Thomas J. McLean is an AwardsLine contributor.

Gravity Oscars vfxExpect Gravity to be as powerful and inevitable a force in the visual-effects category at this year’s Oscars as, well, gravity. Offering more than just snazzy visuals — about 95% of what’s on screen is digital — Gravity’s visual-effects supervisor Tim Webber fulfilled many artists’ dreams by working from the start with director Alfonso Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to completely embed the effects into the storytelling and filmmaking process.

The space drama also has some serious cachet as a more artistic use of effects — a quality Academy voters have AwardsLinerewarded recently with trophies for Life of Pi, Hugo and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. With Gravity offering a seemingly irresistible complete package, it looks as if the other nine Academy short-list contenders will just have to aspire to impress the effects branch enough at the Jan. 9 bake-off to score one of five Oscar nominations on Jan. 16.

In addition to Gravity, the short list includes Elysium, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, The Lone Ranger, Oblivion, Star Trek Into Darkness, Thor: The Dark World, Pacific Rim and World War Z. The most obvious question about the list is: How did the year’s highest-profile boxoffice dud, The Lone Ranger, make the cut and Man of Steel did not?

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The-Lone-Ranger-2013-e1349266452792Despite its critical drubbing, those who know visual effects knew there was more to The Lone Ranger than meets the eye. In particular, the hundreds of shots using digitally created vistas of the Old West that were convincing enough to fool anyone into thinking they were seeing the real thing. Combine that with the pedigree of director Gore Verbinski’s films in this category — two noms and one win for his three Pirates of the Caribbean films — and it becomes less of a mystery. The omission of Man of Steel is harder to suss out, as the effects work in the film was extensive and impressive. From Superman’s digital cape and all the Kryptonian costumes, to the world of Krypton itself and the detailed mass destruction of the final battle — it all adds up to an impressive visual-effects feat.

Of the films that are most likely to make the final five, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is at the top of the list. Director Peter Jackson and his Weta Digital comrades have an enviable track record in this category, having scored a victory for each of the three The Lord of the Rings features and King Kong, in addition to a nom last year for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

smaugThe Desolation of Smaug is a big improvement on the first film in the Hobbit series in more ways than one. The effects work on the dragon Smaug is exemplary and exciting, and it comes on top of an extensive battle scene with giant spiders and a whitewater barrel chase that has reminded everyone why Lord of the Rings was so fun in the first place.

Since box office results are increasingly a nonfactor in the race, the work ILM did for Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is another sure bet. The giant robots-fighting-monsters tale underwhelmed at the cash register, but has all the earmarks of an expensive cult hit thanks in large part to the incredible detail ILM put into the robots themselves. VFX supervisor John Knoll and his team innovated the computer pipeline by switching to ray-tracer technology; it allowed artists to work more quickly with the trade-off being longer render times. The pure geek spectacle that resulted is sure to elicit plenty of support from the effects branch voters.

Historical patterns also suggest strong showings for Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness. Both film series have previous nominations, though no wins, and both deliver “wow”-moment visual effects: Iron Man 3 with the all-digital destruction of Tony Stark’s Malibu home and a thrilling skydive rescue; and Star Trek with volcanic lava, a starship emerging from under water and plenty of space chases and battles.

World War Z oscars vfxThree films could play spoiler in this mix. World War Z’s hordes of digital zombies are impressively menacing and convincing, as are the scenes of decay they caused. Oblivion delivers an especially inviting world of sleek sky-homes set amidst an alien-provoked evacuation of the entire planet. On the flip side is Elysium, which used practical effects such as miniatures to render the manufactured orbiting planet of Elysium and Earth circa 2154.

No matter which films make the cut, the big question remains whether any of the other four nominated films can escape the inevitable pull Gravity appears to have on Academy voters. Will a film stage an upset victory when the Oscars are finally handed out March 2?