Three Oscar statuettes, plus a slew of other plaques and certificates, were handed out at the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences annual Scientific & Technical Awards dinner Saturday night at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. This is the occasion where the Academy makes good on the word “sciences” in its name by recognizing achievements for technical innovation over the course of several years, even decades, that have proven to be of lasting value to the industry. In other words, as Academy President John Bailey noted in his introduction, this is not like that other “red carpet show over on Hollywood Boulevard,” but rather
one where the bigger question might be,”should we, in hindsight, have had a bakeoff between Dreamworks and Pixar Animation Studios over the Premo and the Presto
Animation Systems?” Although this was every bit the black tie affair that the Oscar show will be on March 4th, this one is, for lack of a better word, a lot more geeky. Indeed, the big winners were names like Dreamworks, Pixar, Industrial Light & Magic, Rhythm & Hues and others for such things as the BlockParty procedural rigging system, the Shotover K i Camera System, the Nuke compositing system, the Houdini visual effects and animation system, and the Hydrascope telescoping camera crane systems, to name a few of the honorees. All the winners were previously announced on Deadline, but the ceremony, hosted eloquently by Patrick Stewart, was still an entertaining affair, albeit suspense-free. The recipients, almost all men (we’re getting to that), were every bit as thrilled as anyone on the Dolby stage will be three weeks from today.
In fact, the big winner of the night took a shot at that “other show” in accepting the Oscar statuette as recipient of the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, and he did it right in front of Bailey, CEO Dawn Hudson, and many members of the Board Of Governors who attended last night’s ceremony. Jonathan Erland blasted what he called the “award-centric” nature of the Academy, all the while holding one of those most sought-after awards himself. The Sawyer is the equivalent of the Best Picture prize at these Sci-Tech ceremonies, and not one
bestowed often in the 86 year history of these honors. “Members (are) largely relegated to an award voting panel. The community is comprised of much of the best practitioners in the field of cinema. To waste the awesome potential of these resources is unconscionable. If we are to fulfill the dream that Fairbanks, Pickford and the other founders had for our art form, we must collectively re-assume more responsibility for our institution,” he said. Those words likely won’t warm the heart of ABC, which airs the Academy Awards, regularly the most-watched entertainment telecast of the year and one which pours millions into the Academy’s coffers. “In the middle of the last century, we became complicit in the black list, damaging people’s lives and tarnishing their reputation. I hope today we can stay focused on fostering the pursuit of excellence of cinema and let cinema itself be the agent of change in our society,” he added, his speech receiving strong applause. Make up your own mind if he might have been not-so- subtly referencing the Academy’s (and just about every Guild’s) recent moves into areas outside of cinema by instituting a code of personal conduct after their October expulsion of Harvey Weinstein. In any case, this was not the kind of talk you usually hear at the Sci Tech awards, and it threw food for thought and a provocative touch into a night where new underwater Chapman Cranes were expected to be among the hot topics of conversation.
Additionally, in this year of the woman in Hollywood, the normally all-male groups of winners at the Sci Tech Awards did have two significant winners who weren’t in a
tux. ILM’s Rachel Marie Rose shared an Academy Certificate for BlockParty with her male colleagues and took the occasion to make note of that fact. “To any young women watching and dreaming of their future career, I am proof that you can,” she said, and it would be nice if those words reached a bigger audience on the Academy Telecast, where this entire ceremony will be reduced to about 30 seconds of airtime. The only other woman on stage last night also made a bit of history with an extremely rare honor at any Oscar ceremony. Accepting an Academy Plaque for her part in developing the Nuke system, Abigail Brady, who is transgender, perhaps showed a little more of the wave of the future in this part of the male-dominated motion picture industry.
I would also give a big shout-out to whoever put together the various video packages that expertly explained all the techno strides being honored at awards, showing the innovations for a digital age continuing to take movies into previously uncharted territories. However, I thought it was most appropriate for Bailey, the first cinematographer to ever head the Academy, to throw in a nice tip of the hat to the past in an evening (chaired by Scientific and Technical Awards Committee Chair Ray Feeney) devoted to the future when he referenced the ever-changing methods of preservation. “Some of us might be presumptuous enough to ask, while waiting for these elusive visual solutions, that there is already a viable and long-standing preservation medium. Maybe you’ve heard about it? It’s called film,” he said. However, the applause he got after that remark didn’t stretch to the table of Sci Tech winners with whom I was sitting. When I asked the young techno wiz next to me, who earlier had told me he owes everything to his computer, what he thought about Bailey’s brief tribute to film, his answer wasn’t exactly supportive. “I wanted to boo. But I guess that wouldn’t have been a very good idea,” he smirked. Welcome to the future, folks.