New Orleans is 8,870 miles from Mumbai, India, as the crow flies.
The Academy Award nominees for best picture set in those cities - “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Slumdog Millionaire” - are a world apart as well. There are three other contenders for best picture - “The Reader,” “Milk” and “Frost/Nixon” - but these two films have advantages the others do not.
Which road will Oscar take? ‘Benjamin Button,' ‘Slumdog' travel on two distinct paths
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton, Elle Fanning, Julia Ormond, Jason Flemying, Elias Koteas, Jared Harris
Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandan
Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan
The effects- and star-driven “Benjamin Button,” in which Brad Pitt plays a man born old who ages in reverse, has all the nominations money can buy - 13, the most of any film this year. And the zeitgeist-tapping “Slumdog,” about an impoverished youth in the slums of India, has a sense of global diversity, a road-less-taken populism and a string of pre-Oscar awards from film industry groups that are the equivalent of primary wins by an insurgent presidential candidate.
While the two films share themes about finding love, and each has a time-shifting structure, they are like two paths diverged in the woods.
Which one Oscar voters choose will be revealed Feb. 22 when the awards are announced. But like their characters, who travel parallel paths that do not intersect (until they do), they represent antithetical trends in the business and culture of film.
While each is emotionally resonant in its own way, “Slumdog” offers more tears for the buck. In fact, the discrepancy in their budgets is shocking: The reported $15 million cost of “Slumdog,” directed by Danny Boyle, is just one-tenth of the reported $150 million cost of “Benjamin Button,” directed by David Fincher. Both directors also were nominated for an Oscar.
What “Benjamin Button” delivers for that kind of money are seamless special effects by technologies that were invented for the occasion.
“There’s a reason this hasn’t been done before,” said Eric Barba, the film’s visual effects supervisor.
Barba, who received an Oscar nomination for his work on the film, was fresh from London, where “Benjamin Button” received the visual effects award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and where the contest with “Slumdog” is perceived as “Hollywood vs. British independent film.”
“They were not at all abashed about being biased” in favor of ‘Slumdog,’” he said. The film won the BAFTA award for best picture.
In a phone interview last week, Barba patiently described the dizzying array of technologies developed over several years that were used to integrate Pitt’s head and face onto aged versions of his character being played by other actors. These included: silicone life masks of different ages, created by Rick Baker and digitally scanned; “skin shaders,” “created to explain to the computer how lighting and skin work”; and “contour,” in which 28 cameras filmed Pitt, wearing phosphorescent green makeup, while he “basically gave a performance,” which was then used to create a database of his facial gestures. (An informative video of the process is posted at www.benjaminbuttonfx.com.)
For 52 minutes and through a series of 325 effects, the character is 100 percent computer-generated onto another actor’s body. Counting subtle “youthening” shots involving Cate Blanchett, there are about 1,200 visual effects in the film.
“Thank God,” Barba said, “Slumdog Millionaire” didn’t also get an Oscar nomination for visual effects.
“I’m very happy about that,” he joked, because he did not have to compete with it.
But technology made “Slumdog” possible as well.
In a recent phone conversation, Boyle, the film’s director, credited “these small digital cameras” that allowed his crew to prowl the streets of Mumbai relatively unobserved.
The cameras, he said, “are incredibly flexible and dynamic and able to capture motion that you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to get because the slums are narrow and restricted places.” They also created an intimacy, spontaneity and organic reality that distinguished the film and help explain its success.
“So many films are foisted upon us,” said film critic Leonard Maltin, who has a show on ReelzChannel TV and will cover the Oscars for “Entertainment Tonight.” “But every year one or two films” - like “Slumdog” - “slip through as sleepers. Largely by word of mouth. And audiences like that feeling of finding that film.”
Maltin said the visual effects and star-powered pedigree of “Benjamin Button” “shouldn’t be marks against it. But Hollywood is always looking for a sure thing, and usually those sure things are built on a belief in formula and repetition, while the films that people respond to the most are original.”
Boyle’s reputation for originality is the result of a diverse body of work, from the heroin film “Trainspotting” to the plague-themed allegory “28 Days Later.”
“I have this provocative theory that your first film is your best film because there’s an innocence about it,” Boyle said. “You don’t know what you’re doing and have to work your way out of it.”
His genre-hopping is, in a sense, a way to make each new film the first. Boyle said he had never been to India before making “Slumdog,” “and nothing prepares you for it. I got the sense quite quickly that ... there was no way you were going to ... get normal things like control of continuity” while filming, or fashion what you found into what you wanted.
“You were going to have to let the place take over the film, which we did. It was alarming at times. But if you trust it” what you end up with “more than compensates for the finer details of filmmaking you might be worried about.”
Controversy flared when anonymous sources charged that the children who appeared in “Slumdog” were exploited - something the filmmakers, who are paying for the younger actors’ educations, strongly deny. Others suggested the film demonstrated a cultural naivete and filtered its story through a Western perspective.
“Slumdog” is very reminiscent of other Hollywood movies that tend to show India as a poor and violent country “in need of help,” said Ananda Mitra, a professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and author of “India Through the Western Lens.”
Too, Mitra said, the film recycles melodramatic conventions from Bollywood films popular in the region. A scene where a train pulls away and a little girl is left behind “has been done over and over again. As I was watching it, I thought, ‘How much more Bollywood can you get?’”
Mitra acknowledged that “Slumdog” “does do some positive things” for an American audience “ignorant of world affairs and how the world outside the U.S. looks. In this sense, it is good.”
Kamal Shah of Mequon, Wis., who was raised in Mumbai and moved to the United States in 1967, reacted more positively.
“I have seen many of these slum areas personally,” said Shah, president of the Wisconsin Coalition of Asian Indian Organizations.
And while the plot was exaggerated, Shah said, the film does present “a realistic picture of that lifestyle.”
Even “Benjamin Button” visual effects supervisor Barba acknowledged that “Slumdog” is “an amazing film.”
But any momentum it has developed may be misleading, Maltin warned.
While awards for “Slumdog” by the Screen Actors Guild, Writers Guild of America and other groups suggest that the film is the favorite to win the Oscar for best picture, Maltin noted that such groups are much larger than the voting members in the same branches in the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.
And, he said, the 13 Oscar nominations for “Benjamin Button” suggests that “every branch of the academy responded to it strongly.
“It’s a tremendous show of support,” he said. “It’s not to be written off lightly. It may even be the winner.”
“But I do think,” he added, “people have an emotional connection and response to ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’”
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Slumdog Millionaire” have pros and cons in their quest for the Oscar for best picture.
“Benjamin Button”: Movie star, seamless effects, most nominations
“Slumdog”: Awards momentum, underdog appeal, organic style
“Benjamin Button”: Massive budget, formulaic story, Hollywood slickness
“Slumdog”: No actor nominees, alleged exploitation, Western prism