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Which film will win the 2017 visual effects Oscar?

"Deepwater Horizon", "Doctor Strange", "The Jungle Book", "Kubo and the Two Strings" and "Rogue One" battle to be crowned FX experts at Sunday's Academy Awards.

LAIKA / Focus Features

"La La Land", "Arrival" and "Manchester by the Sea" might be slugging it out for multiple Oscars, but they're not the only contenders at the 89th Academy Awards this Sunday.

A handful of sci-fi and fantasy films have made the shortlist for best visual effects, recognising the cutting-edge movie magic that made our eyes pop in 2016.

Will the award be rigged in favour of "Deepwater Horizon"? Can "Doctor Strange" conjure Marvel's first Oscar? Perhaps the bear necessities will come to "The Jungle Book", or maybe "Kubo and the Two Strings" will string out a win. Or will "Rogue One" prove a force to be reckoned with?

And the nominees are...

'Deepwater Horizon'

Craig Hammack, Jason Snell, Jason Billington and Burt Dalton

"Deepwater Horizon" recounts a horrifying true story.

David Lee

It's easy to assume modern visual effects are all achieved at the click of a mouse, but sometimes you have to go old school. So for this true-life tale of a horrifying disaster on a Gulf of Mexico oil rig, the filmmakers built a vast tank of water in a Louisiana parking lot and plonked in a huge model of the Deepwater Horizon rig, 85 percent of the size of the real thing.

Industrial Light and Magic then added digital pyrotechnics using Plume, the company's own Oscar-winning software for generating flames and smoke.

What are the odds? The combination of a big set with modern effects to tell a story of real-life heroism makes this feel like a solid Oscar-worthy effort, but it lacks the wow factor of other entrants.

'Doctor Strange'

Stephane Ceretti, Richard Bluff, Vincent Cirelli and Paul Corbould

People are strange: Benedict Cumberbatch is Marvel's mystical medic.

Michael Muller/Marvel

While rivals like "Deepwater Horizon" and "The Jungle Book" are all about whipping up perfect re-creations of reality, Marvel's "Doctor Strange" throws out the concept of reality entirely. ILM (again) led the effects companies transferring the psychedelic visions of legendary Marvel artist Steve Ditko to the big screen, creating what is simply one of the most visually spectacular movies ever.

Where other groundbreaking effects extravaganzas like "The Matrix" or "Inception" lean heavily on one or two big showpiece effects, "Doctor Strange" busts out a new eye-popping gimmick in every action sequence. Whether it's cities being turned inside out, a fight sequence unspooling backward, or kaleidoscopic astral planes where the rules of reality simply don't exist, this flick is a dazzling cavalcade of gorgeousness to make your head spin.

What are the odds? Marvel has been Oscar-nominated six times in past years for visual effects, but it's never won. If any film deserves to break that streak and claim the Marvel Cinematic Universe's first Academy Award, it's the frankly jaw-dropping "Doctor Strange".

'The Jungle Book'

Robert Legato, Adam Valdez, Andrew R. Jones and Dan Lemmon

Neel Sethi is Mowgli in the digital update of Disney's "Jungle Book".

Walt Disney Pictures

The "Jungle Book" effects team spent weeks in the jungles of India studying leaves, trees and moss to build a computer-generated jungle strewn with millions of CG leaves and twigs. Young actor Neel Sethi was then integrated into the digital jungle where he interacted with CGI animals.

Elements of Christopher Walken's distinctive visage were incorporated into the character of chief ape King Louie, created by effects experts Weta. The wizards at MPC created the rest of the animal characters, sometimes drawing on the facial cues of the all-star cast, which included Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

"Our teams took a lot of time looking at videos of animals and studied their biology in order to capture their likeness," MPC's Adam Valdez explains. "Artists at MPC are anatomy specialists, sculptors, students of physics and actors. You need all of these skills to construct, then animate, then render a realistic animal."

What are the odds? "The Jungle Book" celebrates and updates a classic movie for the modern age, and that's the sort of thing the Academy loves.

'Kubo and the Two Strings'

Steve Emerson, Oliver Jones, Brian McLean and Brad Schiff

Stop-motion loveliness in "Kubo and the Two Strings".

Laika / Focus Features

Bit of an odd one, this. The delightful fairy tale "Kubo and the Two Strings" is nominated for best animated feature -- alongside out-and-out cartoons -- and for best visual effects, alongside live action films. It's the second such animated movie to also be nominated for VFX, after "The Nightmare Before Christmas". That's because it's a stop-motion production, employing physical puppets and sets that were then embellished with CGI effects.

"There are some shots that are entirely practical," director Travis Knight told me when "Kubo" was released. "There are shots that are almost entirely CG. And then there are some shots that are blended."

The puppets are created by production company Laika using cutting-edge techniques such as stereoscopic photography, laser-cutting, 3D printing and rapid prototyping. The scale of the models can be seen in the film's closing titles, which show the filmmakers working on a skeleton demon standing 18 feet (5.5 meters) tall and weighing 400 pounds (180 kilograms).

What are the odds? This enchanting and beautifully crafted fairy tale richly deserves the recognition -- and, hey, with two nominations it's got two chances to take home a statuette.

'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story'

John Knoll, Mohen Leo, Hal Hickel and Neil Corbould

The heroes of "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story", including computer-created idiosyncratic android K-2SO.

Jonathan Olley

The effects of "Rogue One" are all about grounding the fantastic in gritty reality. The filmmakers drew on photos of real war zones to create verisimilitude in the battle scenes -- and I mean they literally drew on them, photoshopping Imperial Stormtroopers and Rebel X-Wings onto images from the Vietnam War.

One of the highlights of the film is the snippy droid K-2SO, a CGI creation built around a motion captured performance by Alan Tudyk. The actor wore 13-inch stilts to create the droid's hulking form.

More controversially, the film used computers to digitally re-create the character of Grand Moff Tarkin from 1977's "A New Hope" -- despite the fact that star Peter Cushing died more than 20 years ago. A CG model of Cushing's face was mapped onto a performance by actor Guy Henry, with controversial results. Some viewers found the digital performance jarring, while critics questioned the ethics of resurrecting a deceased performer.

What are the odds? It's tempting to see the computerised Cushing as a watershed in movie history. If the Academy rewards the digital grave-robbing in "Rogue One," it could be seen as acceptance of the use of CGI to resurrect even more dead stars in future.

Our verdict

For sheer dazzling imagery, it has to be "Doctor Strange". But visual effects are more than just creating a beautiful image -- they're about furthering a story and bringing characters to life. That brings us to "Kubo" and "The Jungle Book", two films blurring the lines between what's considered an animated or live action film.

"Kubo" creator Laika has been nominated several times, so we'd fancy it's about time they took home a gong, but the Academy could well follow the example set by the Visual Effects Society's awards and be charmed by the old-school appeal of "Jungle Book".

Update: And the winner is... "The Jungle Book"! Here's how cutting-edge technology helped the "Jungle Book"'s herd of animated animals win the day.

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