Welcome to the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Scientific & Technical Awards which were handed out last night during a surprisingly entertaining ceremony at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I have been to just about every different conceivable kind of Academy function over the three decades I have been covering Oscars but this was my first time at this event which the Academy has been doing in one form or another since they started handing them out in the Oscars‘ fourth year, 1930-31. I guess I always thought this might be a rather dull sort of thing to sit through. I barely understand how to get my emails so imagine a ceremony that is all about honoring the ILM Plume System, the Flux gas simulation system, the Zeno application framework, a thesis on the fundamental concepts of deep shadowing technology, the design of the Pneumatic Car Flipper or the Flying-Cam SARAH 3.0 system? And that’s just for starters in a show that handed out a LOT of Technical Achievement certificates, Scientific and Engineering Plaques and even a couple of real Oscar statuettes toward the end of the evening (Peter W. Anderson won one of those as recipient of the Gordon E. Sawyer award this year). But there was a lot of spirit in the room and judging from the whoops and hollers that went for five guys in tuxedos going up to accept for the development of the ASC Color Decision List technology you’d think they just won Best Picture. “When I was a kid nobody told me if I wanted to win an Academy Award I should study mathematics,” one winner said wryly. Like I said this was an entertaining evening, particularly considering the geek factor. And the clips were great too, going a long way to shedding light on just what these unheralded wizards do for the movie industry.
Of course very little of it will actually make its way to the big March 2nd Oscar show but highlights will be shown briefly and the hosts of the Sci-Tech awards, Michael B. Jordan and Kristen Bell will turn up to introduce them. The pair ably made their way through all the complicated names of the honorees and their even more complex creations. At one point during dinner I noticed a flock of young girls who were probably less interested in the award their dads were getting and more in getting a photo with Bell who of course is the voice of Anna in Frozen. During a break Jordan told me they only had one rehearsal. “This is fun. They’re all winners in this room,” he said. And of course they all knew they were winners in advance. I sat at the Deep Compositing table where one recipient, Chris Cooper (not the actor) told me he and his wife flew in all the way from their home in Sydney, Australia. They had been on the Universal Studios Tour earlier in the day. Don’t think they learned much about Deep Compositing there but their talents have been put to work on a number of movies probably mentioned on the Glamour Tram. Another, Janne Kontkanen and his wife only had to come from San Francisco. Fortunately these guys (not a single female winner in this male-dominated part of the business) all got to thank those wives by the way. Forget about it on the Oscars where those who dwell below-the-line only get 45 seconds and one spokesperson per group. Here everyone got their say. And a few were better at speeches than some of the people reading off endless names on lists that we are likely to see on March 2nd. “I’d like to thank SATAN, otherwise known as the Scientific And Technical Academy Nominaters,” cracked one winner.
Checking it all out were Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, producers again of this year’s Academy Awards. They are big proponents of the event and were particularly happy to have Bell and Jordan host it. “I think Michael B. Jordan is a real live-wire. He’s going to be great,” said Meron. Of course Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs was on hand and opened the show with effects wizard Richard Edlund who chairs the committee. Isaacs praised the year-round efforts of the Scientific and Technical Council and said, “the Academy from its earliest days has been committed to the advancement of technology and to recognizing individuals who have made major contributions to science and technology in cinema. Tonight we are here to recognize your accomplishments and to celebrate the extraordinary innovations you’ve brought to the industry”. There were several Academy Governors on hand too including Fox Searchlight co-President Nancy Utley who told me she was excited to receive the 13 disc set the Academy sent to all members containing Documentary Feature, Foreign Language Film and Shorts Oscar nominees. “There is no excuse now not to vote in these categories but the sheer volume probably means ballots will be coming in late in the process,” she said.
Although, other than Bell and Jordan, there were no celebrity presenters. Director Christopher Nolan did turn up to honor “all those who built and operated film laboratories for over a century of service to the motion picture industry”. Nolan is still a big proponent of film in this emerging digital age so it was bittersweet to see him deliver an award that was a tip of the hat to the past. Film is dead. Long live film. Although there were said to be about 50 reps from film labs in the audience this was more a symbolic award, the first of its kind for this ceremony. The actual statuette will eventually be display at the Academy Museum Of Motion Pictures which is slated to open in 2017.
Considering this a room full of technology geniuses, Ofer Alon’s revelation that he has never used Twitter was rather shocking. The winner of a plaque for the design and implementation of the ZBrush software tool for multi-resolution sculpting of digital models said, “I’ve never tweeted in my life but this would be a great reason to do one now”. Indeed.