My two favorite movies of 2015 were Ex Machina and Mad Max, so seeing them nominated for VFX Oscars was sort of a no-brainer. But in an age when best usually means most, I have to admit, I didn't give Ex Machina a chance.
In fact, the Visual Effects Society didn't even nominate it for Best Visual Effects or even Best Supporting Visual Effects! The usual standard bearer for prediction, Todd Vaziri's VFX Predictionator, placed it dead last in the category to win a VFX Oscar, and his formula has only failed to predict the winner twice in 25 years.
So what happened? I figured it would be a toss up between Star Wars and Mad Max. And with Max's sweep of the earlier technical awards, I figured it was a lock. I would not have even been shocked at The Revenant winning. The bear was incredible. Ex Machina didn't have an underdog's shot with these beasts in the category and I doubted most Academy voters had even seen this under-appreciated movie.
There has been a lot of talk about non-CGI visual effects, and how Mad Max and Star Wars have moved away from relying on CGI by re-embracing traditional models and in-camera techniques (but watch the endless CGI names in the credits and you'll see this is not entirely true). Interstellar won last year's VFX Oscar riding this non-digital narrative.
Perhaps all this has caused a backlash in the perception as to what is and is not a visual effect.
So in the case of last night's winner, Ex Machina, one thing is certain: When looking at the main character of Ava, she is without a doubt, a visual effect! She is beautiful and alien. You can see her inner mechanics and robotics. She lives on the far side of the uncanny valley and you cannot take your eyes off of her. She is the heart of the story, and the movie falls apart if you neither feel for her nor believe she is a robot. This, in addition to the aforementioned flawless work, is what gets the vote.
All this goes to the central flaw or strength of awards. The award goes to the sum parts of the whole, not the specific craft being awarded. I benefited from this very thing with a Breaking Bad Emmy nomination for the single long-take of Gus's demise in season 4. There was a lot of great work that year, but that single haunting shot was so well set up within the whole of the show's entire series narrative, that it resonated with the public and with Academy voters.
So, kudos to Double Negative and buck-up to the other deserving nominees. The VFX work this last year has been frightening perfection. But I think, after the surprise has settled, I am rather happy to see a smaller movie like Ex Machina take home this award for such a high quality of work that so directly and specifically serves the story.
The Academy got this one right.