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With bake-off, visual effects Oscar gets cooking

February 1, 2010 |  3:39 pm

In the wake of the blockbuster success of "Avatar," 3-D is all the rage in Hollywood -- and not just for big action movies either. A 3-D documentary called "Cane Toads" generated buzz in Sundance, and there's chatter that Ang Lee could make his next project, the adaptation of boy-on-boat bestseller “The Life of Pi,” in 3-D. (There are plenty of large-scale animals on the boat with the main character, including a 450-pound Bengal tiger).

Avat As one Oscar-winning effects guru said at the annual bake-off, the gathering of the Academy's visual effects branch narrowing down the contenders, "dramas are where [3-D is] heading."

The main purpose of the bake-off, held recently at Kate Mantilin's restaurant in Beverly Hills, is to whittle down a list of seven pictures (initially chosen from a list of 271 eligible films) to three titles that will be nominated for the Oscars. Presentations were made over the course of the dark, stormy night -- an appropriate tone for an evening featuring end-of-the-world epics, killer robots, wizards and general destruction.

"Avatar" is all but guaranteed one of the three Oscar slots, which left “Star Trek,” “2012,” “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” “Terminator: Salvation,” “District 9,” and “Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen" battling it out for the other two positions.

It was almost as interesting to note the films that didn't make the cut. Fanboy favorite “Watchmen" never made it as far as the bake-off despite arriving at theaters as one of the most anticipated effects films in recent memory; several artists, including some who worked on the Zack Snyder film, agreed that the middling reception to the film undermined its chances. "District 9," however, impressed despite being a much more modestly budgeted film. “It was physically impossible to see the difference between the background, humans and synthetic creatures,” one member remarked.

Before the presentations started, visual effects branch chairman Richard Edlund -- who picked up Oscars for the original “Star Wars” trilogy -- reviewed the red light rule, which requires presenters to wrap up when the light goes on. Some are more willing than others to follow that regulation. When James Cameron last appeared at the bake-off 12 years ago for “Titanic," he had a novel solution: When the red light flashed by the podium indicating his time was up, he casually reached over and unscrewed the light bulb.

-- Liesl Bradner