The act of reading, it’s been said, is like a vivid and continuous dream. As the reader’s eyes scan the page (or the computer screen), the words disappear, and the imagination constructs the world being conveyed by the author. Wondrous settings, fantastic beings and acts that are impossible to achieve in the real world unfold before the mind’s eye.
How, then, are these flights of fancy recreated on the movie screen? For generations, that task has fallen to motion picture visual effects artists. These artisans and technicians, working in concert with directors, have been responsible for bringing that which can only be imagined to life.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have been handing out Oscars for Best Visual Effects since 1963 (before that, a “Special Effects” award was given for achievement in both visual and sound effects combined). This year, three movies based on comic books (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy and X-Men: Days of Future Past) and one based on a novel (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) are among the five films nominated for Best Visual Effects. Before that, though, more than two dozen movies based on published material have received awards for creating on screen what could only previously be crafted by a wordsmith with an overactive imagination.
The first film to win the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects was 1963’s Cleopatra, and while some may argue that the film’s greatest visual effect was Elizabeth Taylor in the title role, the film won the Oscar for recreating ancient Egypt as portrayed in Carlo Maria Franzero’s book of the same name. The next two Visual Effects Oscars also went to films adapted from published works: Mary Poppins, in which the title character floated over London (via magic umbrella) and cavorted in a world of sidewalk paintings; and Thunderball, in which James Bond soared over London (via jetpack) and battled bad guys under the sea.
While there was no Best Visual Effects Oscar handed out in 1933 when the original King Kong was made, both its remakes (released in 1976 and 2005) won awards for their depictions of the iconic beast, his home on Skull Island, and the monsters that inhabited it. Similarly, 1993’s Jurassic Park won a Best Visual Effects award for bringing to the screen author Michael Crichton’s vision of an island teaming with dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy world and the myriad creatures that inhabited it brought home Best Visual Effects Oscars for all three Lord of the Rings movies: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002), and The Return of the King (2003). These films not only recreated Tolkien’s Middle-earth and its Orcs, Ents, and giant eagles and spiders, but seamlessly conjured scenes in which actors played humans, hobbits, dwarves and elves side-by-side.
Fantastic beings taken from the pages of comic books have also inspired films that have won Best Visual Effects Oscars. Superman: The Movie (1978) and 2004’s Spider-Man 2 showcased flying and web-slinging so impressive that they netted Academy Awards. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1998), based on a novel in which people routinely interact with cartoon characters, also won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.
Sometimes the Best Visual Effects Oscar isn’t so much about fantastic worlds or super feats as it is about remarkable people and the lives they lead. When Tom Hanks portrayed Forrest Gump (1994) and found himself superimposed among the great figures of history, the film was awarded an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Another award went to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), in which Brad Pitt played the title character who ages in reverse, as adapted from the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
When regular people are put in great peril, sometimes Oscar sits up and takes notice. Such was the case twice in the 1970s, when disaster movies were in vogue. When the world was turned upside-down for passengers of an ocean liner in The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and when the world’s most famous dirigible burst into flames in The Hindenburg (1975), the films, both of which were based on novels, earned Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects.
For centuries, literature has proven that in the hands of a skilled writer, there is no story, no matter how fantastic or wondrous, that can’t be told. Since the advent of film, visual effects artists have proven that they are up to the task of translating words into moving pictures, where, as in writing, the only limit to telling a story is the imagination.