Perhaps the least slick stop on the awards circuit, the Visual Effects Society ceremony is also the newest. Established in 1997, the society now claims 1,600 members: effects wizards and animators working in a number of media including feature films, video games and commercials.
The show itself is now in its fourth year and held on the spot of countless ceremonies, the Hollywood Palladium. While the freshest, nerdiest face of the season, the VES also represents the exploding sector of industry that threatens to crush all others beneath its computer-graphical weight. In a likely "Revenge of the Nerds" scenario 10 years from now they may well be mulling over the Globes and Oscars as good predictors of the VES awards. And so, black tie securely fastened, I drive to Hollywood to witness the shape of awards shows to come.
Toying with the tuxes
Walking up to the Palladium, the difference is clear right in the driveway. Normally one must push through a herd of black stretch limos. Setting the tone tonight: not one but two white stretch Humvee limousines.
At most shows, the entranceway is dominated by the red carpet/photo-op space where the handful of celebs attending looms and the mere membership is sent scurrying around the side, like the hired help forced to enter through the kitchen door. In the VES foyer, a corner is set aside where three photographers shoot some unidentifiable men in tuxes, but otherwise media hype is MIA.
The chummy bonhomie of a trade association prevails. The crowd, about 75% male, is not entirely the geekfest I had expected, but a smattering of wizard-like men in long beards and braided hair dot the room.
Hello, Mr. Cheech
At the dinner, I am stunned on third glance to realize the quiet, unassuming man seated to my left is in fact Richard "Cheech" Marin, formerly of "Cheech and Chong" fame. A million miles from the pot jokes of his youth, conversation with Cheech turns out to be the most cultured chitchat one is likely to find at a Hollywood awards banquet. (Having jumped on the nouveau animation bandwagon at its dawn, Marin has made a bit of a second or third career of performing voice-over roles for animated films.)
He speaks in a modest but genuinely enthusiastic manner of his collection of Chicano art that's currently touring North America, of the novel he is writing and the difficulty in finding a narrative voice.
On with the speechmaking
The largely star-free ceremony feels much more an actual get-together than the made-for-TV spectaculars the season specializes in. There is no host. The awards are largely handed out by titans of the business rather than stars. "And now a man who needs no introduction" the announcer says. "Mr. Craig Barnett." (The effects chief of "Batman Forever.") The speeches are endearingly unrehearsed, stumbling and liberally dotted with geek jargon. They do add up though. "The first five hours of this show just fly by," Marin jokes when he presents.
The invisible men
A recurring theme throughout the night is that if effects artists do their jobs right, no one should notice it's an effect. Unlike other awards shows, the ceremony manages to uphold an air of celebration of the craft, rather than an attempt to brag about one's importance. Some credit for this must go to the clip reels: King Kong fighting dinosaurs makes for more exhilarated viewing than, say, soliloquies on racial relations from "Crash."
Through this awards season, there have been hundreds of tributes in honorary awards. Norman Lear, Anthony Hopkins and Grant Heslov have been lauded as living saints. But nothing can approach the riot of garlands laid at the feet of the VES' honorary honoree, Pixar chief and incoming Disney Animation czar John Lasseter. In speech after speech, filmed tribute after filmed tribute (including one from Yoda, who says, "Apologies I send that present at your award I could not be"), the boyish wizard behind "Toy Story," "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles" is credited with nothing less than creating modern animation by unharnessing the power of computer animation.
His biggest applause, however, comes when he reminds the crowd that effects alone don't make a film special: "What interests people is not the fact that it was made with computers. It is the energy and the characters that capture an audience."
I leave thinking it is a rarely confident group of Hollywood workers indeed who can applaud the notion that the product is bigger than themselves.