Transformers. This is one of the only times a film beat another nominee with more nominations and more money. And I can only chalk this one up to… they just don’t like Bay. I don’t think anyone can explain this one.

This tells me that the film with the most money, the highest class factor, the director or franchise with a history in the category, and the most nominations will win.

Again, this one doesn’t really matter so much. Since we have three Best Picture nominees this year and two other fairly classy alternatives. Star Wars has five overall nominations this year. Same as Interstellar last year.

It’s really gonna come down to how they vote, which makes this one of the more interesting categories for me this year.

Oh, and I guess we should also mention: BFCA has, since 2009 when they started giving out a Visual Effects award, missed this category twice. And they were both Planet of the Apes films. Their award this year went to Mad Max.

And BAFTA, going back to 1999, has missed this category just three times. 2000, 2004, 2011. 2000 they had The Perfect Storm over Gladiator (Best Picture nominee rule). 2004 they had The Day After Tomorrow over Spider-Man 2. And 2011, they voted for Harry Potter, I guess to give it something on the way out. Hugo won the Oscar rather predictably. So BAFTA is actually really helpful here. Which tells me that in two days, if you see Mad Max win the BAFTA for Visual Effects, this shit is locked.

Best Visual Effects

Ex Machina

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Star Wars: The Force Awakens


5. Ex Machina — No shot. The nomination is the reward. This has no chance in an open vote against these other five nominees. It’ll snag a few votes, but not enough to make a difference. It needs to win BAFTA to claim any sort of legitimacy in the category.

4. The Martian — Based on the past forty years, this should be third. Because of the Best Picture nominee rule in this category. But honestly, between the other two Best Picture nominees and Star Wars, I honestly feel like those three all have better shots at winning this over this film. It says a lot that they went off of this for Best Director. That, to me, means it’s not even close to a serious contender for any award. So it’s fourth for me. History says it’s third, but I’m feeling fourth.

3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens — Four awards at VES are helpful. A BAFTA win would be really helpful. But without that, it’s gonna be no more than a potential dark horse in the category. I wouldn’t pick it to win even if it did win BAFTA (though that would tempt me to make it the alternate choice), but I’m certainly respecting it enough to keep it in the conversation, even though all history points to this having no shot. You definitely can’t consider it a frontrunner by any stretch, and you’d be stupid to assume this is going to win. This is a healthy dark horse at the moment, pending BAFTA.

2. The Revenant — It’s pretty much just the bear scene, and other assorted moments throughout. I don’t know if they’d give it the overall category for that. But, it’s a Best Picture nominee, it has twelve nominations, and it’s locked in a battle with Mad Max for most of the tech awards. Why should this be any different? All signs point to it being between this and Max here, and right now, all logic does not point in this film’s favor.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road — Makes the most sense. A lot of practical effects. It feels like an effects heavy film. People love it. It’ll win a bunch of tech awards (VFX, probably both Sound categories, maybe Production Design and/or Costumes). This should be a walk in the park. It’s clearly your frontrunner at the moment. And if BAFTA gives their VFX Award to this on Sunday, then you should go with this all the way, because it shouldn’t lose at that point.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tomorrow is Best Production Design. Which I love. Sets are the best.


One response

  1. Duncan

    Ex Machina #5. Yup.

    February 15, 2017 at 11:50 am

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