Next week the VFX Oscar race really begins as the Academy's visual effects branch exec committee narrows the preliminary list of 15 down to seven. Then we'll get our five nominees, thanks to the newly expanded field, when the branch votes at the Academy bakeoff on Jan. 20. However, we won't find out, of course, until all the nominees are announced on Jan. 25.
But first things first: What are the magnificent seven likely to be?
The safe bet is: Tron: Legacy , Inception , Alice in Wonderland , Iron Man 2 , Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 , The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader  and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time .
Granted, Dawn Treader provided vastly improved Reepicheep and Aslan from MPC and Framestore, respectively, and Prince of Persia contained the dazzling "Dagger Time" rewind effect from Double Negative. But what if either or both don't make the cut?
There's The Last Airbender , which contained marvelous CG characters and new GPU-accelerated fire sim from Industrial Light & Magic (with help from NVIDIA's Plume).
Or what about Unstoppable  or Shutter Island : the swan songs from the shuttered studios Asylum VFX and CafeFX? The former featured terrific CG trains that blended in well with the in-camera work for Tony Scott's non-stop thrill ride, while the latter offered a B-movie feast of creepy environmental and atmospheric work for Martin Scorsese's mind- bender.
There's also Hereafter , the underappreciated Clint Eastwood love story about coping with near-death experiences, which started off with a bang, thanks to Scanline's superlative tsunami.
And don't forget the trippy Scott Pilgrim vs. the World . Double Negative (where Asylum founder Nathan McGinness is headed to run the Singapore studio) and Mr. X provided an inspired variety of graphical techniques that conveyed the alternate reality of Edgar Wright's pop cultural mash-up.
Then again, there could be some other combination of surprising results.
It's sure to be an interesting bakeoff. Perhaps even the last, since there's been grumbling about how unnecessary the notion of a bakeoff has become considering that the exec committee can just as easily narrow the list of 15 from seven to five. Then again, I haven't heard much enthusiasm about expanding the field from seven to 10 to justify the bakeoff. We'll see.
What about the five likely contenders?
Right now, Tron: Legacy is fresh on everyone's mind, and theoretically has the greatest momentum. To be sure, Digital Domain not only raised its game with the year's best stereo 3-D experience but also improved its performance capture capability beyond the Oscar-winning Benjamin Button  with the ruthless Clu avatar -- a younger version of Jeff Bridges' Kevin Flynn. Added to that was an array of other visual improvements to the Grid, which took the ground-breaking and influential Tron into the 21st century. DD utilized its new studio in Vancouver and coordinated all of the work from the five vendor partners: Mr. X, Whiskeytree, Ollin Studio, Prana Studios and Prime Focus. Still, it was quite a legacy that director Joe Kosinski  and Digital Domain (under the overall supervision of Eric Barba) had to live up to, so we'll just have to wait and see what the final verdict is from the Academy.
In fact, one scenario has Inception, Chris Nolan's mind- bender, as the odds on favorite because of the popularity of both the film and the director. Credit Dneg's imaginative rendering of multiple mindscapes, which augmented the overall visual design yet placed heavy demands on the pipeline and team at Dneg (under Paul Franklin's overall supervision). Besides which, the old school/new school VFX wow factor has just the kind of broad appeal that could win over the Academy at large.
On the other hand, Alice in Wonderland was the number two box office hit of the year, and Sony Pictures Imageworks raised its own game with an abundance of CG characters and synthetic environments for Tim Burton's re-imagining of the legendary Lewis Carroll classic. Ken Ralston and his team came up with a new synthesis of techniques to reach new hybrid heights for the Red Queen, the Tweedles, the Cheshire Cat, Absolem, the Jabberwocky and the rest of the iconic characters. Not to mention some fun digital manipulation of Johnny Depp's eyes to make the Mad Hatter appear even madder.
As for Iron Man 2 (the third highest grossing film of the year), Ben Snow & co. at ILM (including the Singapore facility) helped director Jon Favreau ramp up the jeopardy for Iron Man's confrontations with War Machine and Whiplash (Dneg did the Monaco sequence; Janek Sirrs was the overall visual effects supervisor). In addition to providing CG armor and lots of mayhem, ILM leveraged a breakthrough from Terminator Salvation  called Energy Conserving Image-Based Important Sampled Lighting, which added a more real world aesthetic by integrating an energy conserving shader set in RenderMan with an HDRI lighting approach.
Meanwhile, it's about time Harry Potter got some Oscar love as it winds down with its Deathly Hallows two-part climax. An entire vfx industry in London has come of age as a result of the anointed magician, and Part 1 was yet further demonstration of greatness from regulars Double Negative, Framestore and MPC (under the overall supervision of Tim Burke). Witness Dneg's re-imagining of the Patronus as a pulsing ball of energy; the humanization of Dobby & Kreacher from Framestore; and MPC's work on the seven Potters and Nagini. Cinesite London, Rising Sun Pictures and Baseblack were also big contributors.
Stay tuned for the announcement of the magnificent seven to see how this plays out…
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.