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Very special effects

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It’s one of the Oscars that lacks the profile of ‘best actor’ or ‘best film’, but the moments recognised by the Academy Award for best visual effects can step out of the film they were created for and become icons in themselves.

That’s the feeling you get watching the video below. With only a few seconds of footage from each of the winners of the visual effects award from the last 37 years, it’s obvious how many of these moments have become larger — somehow — than the films we saw them in.

If that sounds like overplaying the impact of special effects in each year’s best movies, let’s test your recall. An alien rising out of the water behind a bewildered little girl. An archaeologist being chased out of a cave by a giant boulder. ET’s glowing fingertip. Luke Skywalker blowing up the Deathstar. Dinosaurs outrunning Sam Neill as they flee a T-Rex. An adorable, talking pig. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio on a sinking ship. Benjamin Button.

Watching this brief film, edited together by Nelson Carvajal, the lesser standing of the award among casual filmgoers seems unfair. It’s a technical award, yes, but it’s curious that we think the work of computer operators who imagine and animate so much of what we see on the screen is worth less than the performances of the actors?

This four-minute films shows us that Sigourney Weaver, Brad Pitt, Harrison Ford, Leonardo and Kate all share the screen with a sort of technical ghost which enables, enhances and supports their work. Indeed, it is symbiotic. One enlivens the other. Case in point — Gravity. Image that film without special effects.

It doesn’t always work, of course. Although James Cameron pocketed the special effects award in 2009 for Avatar, some said it was a triumph of style over substance (or maybe it was just me who said that). There are plenty who disagree with that view, blown away by the scope of the fantasy and the technical virtuosity needed to realise it. Liam Neeson said he disliked making Star Wars: The Phantom Menace — he was just a prop around which the special effects maestros built the movie.

But as this short movie shows, when filmmakers get the balance right the results can be sublime.

Whatever your opinion of the visual effects Oscar, watch this film. It could make you appreciate again the era-defining work of the anonymous special effects crews who bring our favourite flicks to life.

And see if you can guess the names of all 30 films represented. We bet there’s at least a few you can’t place. (Here’s the final list.)

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