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Sunday, February 19, 2006

A dispatch from the other Oscars: the Academy's Sci-Tech Awards

Thanks to Academy prez Sid Ganis, I had a chance to go to the Scientific and Technical Awards last night at the Beverly Hilton. Though it’s black tie, it’s a much more relaxed event than the Oscars that will take place on March 5th: it begins with a cocktail hour, then moves into a ballroom for dinner and the award presentations. (A few of my snapshots from the awards are here.)

Though there were cameras from Access Hollywood, CNN, and Entertainment Tonight stationed near the entrance, there weren’t many recognizable celebrity faces in the crowd. About the only person I could identify was Pixar president Ed Catmull, and only because I’d met him once before. The guy sitting next to me at Table 25, J. Walt Adamczyk, said he could pick out Richard Edlund, the effects guru who’s currently chairman of the Sci-Tech awards committee. Gil Cates, who produces the televised Oscar show, was also in the audience.

(J. Walt also showed me a little paper card he’d received, notifying him that there’d be a member of the press at each winner’s table. He joked that he’d been trying to figure out who the mole was. Well, it was me.)

All the award winners knew beforehand that they’d won, so there wasn’t much tension in the room, or forcing a smile if you’d lost. All the winners – including J. Walt and two other folks at my table (Alvah Miller and Michael Sorensen) – wore a red rose pinned to their lapels.

Ganis opened with an oblique joke about the Cinea DVD players that were sent to every member of the Academy so they could view nominated films on a specially-encrypted DVD that will only play on a registered Cinea player. Members have been slow to install these players, and not all studios distribute their screeners yet on Cinea-encoded DVDs. But Ganis said that it was “a giant leap forward” that “75 percent of all Academy members figured out how to take their DVD player out of the box. Time marches on and technology marches on.”

A string of film clips from movies like “The Hot Chick,” “Wedding Crashers,” and “The Family Stone” introduced the evening’s host, Rachel McAdams. She came up to the plexiglass podium, and joked that the audience was probably more familiar with her work as a scientist, though she had recently abandoned her work on cold fusion. “It was just too cold,” she said.

Stuntman Scott Leva received the first award for his Precision Stunt Airbag, which can safely pull in stuntment who leap onto it, even if they don’t hit the airbag square in the center. Leva said that he was sorry his friend Paul Dallas wasn’t around to see him receive the award. (Dallas was killed in 1996 doing a high fall for a television series). He also thanked the folks at Cirque du Soleil – who I presume use his airbags.

A band of Germans from Cinelux came up to aceept the award for their projector lenses, and then Technicolor got an award for a new system to produce answer prints. One of the Technicolor guys quoted Walt Disney: “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” He said, “Hopefully, we can continue to do the impossible, and have fun doing it.” He also thanked “all the naysayers. I love a challenge.” Another of the Technicolor group thanked “all of these guys [at Technicolor] for giving film a few more years of life.” (It was tough to tell who was who, since not everyone said who they were as they started their thank-yous.)

Catmull got an award, along with two researchers, Tony deRose (of Pixar) and Jos Stam (of Alias/Wavefront/Autodesk), for their work on subdivision surfaces, which help companies like Pixar make skin (and other surfaces) look smoother and more realistic. DeRose said he was on “a mission to show kids how cool math and science can be…[and] this award will help get that message across.”

When McAdam gave out the next award, for elastically-deformable models (which led to more realistic computer-animated cloth), recipient John Platt said, “I’d like to thank Rachel, because now my Kevin Bacon number has been radically reduced to three.” He also thanked his neighbors for watching his kids. (Platt’s acceptance speech was about as funny as it got last night. My seatmate, Xeni Jardin of NPR and, and I cringed through a fifteen-minute ventriloquist routine that opened the show.)

There was another award for software to simulate cloth in animated films, and three awards for remotely-controlled cameras hung from cables that could move around in three dimensions: Skycam, Cablecam, and Spydercam. Garrett Brown, the inventor of Skycam (and, before that, Steadicam) said that he’d initially created the system in 1983, using an Osborne portable computer and a 1200-baud modem. He quipped that he was wearing digital cloth. “Would you like to see white tie?” he asked, pressing some imaginary buttons on his lapel.

Then there were a series of awards for remote-controlled camera mounts that let camera operators put their cameras in all kinds of places where they wouldn’t want to go: the Sparrow Head (used on vehicles), the Aerohead, and the Hot-Head, forerunner of them all. Gary Thieltges, inventor of the Sparrow Head, said he started its development by writing down a list of shots he’d never seen before, that no piece of equipment could do.

David Grober accepted the award for his Perfect Horizon camera stabilization head, which allows camera operators to take perfectly level shots, even if they’re on a boat in rolling waves, by compensating for any motion. Grober said he was “hoping for a remake of `Lawrence of Arabia.’ I want to take the Perfect Horizon and mount it on a camel…and the image will be perfectly stable… I promise.”

Two camera cranes, the Russian Arm and the Cascade, both won awards. The Russian Arm is designed to go atop an SUV and allow it to travel at high-speeds over any kind of terrain; the Cascade is a crane that can take a camera up to 70 feet.

Sound editor Don Hall, who worked on movies like "MASH," "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," “Bridge Over the River Kwai,” and “Young Frankenstein,” was awarded the John Bonner medal.

Computer graphics researcher Gary Demos was the one person all night to receive an actual Oscar statuette (everyone else had gotten plaques or certificates of merit). “It is heavy,” were his first words on the stage. Demos’ early work showed up in movies like “Tron” and “Futureworld”; more recently, he has been working on new approaches to image compression. “I like scientific challenges,” he said, “the harder the better. When they’re considered impossible, that really gets me interested.”

His words could definitely serve as the motto for the entire sci-tech community in Hollywood: tackling impossible challenges, the harder the better.

That was really the end of the ceremony, though McAdam did tape a very brief intro that’ll be aired during the “real” Oscars on March 5th, and as attendees filed out of the ballroom, the winners gathered for a group photo.