Robots, Martians and bears: Which film will win the visual-effects Oscar?

CNET's Nic Healey runs the numbers Oscar nominees for best visual effects to see who's most likely to walk off stage clutching that small golden man.

Nic Healey Senior Editor / Australia
Nic Healey is a Senior Editor with CNET, based in the Australia office. His passions include bourbon, video games and boring strangers with photos of his cat.
Nic Healey
5 min read

It might not have the same cachet as best actor, best director or best picture, but the Academy Award for best visual effects has been a mainstay of the Oscars since 1977.

That was just the first time the award was formally called that, of course, with "Wings" earning the earliest official recognition for "engineering effects" back in 1927.

Check out all Oscar winners for visual effects

But let's jump forward 89 years and see who's up for the coveted VFX Oscar on February 28.

'Ex Machina'

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What is it? "Ex Machina" is the movie everyone seems to love, even if you don't know anyone who saw it. It's also the directorial debut of Alex Garland, author of "The Beach". The film adaptation starred Leonardo DiCaprio, which is important because this year he must be a part of every conversation about the Oscars that you have.

What's it about? Oh, the usual stuff, like Turing Tests, artificial intelligence and a robot with the face of Alicia Vikander. That's all I'm telling you because you should really watch it.

Why is it nominated? "Ex Machina" didn't follow the typical practice of green screen sequences or motion capture during the shooting of the film. All the effects to create Vikander's robotic appearance were done in post production, which is pretty rare these days. It was certainly a first for FX company Double Negative, which had previously worked on the likes of "Interstellar", "Inception" and "Captain America".

Will it win? It's already been nominated for its effects four times this award season, and the visual effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst picked up one win at the British Independent Film Award for outstanding achievement in craft. But no, it won't win. Both industry insiders and online betting establishments have it at a long shot.

'The Martian'

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What is it? Seriously? "The Martian"? The Matt Damon-helmed, Ridley Scott-directed adaptation of the book by Andy Weir? You're seriously saying you've never heard of it? Well, you might remember Matt Damon from "The Departed", a film he was in with DiCaprio.

What's it about? Well, potatoes and disco music mostly, but also science, space and Mars because that's where most of the film takes place.

Why is it nominated? MPC, the company responsible for the effects, dropped in a lot of terrain details and, obviously, weather effects to make Mars look so impressively real. It also added precise details like the glass visors in helmets of the Marstronauts. MPC has a neat reel showing the VFX breakdown.

Will it win? So far "The Martian" is the VFX bridesmaid and never the bride, nominated six times without any luck. Gold Derby, a site dedicated to predicting show business awards, has it as an 80 to 1 outsider, while other places are more bullish on its chances. For my money, I think the completely baffling Golden Globe win for Best Comedy or Musical will hurt its chances of being taken seriously at the Academy Awards.

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'Mad Max: Fury Road'

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What is it? The fourth film in the Mad Max series and the first return to the post-apocalyptic, car-obsessed world in 30 years. This one sees Tom Hardy from "The Revenant", a film he's in with Leonard DiCaprio, take on the titular the role of Max Rockatansky, previously played by Mel Gibson.

What's it about? Well it's either a smart high-octane action flick, or a secret feminist plot depending on which parts of the Internet you might have stumbled across. Of course, there's a theory that it might be a romantic comedy...

Why is it nominated? "Fury Road" has over 2,000 special effects shots, out of around 2,400 total shots in the film. Which is a lot. The film has a big emphasis on real stunts and explosions, and visual effects are often tied in with these. Colour hues were altered to give it that post-apocalyptic look and the amazing sandstorm was obviously a standout. But some of the biggest innovation came in the night-time scenes, which were actually shot in broad daylight and deliberately overexposed before being colour corrected, a new technique suggested by effects supervisor Andrew Jackson. And it's incredible.

Will it Win? Not counting the Academy Awards, it's had 10 award nominations for visual effects, winning five and scoring runner-up for a sixth. It may have been released 10 months ago, but there's a lot of hype around Fury Road still and it's definitely in with a solid chance.

'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

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What is it? The seventh movie in a much-loved science fiction series that last had a decent release in 1983, with absolutely nothing good happening to the franchise between 1999 and 2005. Although, funny story, it was during that time period that DiCaprio actually turned down the role of Anakin Skywalker...

What's it about? Director J.J. Abrams has impressed fans by tying in the original trilogy with a new crop of heroes and villains in a respectful and adept way. It's about space battles and family and destiny and a really cute robot gives a thumbs-up at one point. It's great.

Why is it nominated? After George Lucas went mad with power and decided to CGI everything up to and including Hayden Christensen's ability to change facial expressions, "The Force Awakens" is getting a lot of love for toning down the visual effects and working them in with practical effects to create a film that doesn't look like a PlayStation 2 game. To put it in perspective: "A New Hope," "Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi" all got Academy Awards for effects. The other three... did not.

Will it Win? It's odds-on favourite and has the legacy and excitement to make it a real contender.

'The Revenant'

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What is it? This is the one: the film that might see DiCaprio get the Best Actor Oscar that so many misguided people seem to believe he's been denied all these years.

What's it about? DiCaprio has the world's worst nature walk as he gets attacked by pretty much everything and everyone. Then he sort of learns a lesson about revenge. Maybe.

Why is it nominated? Two words: bear attack. DiCaprio's mauling at the paws of an ursine matriarch has been the stuff of legend and the work by ILM on that scene is nothing short of amazing. Taking choreography of footage of a real life bear attack in a German zoo the team built up the CGI bear in a stunningly realistic way, even using some of the fur effects ILM had developed for the upcoming "Warcraft" movie.

Will it win? Well, the Visual Effects Society liked it, giving it three wins, and there's some buzz that "The Revenant" will sweep the Oscars. My feeling is that either Leo or the bear get to go home with an Academy Award. If DiCaprio is the shoe-in that people believe, then either "Force Awakens" or "Fury Road" gets the VFX nod.