Academy Award for Best Visual Effects: History and Rules

An image of the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects winners for the 1983 film Return of the Jedi
Los Angeles, Ca. Winners of the Academy Award for the Best Visual Effects for the movie Return of the Jedi stand in a group holding their Oscars. They are (L-R): Richard "Cheech" Marin (presenter), Richard Edlund, Ken Ralston, Dennis Muren, Phil Tippitt, and Tommy Chong (presenter).

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Many of the highest-grossing films of all time feature groundbreaking visual effects, such as Avengers: Endgame, Avatar, Titanic, Star Wars, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. It's no surprise that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honors films with awe-inspiring special effects with an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. The Oscar for visual effects has experienced a number of rule changes since the very first Academy Awards ceremony, and in recent years the category has expanded to include more nominees to recognize the popularity and success of visual effects in contemporary cinema.

Did You Know?

Potential nominees for the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects are presented to an audience at an event called the Visual Effects Bake-off, attended by members of the Academy's Visual Effects Branch.

History of the Best Visual Effects Oscar

A special award for visual effects was given at the very first Academy Awards in 1929. Roy Pomeroy won for Best Engineering Effects for the 1927 film Wings (which also received the first Academy Award for Best Picture). However, an Oscar for visual effects was not granted again until the 11th Academy Awards in 1939 for the adventure film Spawn of the North (1938). That special honor was awarded for "Outstanding achievement in creating special photographic and sound effects." In fact, when Best Special Effects became an ongoing competitive category the following year, it was awarded for a film's visual and sound effects (the Best Sound Effects category, later renamed the Best Sound Editing category, was spun off as its own award in 1964).

The visual effects category was renamed Best Special Visual Effects the year after sound effects became its own category, and in 1977 it was renamed Best Visual Effects. Another change in 1977 was that up to six individuals could be credited per film (this was later limited to its current number, which is four).

Requirements and Eligibility

Any feature that qualifies under the standard Academy Awards rules is eligible in the Best Visual Effects category, and all eligible films appear on a nominations ballot that is voted on by the Executive Committee of the Visual Effects Branch of the Academy to narrow the field to a maximum of 20 films. A film's visual effects are judged on the basis of "consideration of the contribution the visual effects make to the overall production and the artistry, skill and fidelity with which the visual illusions are achieved."

The names of up to four artists from a film can appear on a submission, and the names must consist of individuals who substantially contributed to the visual effects of the film. The Executive Committee of the Academy's Visual Effects Branch makes the final determination of who should be named as a nominee if there is a dispute.

Under the current rules, the Executive Committee of the Academy's Visual Effects Branch selects up to ten films per year via secret ballot, which become the shortlist that the entire membership of the Visual Effects Branch votes after a presentation event held in Los Angeles called the Visual Effects Bake-off. Since 2009, the Bake-off voting narrows the finalists to five nominees (until then it was typically a maximum of three nominees). Once they are selected and announced, all Academy members can vote on the winner on their Oscars ballots.

Though up to five films may be nominated today, in several years only one film received enough votes to be considered eligible for Academy Award consideration. In those instances, the lone qualifying film has been awarded a Special Academy Award in lieu of a competitive award. Films that have received this honor are When Worlds Collide (1951), Plymouth Adventure (1952), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Earthquake (1974), The Hindenburg (1975), King Kong (1976), Logan's Run (1976), Superman (1978), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Return of the Jedi (1983), and Total Recall (1990). Additionally, no Academy Award was given for visual effects in 1974.

Notable Winners

Dennis Muren has received the most Oscars for Visual Effects with eight wins. He won six of his Oscars competitively (for 1982's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, 1984's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, 1987's Innerspace, 1989's The Abyss, 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and 1993's Jurassic Park) and two as Special Achievement Awards (for 1980's The Empire Strikes Back and 1983's Return of the Jedi). Muren was also nominated for the award seven other times, which means he also holds the record for most nominations.

Gordon Jennings and Ken Ralston has each won five Academy Awards for Visual Effects. Jennings was awarded for Spawn of the North (1938), I Wanted Wings (1941), Reap the Wild Wind (1942), When Worlds Collide (1951), and The War of the Worlds (1953); and Ralston has won for Return of the Jedi (1983), Cocoon (1985), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Death Becomes Her (1992), and Forrest Gump (1994).

Five individuals have won four Oscars for Visual Effects: L.B. Abbott, Richard Edlund, Joe Letteri, Andrew Lockley, and Glen Robinson.

Suzanne M. Benson became the first woman to be nominated and win an Academy Award for Visual Effects for 1986's Aliens. Since then, there have been two more female nominees: Pamela Easley for 1993's Cliffhanger and Sara Bennett, who was nominated (and won) for 2015's Ex Machina.

One of the most notable winners of the award was filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, who won his only Academy Award in his career for Best Special Visual Effects for 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey. At the time, it was not uncommon for only a single name to be submitted to represent a film's entire visual effects team.