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9 things you might not know about the Oscars VFX award

The Academy Awards honor some of the best films to come out of Hollywood — and other places around the world — each year for a wide range of achievements both in front of the camera and behind it. One of our favorite categories in the annual ceremony celebrates the movies that take the art of visual effects to a new level, whether they’re offering up fantastic feats of spectacle, taking the audience back in time, or making the impossible seem possible in any number of other ways.

The Best Visual Effects category is always filled with crowd-pleasing films, but it also has a fascinating history — one that chronicles the evolution of both Hollywood and the technology that helps filmmakers make movie magic. From the very first recipient of an Academy Award for visual effects to some surprising milestones in the category’s history, here are some things you might not know about the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

It had an identity crisis

Despite a long list of films from the Golden Age of Hollywood that made innovative use of visual effects, it wasn’t until 1964 that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave visual effects its own, dedicated category at the Academy Awards ceremony.

Prior to that year, the Academy Awards honored various films with the Special Achievement Award for Special Effects, or in the Best Engineering Effects category, and later, the Best Special Effects category, for a mix of practical visual effects and audio effects. In some cases, multiple films received the Special Achievement Award in the same year for their special effects.

In 1965, the category was narrowed to Best Special Visual Effects for that year’s ceremony, then later changed to Best Visual Effects in 1977, which has been its title ever since that point.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

There were plenty of firsts

During the very first Academy Awards ceremony, held in 1929, the silent film Wings won both the inaugural Best Picture category and the award in the Best Engineering Effects category, which would eventually evolve into the modern Best Visual Effects category. Almost a decade later, 1938’s Spawn of the North was given the first Special Achievement Award for Special Effects, and subsequent years saw the Best Special Effects category added to the recurring list of Academy Award categories.

It wasn’t until the 1965 ceremony that a distinction was made between visual effects and audio effects in the Academy Awards, however, and Mary Poppins became the first winner in the Best Special Visual Effects category that year. The category only had one or two films nominated each year — and sometimes none at all — over the following decade, but was finally enshrined in its current form (and title) with the 1977 Academy Awards ceremony, and made Star Wars a very appropriate first-ever winner in the Best Visual Effects category.

Star Wars
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The Force was with it

The first race to win the Academy Award in the Best Visual Effects category was a two-film competition, pitting two of Hollywood’s most acclaimed filmmakers against each other. The nominees in the category that year were George Lucas’ genre-defining space opera Star Wars and Steven Spielberg’s thrilling extraterrestrial drama Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

In the end, Star Wars took home the Oscar — an achievement that would be repeated with each of the two sequels in the original trilogy.

It had its own dynasty

Among all the nominees and winners in the Best Visual Effects category over the years, one name is a recurring presence: Dennis Muren.

Beginning with 1980’s Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, which earned the visual effects artist his first Academy Award, Muren has won eight Academy Awards in the Best Visual Effects category and been nominated another seven times — most recently, for the 2006 film War of the Worlds. Those eight wins and 15 total nominations make him the current record-holder for the category. All of that success led to Muren receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1999, becoming the first visual effects artist to receive that honor.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Aliens broke its glass ceiling

The 1987 Academy Awards ceremony was notable for featuring the first woman nominated in the Best Visual Effects category, Suzanne M. Benson, who went on to take home an Oscar for her work on James Cameron’s Aliens. Only three other women have been nominated in the category since Benson’s win: Pamela Easley for the 1993 thriller Cliffhanger, Sara Bennett for 2015’s Ex Machina (who also won the Oscar), and Genevieve Camilleri for this year’s nominee Love and Monsters.

These are the rules

The criteria and rules surrounding the Best Visual Effects category have changed at various points over the years, allowing for different numbers of nominees, named individuals, and other elements. The current  rules regarding the category were updated in 2010, and allow for 10 “shortlist” finalists identified several weeks before the nominations are finalized. From that list, Academy voters later identify five nominees in the category.

When it comes to the actual nominees, only four people can be nominated for each film, leading to some tough decisions on films that used large visual effects teams.


It had a Kubrick dilemma

Despite an acclaimed career as a director, Stanley Kubrick’s only Academy Award was won in the Best Special Visual Effects category for 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

At the time, most films submitted just one name to represent the collective work of the special effects team, so Kubrick was nominated for 2001 instead of the film’s four-person effects team, which included Douglas Trumbull, Tom Howard, Con Pederson, and Wally Veevers. The win for 2001 would become the celebrated director’s only Academy Award.

Animation has representation

Three fully animated films have been nominated in the Best Visual Effects category over the years, beginning with stop-motion adventure The Nightmare Before Christmas in 1994. More than two decades later, another stop-motion film was nominated in the category: 2016’s Kubo and the Two Strings. Three years later, Disney’s remake of The Lion King also earned a nomination. None of the three nominated films took home the Academy Award.

It’s worth noting, however, that the partially animated 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? not only received a nomination, but also won the Best Visual Effects category that year.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

It had some ‘off’ years

Although the Best Visual Effects category has typically been very competitive over the last few decades, the 1991 Academy Awards ceremony was one of several in which there were no official visual effects nominees. It wasn’t due to any lack of potential nominees, either.

Of the four films under consideration for a nomination that year — Back to the Future Part III, Ghost, Total Recall, and Dick Tracy — only director Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi thriller Total Recall earned enough votes to be moved on in the process. The film never mustered enough support to receive an official nomination, though, and in the end, Total Recall was given a general Special Achievement Award for visual effects instead of the official Academy Award in the category.

The 93rd Academy Awards ceremony will be held Sunday, April 25.

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Rick Marshall
A veteran journalist with more than two decades of experience covering local and national news, arts and entertainment, and…
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