Why History-Making Oscar Nominee Neil Corbould Has 3 Choices of Seatmates at This Year’s Show

TheWrap magazine: The three-peat visual effects nominee says, “I probably won’t win, because that would be the irony of it”

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One
Esai Morales and Tom Cruise in "Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One" (Credit: Paramount Pictures and Skydance)

Given his profession as a practical effects supervisor – the beloved art of movie illusions achieved in camera – Neil Corbould knows about making magic appear real. But even he couldn’t believe the Oscar milestone he achieved this year, when he was nominated three times in one category, Best Visual Effects, for three different films.

Only a handful have achieved this rare three-peat. Corbould is the only special effects artist to do so, and the most recent in any category since songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman were nominated three times in 1983 (for “Tootsie,” “Best Friends” and “Yes, Giorgio”) and sound designer Randy Thom in 1984 (for “The Right Stuff,” “Never Cry Wolf” and “Return of the Jedi”).

“I’m very proud and honored,” said Corbould on a Zoom call from Malta, where he’s working on “Gladiator 2,” set for release later this year.

Corbould comes from a VFX family: His uncle Colin Chilvers netted an Oscar for 1978’s “Superman,” and as a young man Corbould watched Christopher Reeve fly (with the help of wires) on the Fortress of Solitude’s set. Corbould later gained acclaim within the effects world for his stunning work on the opening Normandy sequence of “Saving Private Ryan.”

“My job ranges from smoke, mist, rain, a wet down,” he said. “We deal with breakaway bottles and glass, rain effects, snow effects, wind effects, hydraulic rigs, pneumatic rigs. Plus, we do electrics, plumbing, engineering. All the things that the director sees on the set.”

Corbould received five prior nominations before his three this year and won Oscars for the original “Gladiator” and “Gravity.”

“So many people strive all their life for recognition,” he said of this year’s honors.
“To get three in one year, it hasn’t quite sunk in yet. The only question now is, ‘Who do I sit with at the show?’”

His choices for seatmates include the teams of “Napoleon,” his eighth film with Ridley Scott; “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One,” his second job on the stunt-savvy Tom Cruise franchise; and “The Creator,” his second collaboration with Gareth Edwards after “Rogue One” (for which Corbould was nominated in 2017).

“Three different types of movies there, which is great for the category,” he said. “You’ve got a bit of everything in terms of the variety of genres and how they use special effects.”

For each film, Corbould was called upon to fabricate the elements so that the action could be caught live on camera. In the case of “Napoleon,” that meant three separate locations for the famous Battle of Austerlitz re-creation. “The top of the hill was the exact same spot where we filmed Richard Harris in ‘Gladiator,’” he said. “The ice lake was on an old military airfield, where we dug a big
tank, and the underwater shots were done at Pinewood Studios.”

Corbould’s collaboration and friendship with Scott stretches back to the 1990s. “It’s quite an easy conversation between the two of us,” he said. “We’ve worked together so long that I know exactly what he wants. He does all his own storyboards and so that means that if there are 10 canons in the drawing, he wants 10 canons. It’s that simple.”

In “Dead Reckoning,” more than a year of planning went into the spectacular train chase and crash sequence. Here, too, multiple locations were used: an actual train route in Norway and a half-bridge in the U.K., where two train cars were actually driven off, plus massive outdoor rigs, including a vertical set and a three-axle gimbal. “And we had a set that was two ends of the train carriages that were pivoted,” he said. “That was mainly to do the jump from one train to
another. Then we’d re-dress the train to make a different carriage for the next shots.”

In this renaissance age for practical effects, “The Creator” was a bullseye project for Corbould. “Gareth said to me, ‘I want to shoot this my way: Guerilla style, small crew, one camera, 360-degree shots.’” The futuristic visual effects were conceived in post-production. “We put loads of smoke in scenes, we did the pyrotechnics and explosions, but it was mainly to set the look for reference later. It was all shot normally. There were background extras running through shots and nobody had (VFX) markers on them. Who were robots and who were real was all decided in post.”

Though the production timeline on the three films didn’t overlap, Corbould said, “A little part of me wishes that they were released over three years. But I’ll gladly take the three in one.”

Corbould is also grateful that his craft is still recognized under the banner of Best Visual Effects. “For a while we tried to get our own separate category, for practical effects. Because we thought there was a timeline for when practical effects would be phased out, but in the last five or six years, (practical effects) have come on stronger than ever. People realize that you can’t do everything with CGI, or it looks like a cartoon and audiences lose interest.”

That said, it didn’t make sense to Corbould that Christopher Nolan’s practical effects-heavy “Oppenheimer” wasn’t even longlisted for the category. “I was surprised by that, honestly. I thought that would get a clear nomination. It’s good that there were a few comments made about that.”

But as for the upcoming Oscars show, Corbould looks forward to the celebration. He laughed when recalling that he considered asking the Academy for three nominees’ worth of tickets to the ceremony. Instead, his plus-one will be his wife, Maria.

“I probably won’t win, you know, because that would be the irony of it,” he said, citing Murphy’s Law (a.k.a. Sod’s Law in England). “So let’s just have some fun. I’m going to really enjoy it.”

Jimmy Kimmel hosts the 96th Academy Awards, airing March 10 on ABC.

This story first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more of the issue here.

Down to the Wire, TheWrap Magazine - February 20, 2024
Illustration by Rui Ricardo for TheWrap


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