The 95th Academy Awards Race: Best Visual Effects

| February 18, 2023

The Nominees are . . . 
• Frank Petzold, Viktor Müller, Markus Frank and Kamil Jafar for All Quiet on the Western Front
• Joe Letteri, Richard Baneham, Eric Saindon and Daniel Barrett for Avatar: The Way of Water
• Dan Lemmon, Russell Earl, Anders Langlands and Dominic Tuohy for The Batman
• Geoffrey Baumann, Craig Hammack, R. Christopher White and Dan Sudick for
                  Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

• Ryan Tudhope, Seth Hill, Bryan Litson and Scott R. Fisher for Top Gun: Maverick

The most refreshing thing about this year’s nominees for Best Visual Effects is that they all have a reason to be here.  All have earned their nomination but at least two of them (Avatar and Top Gun) have the distinction of reminding us of pre-streaming, pre-COVID, big-budget summer blockbusters – pure magnets for the multiplex.  They, more than any other films released in 2022 reminded us to the wonderment of our cinematic temple.

That celebration of renewal makes Avatar: The Way of Water and Top Gun: Maverick the frontrunners and gives no clear indication of which one will win the Oscar.  On the level of pure work (at least given what is on the screen) one has to concede that Avatar pulls out ahead.  It is a favorite, having dominated the Visual Effects Society Awards this week in every category.  

As with all of James Cameron’s films, every dollar is on the screen and nowhere is it more present than Way of Water.  The incredible visual effects here – headed by four-time Oscar-winner Joe Letteri – are a stunning array of state-of-the-art visual tricks like the underwater performance capture, global simulation tool set which gives the film a new level of photorealism, and a muscle-based facial animation system known as that Anatomically Plausible Facial System.  All of these effects are on the screen all the time, immersing us in a whole world without the distracting seams of the craft.

Of course, the chief competition to Letteri’s team are the folks behind Top Gun: Maverick, headed by production lead Ryan Tudhope which used a lot of practical effects (plate augmentation, matte paintings, etc.) mixed seamlessly with CG effects that gave the film a natural feel and not like cut scenes from a video game.

While Avatar is the major frontrunner here (and deserves to be), there’s a sentiment in favor of Top Gun.  It’s old-world meets new-fangled visual effects made for a film that brought us out of our living rooms and back to the theater.

The Winner: Avatar: The Way of Water
The Runner-Up: Top Gun: Maverick

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.