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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Five Oscar Wins That Shaped the Movies

Looking back at the history of the Academy Awards, there were five Oscar wins that were central to the evolution of the motion picture industry, changing the way movies are made by directors and experienced by audiences.

Technological innovation, in my opinion, not only created the movies, but insured that the art form would remain an important part of American culture over more than a century.

So, in chronological order.

1. At the very first Academy Awards ceremony, held in 1929, Warner Bros. received a special award for producing 'The Jazz Singer,' "which has revolutionized the industry." 'The Jazz Singer' wasn't the first time anyone tried to add sound to motion pictures (see Phonofilm and the Kinetophone, for instance), and the movie still relied on title cards. But its success convinced Hollywood that audiences wanted to hear actors talk -- and sing.

Al Jolson "Blue Skies" The Jazz Singer 1927

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(Video: Al Jolson singing 'Blue Skies' to his Mammy.)

2. A decade later, in 1939, 'Gone with the Wind' won the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Art Direction. While it wasn't the first movie made in Technicolor (Disney had first used the three-strip Technicolor process for an earlier Oscar winner, the animated short 'Flowers and Trees') it represented the "tipping point," when mainstream Hollywood was finally convinced that shifting to color production made sense.

(Video: Rhett puts the moves on Scarlett.)

3. Movie soundtracks were recorded in mono for most of the 20th century. Walt Disney tried to bring more depth and nuance to the theatrical experience with 'Fantasia' in 1940, using multi-channel sound for the first time in a commercial release. (As many as 54 speakers were installed in some theaters, with the soundtrack recorded optically onto a second strip of film that ran in sync with the picture.) While Disney won an honorary Academy Award certificate for "outstanding contribution to the advancement of the use of sound in motion pictures through the production of Fantasia" in 1942, it was another 35 years before stereo sound at the movies became truly widespread, with the introduction of Dolby Stereo soundtracks in the late 1970s.

(Video: Part of the 'Rite of Spring' dinosaur sequence.)

4. Here's a movie few people remember: 1953's 'The Robe,' starring Richard Burton. It won two minor Oscars, and was nominated for Best Picture and Best Cinematography. 'The Robe' was the first feature released in Fox's CinemaScope widescreen format. While other widescreen movies also won Oscars (like the Cinerama release 'Around the World in Eighty Days', in 1957), it was the CinemaScope format the persuaded most theater owners to leave behind the square old Academy ratio and start showing widescreen releases (in part because CinemaScope was a less-expensive system than others, and in part because of Fox's salesmanship). The transition to majestic widescreen in the 50s and 60s also helped Hollywood remain relevant as Americans were installing televisions in their living rooms.

(Video: A fanfare for Caligula.)

5. 'Star Wars: Episode IV' wasn't the very first movie to incorporate a computer-generated visual effects shot (a wire-frame animation of the Death Star's architecture), but it was the first to win an Oscar: Best Visual Effects, along with five others. The 1977 blockbuster heralded the arrival of digital tools for crafting objects, characters, and environments that look real (but aren't quite.) George Lucas' and Richard Edlund's pioneering use of computers in 'Star Wars' led to not just 'Tron,' 'Titanic,' and 'Lord of the Rings,' but also 'Toy Story' and 'Shrek.'

(Video: Original 'Star Wars' trailer.)

I know I've left out plenty of other significant wins (such as 'Lawrence of Arabia,' which used an innovative, custom-built lens from Panavision; 'The English Patient,' the first movie edited digitally to win the Best Editing Oscar; and dozens of important Science and Technology Oscars), but these are my votes for the milestone Oscars, from a CinemaTech point-of-view.

I'm eager to hear what you think...

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