How Do We Judge the Best?
And the Winner Is…
How do you judge artistic and creative production achievement in general when so much of the work is so spectacular?
As Chris Edwards explained, it’s his impression that Motion Picture Academy members employ a wide range of criteria when voting in the animation and visual effects categories. “I’ve heard that the VFX Branch of the Academy tends to vote for the most well-rounded use of special effects and visual effects techniques. Many of the follow-up questions at the Bakeoff often focus around the clever use of practical special effects and integration with model miniatures.” He went on to say, “However, my sense is that the larger Academy membership will not be as swayed by technique, and therefore judge the film at face value. Were the effects incredible, and were they integral to the story the director was trying to tell? These are the questions I suspect many voters will be wrestling with.”
Chris also noted that he thinks voters are looking for great stories with great characters. “For the best Animated Feature Film category, I believe the Academy membership will also heavily weigh story and characters. These days, there are so many well-animated films that a certain level of artistic proficiency is a prerequisite for making the short list. Beyond that, it will come down to how well the animators were able to speak through their characters and connect with the audience.”
Jay Redd, a VFX Supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks, spoke about how over the years, his focus has shifted when he watches and judges films. “When I was new on the scene in the late 80s and early 90s, I was obsessed with learning how everything was done. I’d get into a film and go into analyst mode. ‘How do they do that, how do they do that, how do they do that?’ instead of getting involved in the story. So now, I’ve made a number of films since then, and have worked from the ground up, from being an artist to a supervisor. Now that I know how it was or could have been done, I’m not worrying about it when I’m seeing a film. If something sticks out to me I might say, ‘Wow, that just pulled me out of the story.’ But really, it’s about letting go of the process and being immersed in the story. I care more about being immersed in the world created by the team that made that film. I just want to escape. When certain visuals are presented in a certain way, that’s what the visual poetry of the storytelling is for me. I’m looking to forget about how it’s done.”
When it comes to judging the work for awards, however, care must be taken when breaking down and assessing the work itself, regardless of whether or not the film, the story or characters are deemed “good.” Jay described his process of evaluation and what criteria he uses for his assessments. “The work today is so stellar across the board. As visual effects artists, we have big challenges. At the judging stage, getting caught up in the details of how something was made is exactly what we need to do. For example, voting for the Annie Awards, or the VES Awards, when I judge at a film festival, it’s the same kind of thing.”
According to Jay, he employs a three-part part process to judge films. “The criteria for me, which I hope is fair, are kind of a three part thing. It’s a little triangle I keep in my head. First of all, is there an emotional impact to the image that I’ve just been presented? What is the emotional content? Does it elicit that ‘Wow!’ response? That’s a big point for me. ‘Whoa, I’ve never seen that before.’ That leads into the creative aspect. Some group of people has put their minds together to create this idea. So there’s the emotional impact, the creative impact and then the technical impact, which is absolutely key to our process. Without the technology, without the inventions, without the engineering, without the science, none of this emotional impact could present itself to us. That’s my three pronged approach and I hope other people are looking at that as well.”
Inherent in the process of judging film is an obvious but important issue. Not every film is good, by any criteria. But the work of an individual or group of artists on pieces of that film may be worthy of award. Conversely, we’ve all enjoyed films which, upon further review, may not contain any work or discernible creative element we deem worthy of an award. Ultimately, as professionals, the hope is that at award time, judging will be done with thought, care and fairness. As Jay concluded, “Let’s say a film wasn’t really well reviewed, or it had pacing issues, or let’s say the movie ‘wasn’t great’ but the work inside it was amazing. We as visual effects artists have to look at the visual effects as it is and try not to analyze the whole film. An important aspect of this is that we’re talking about a visual effects award. Not a screenwriting award. Not an acting award. Not an award for sound and editing. All those things contribute. But we’re talking about visual effects and that’s what we should be looking at. It’s a challenge. You don’t want to be biased by thinking, ‘God, I really hate that certain actor. I just couldn’t take the movie.’ We should be focusing on the task at hand.”
Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.