Thomas J. McLean is an AwardsLine contributor.

Although the visual-effects Oscar race has long been dominated by summer season superhero epics and action-heavy films, a subtle shift has been taking place over the last few years that makes predicting the outcome a little more challenging than it used to be. While visual-effects artists bring ever more realistic digital characters and environments to convincing life, the effects themselves have grown increasingly sophisticated, to the point that even insiders can’t always tell how an effect was done.

“It gets really difficult for someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time in this business analyzing what’s going on to actually know what they’re looking at on the screen and how it was created and what the level of achievement was that went into it,” says Joe Letteri, a four-time Oscar winner and contender for a fifth as visual-effects supervisor on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Throw in the fact that nearly every film has at least some visual effects, and the field of eligibility includes everything from Men In Black 3 to Silver Linings Playbook to Ted.

The Academy has responded by expanding the number of candidates for the finalists’ bake-off presentations and going to five nominees from three in 2010. Oscar-winning Industrial Light & Magic visual-effects supervisor John Knoll, whose credits include the Star Wars prequels and the Pirates Of The Caribbean series, says the expansion has been well-received. “We’re often one-third of the budget of a feature film these days,” Knoll says. “I think having a more substantial representation reflects the current state of movies.”

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The new procedural wrinkle is Oscar’s accelerated schedule, which saw bake-off films determined last week at meeting of the executive/steering committee — well in advance of such key Christmas releases as The Hobbit — and the bake-off moved up to January 3.

In addition to the compressed season that’s affecting every Oscar category, visual effects are no longer bound by genre. Of course, films like Marvel’s The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Amazing Spider-Man were clearly in the running, as is Prometheus and the highly anticipated The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. However, bake-off level support is expected for a wider range of films, from Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi and Cloud Atlas to Snow White And The Huntsman. The list of finalists announced last week added John Carter and Skyfall to the aforementioned eight films to arrive at 10 contenders to be winnowed down at the competitive bake-off to five Oscar nominees that will be announced January 10th.

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The steering/executive committee is headed by Craig Barron, who also represents the effects branch on the Board of Governors and is a renowned veteran matte painter. He says the easy-to-fill panel is made up of 40 active branch members with expertise in a wide range of disciplines, and the proceedings are open for discussion about the quality of the year’s visual effects, the innovations, and how things were done.

“We want our committee to point things out,” Barron says. “It’s important to know what’s going on, and we rely on our committee to discuss the innovations that are happening every year.”

Those innovations are increasingly technical, relating to more science underneath the creation of characters and environments. “There are still fairly significant advances going on, but they’re technical in a way that’s hard to understand in terms of what’s on the screen,” says Letteri.

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Knoll says high shot count is a weighting factor, but not as great a factor as it used to be. He cites The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s much-debated art film, which made it to last year’s bake-off on the strength of a few small sequences about the creation of the universe. “That had an actually relatively small shot count, but it was very skillfully executed and really beautiful,” Knoll says.

Tree of Life and last year’s winner, Hugo, illustrate the ways in which the Academy is recognizing effects work in movies that are not thought of as effects-driven. That’s not exactly new — the Academy has given effects Oscars to the likes of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Forrest Gump, for example — but the skillful use of effects in more films will diversify the race at all levels, boding well this year for more ambitious movies like Life of Pi and Cloud Atlas.

While genre also is a diminishing factor, eight-time Oscar-winning ILM effects supervisor Dennis Muren says sometimes it can be tough to stand out even with quantity and quality. “If you’re seeing a huge number of shots in a superhero movie, but it’s the third superhero movie that came out that summer, it’s going to be hard to be excited about it, because you’ve seen two other kinds of similar movies,” says Muren.

Similarly, there’s no direct correlation between box-office success and awards consideration, though it can be difficult to evaluate the technical aspects of a film’s effects completely divorced from its creative elements.

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Muren sums up a common opinion that the effects are there to serve the story and help create an emotional effect — the technical cannot be considered on its own. “Some films will not get nominated because the emotion was not there when you saw the shots, and it didn’t matter what the technology is at all,” says Muren.

Barron echoes that sentiment when it comes to considering blockbuster movies, which are successful at the boxoffice for a reason. “Films that are successful mean that whole package was successful in communicating its ideas to the public, and they responded by going to the theater,” says Barron. ”But whether one film makes more money than another isn’t a criteria that we use.”

Still, flopping at the box office is a huge obstacle to overcome for even the prettiest effects work. Witness the inability of Speed Racer to qualify for the bake-off, and the chances of seeing a film like John Carter make the cut seem increasingly remote. It’s not a be-all, end-all situation — Poseidon surprised everyone by earning a nomination in 2006, and The Golden Compass won in 2007 — meaning no one should be surprised by a bake-off appearance from Battleship.

The difficulty in judging effects is even greater once the nominees are set and the entire Academy membership is voting on the final result. “The general vote is not your peers, and that’s why I think the nomination retains a lot of value because it does come from your peers,” says Barron. “It’s our job to make sure that the five nominees, any one of them, are worthy of a visual-effects Oscar, that any one of those, the committee would be happy to see win.”