This blog isn’t meant to just harp on questionable awards from the MPAA (if it was, that could be the entire theme all by itself), but there was another oversight that recently came to my attention:
Transformers did not win the special effects Oscar in 2008…
Now, spare me the knee jerk Internet reaction, where everyone mindlessly dismisses Michael Bay as a terrible director who makes terrible movies. Michael Bay makes Michael Bay movies. It’s an obvious enough statement, but his cinematography, his editing, his themes, and (his greatest asset) his action staging, are a signature style all their own. As a lover of the action genre, I look forward to Bay’s movies with anticipation and excitement, knowing that I’m in the hands of a director who know how to shoot the action and draw me in.
With Transformers, I knew I was watching a landmark special effects film. It’s not a perfect movie by any means. Yes, the pro-military themes are a little heavy handed, the humor is over the top and distracting in some places, and there is a definite lack of Transformers onscreen for the first part of the movie. But there are reasons for this. The military cooperation was unprecedented and necessary to gain access to the various vehicles the production needed to shoot. Having the military on board meant a significant reduction in production costs, so naturally they had to be portrayed in a positive, almost angelic light to satisfy their commitment. Budget was also a factor in the lack of screen time for the Transformers in the beginning of the movie. These are fanatically rendered, CG models that have tens of thousands of individual pieces. High cost rendering of this kind doesn’t come cheap. It also lends itself to the story, as we gradually get to see more and more of them in action until the explosive finale where it all breaks loose. It’s great progression. As for the distracting humor, I can’t excuse that. Maybe some people like it and while I’m not a fan of it, it doesn’t drag down all of the other positive elements of the movie.
Now let’s get into a little more detail about those special effects. The visual effects in this movie are unprecedented. The robots are seamlessly integrated into their environment. You see how the light reflects off the paint, how it looks exactly like it would on a real vehicle. The transformations are fantastic, as thousands of moving parts shift and twist into new forms. These transformations happen as the camera is moving and swooping all over, especially in the action scenes. It’s incredible. The compositing is flawless as the amount of debris and mayhem taking place blends in perfectly with the real elements of the shots, most of it happening under harsh sunlight during the daytime. Michael Bay gave lectures to ILM about how light reflects off of car paint, drawing on his experience as a commercial director. It’s insane the level of detail and artistry that is on display for what is really just a movie about toy robots aimed at kids. And it didn’t win.
It lost to a movie with a talking polar bear, a polar bear that didn’t even look as good as the animals in Jumanji, which was over ten years earlier. It lost in a category that the Academy already short hands by only giving 3 nomination slots to instead of the usual 5. For an industry that has been revitalized by all the amazing advancements in technology, making anything we can imagine be realized, it’s incredible to me that the Academy doesn’t know award winning work when it’s right in front of them on a giant screen. Transformers was the best visual effects movie of 2008, hands down.