How Do We Judge the Best?
It’s the time of year when the animation and visual effects communities, along with the entertainment community as a whole, take stock of their work, celebrate outstanding achievement and bestow awards on a select group of films, studios and creative artists.
When you have awards, you have voting. When you have voting, you have subjective judgment. When you have subjective judgment, hopefully you have responsible voters employing responsible criteria. Then, at the conclusion of the designated voting process, undertaken by a designated group of voters, winners are declared and by default, losers as well, however biased, mysterious or seemingly inane the final choices or process may seem.
That leads to a basic but complex question: What makes certain films “better” than others? The web has more “best” film lists than Optimus Prime has polygons. Or cans of WD-40. Everyone has a right to their opinion, so says the popular maxim. But spend any time in the blog and Twitter-sphere and you’re more likely to conclude, “Everyone has a right to their own uninformed, ill-conceived and ridiculous opinion.” But I digress.
From the Annie Awards, to the VES Awards and ultimately, to the Academy Awards®, groups of professionals are tasked with voting for the “best” in a host of creative and production categories. And while there is no shortage of snarky arguments tearing apart every aspect of the awards process, these shows continue to thrive, driven at one level by the welcome and appropriate desire for each community to celebrate its own work and at another level by our society’s thirst to crown “winners” and demonize “losers” (or more often than not, the opposite).
The point of this article is not to question the very notion of making judgments about the relative merits of wholly subjective artistic efforts, or the value of big awards shows from an entertainment standpoint. The point of the article is to get a sense of the perceived value of such awards within our industry and more importantly, gain insight into how creative professionals, who themselves make the films being considered, tackle the issue of determining what makes a film “good” and why they consider one film “better” than any other.
Winning is a Good Thing. A Very Good Thing.
Much is made about the “politics” of awards voting, how ultimately, creative awards are nothing more than popularity contests. The absence of consensus on whom and what should be nominated, let along win, further illustrates the inherent problems that will always plague such awards. Advertising and promotional blitzes during awards season dominate every conceivable medium. Despite the inherent flaws in every judging process, the importance of winning the main entertainment awards on artist careers and studio coffers cannot be denied.
Consider, for example, that when you walk into the main building at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, a glass case in the atrium prominently displays not only the studio’s Oscars®, but their Annies as well. The same goes for DreamWorks Animation in Glendale. The value of a major award win cannot be overstated. According to Chris Edwards, CEO and Creative Director of The Third Floor, the Academy Awards and VES Awards are extremely important. “Winning an Oscar helps everyone associated with the production, from a lucky production assistant all the way up to the studio that financed its release. Professionally, there is no doubt that the nod can be a game changer for VFX supervisors. They are forever seen as one of the key architects of the production’s success. VES Awards are a very big deal for the visual effects community. The collective work of visual effects artists around the world has a huge impact on the global box office, and there is no better place to focus on this accomplishment than at the annual VES Awards.” That sentiment was echoed by Jenny Fulle, Founder and VFX Producer, The Creative-Cartel. “The Oscar is the holy grail of awards for the visual effects community, but the Visual Effects Society has done a great job over the years with its annual VES Awards…a VES award is definitely a badge of honor among our peers.”
As Henrik Fett, Co-Founder and VFX Supervisor at Look Effects pointed out, it’s important for the industry to recognize excellence and great work. “If it were not for institutions like the Academy, our industry could easily fall victim to being viewed as a commodity business that we all know it is not. It is wonderful to focus - at least once a year - on the artistry and creativity that is needed to create stunning visuals like the ones that are nominated this year.” Fett went on to say, “It is an incredible achievement to be amongst the nominees, let alone to win this prestigious award. Because it is so highly recognized, it is of great benefit to the recipients and definitely increases their ability to be invited to be part of interesting future projects. This seems to hold true for studios as well as for individuals.”
This year’s Annie Awards were bigger in every way than ever before. One factor that has positively impacted the growing perception of the Annie’s significance is change in the very mechanism by which the awards are judged. The hope is that the voting better reflects excellence in the work rather than just popularity. According to ASIFA-Hollywood president Frank Gladstone, “[In the past] There has been criticism that the voting could be gamed. That’s a criticism you find in almost all the awards ceremonies. Somehow, there’s a way to game it. You spend more money on ads, this and that, you influence the voting. In our case, the criticism was that a studio could manage to control the election. Historically that actually wasn’t true. But, be that as it may, the perception was that it could be done and in fact, it probably could have been if anybody really wanted to do it. So we had to come up with a way to change that perception.”