Stuff of history

The Scientific & Technical Awards. Boring! Every year when the winners in these categories are announced on the Oscarcast, it’s about as exciting as a seventh-inning stretch. Viewers run for the bathroom, the channel changer and the refrigerator.

And yet, once you get past the technological verbiage, it’s clear that these awards truly demonstrate “the history of the film industry,” as Richard Miller, awards administrator for The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences so aptly put it.

The advancement of the film art–and these breakthroughs–are inextricably intertwined, especially in an era where special effects are ubiquitous, even in films which don’t seem to have any special effects (not noticing them is part of the art).

For instance, crowds can be laid into a film seamlessly. Computers can generate animated images that simulate live-action camera techniques (remember the ballroom sequence in “Beauty and the Beast?”). Special lenses and lighter cameras and high-speed films have all enhanced the look and fluidity of film photography. Magnetic enhancements have greatly improved sound. Some of these achievements are more accessible than others (at least to the public). Others come into play only in post-production. But each has advanced the actual making of motion pictures.

The Scientific & Technical Awards, first handed out in 1930, were an important part of the Academy’s annual banquet. Not un-coincidentally, five of the seven awards handed out in that year in technical achievement were for sound advances. And, if one follows the progress of motion pictures through the next six decades, these awards are always in close correlation to every visual and aural enhancement in the industry.

Virtually every major step made in film stock, sound, effects and format–aspects that have come to be taken for granted–have been honored at the recommendation of the Scientific & Technical Awards Committee over the years.

But that’s not as true today because at a certain point, as Miller points out , the advances themselves became star attractions. “It was the special effects of ‘Star Wars’ that blew audiences away, not the acting. And it was engineers who developed them,” he says.

Some of this year’s awards–there

are three classifications, Award of Merit (an Oscar), Scientific & Engineering award (plaque) and Technical Achievement Award (certificate)–definitely hit a recognition button with audiences, and are definitely not boring.

In particular, morphing, a digital tool for special effects that first came to prominence in “Terminator 2”– you know, where the android policeman blows apart and comes back together again. It’s probably the most memorable aspect of that film and the Academy will be honoring those who contributed to its development.

As breakthrough piles upon breakthrough, the process of honoring these achievements has become more daunting, says Miller. Since various improvements are being worked on simultaneously by different companies, some of them outside the United States, the culling process is arduous. That’s true not only because the Academy wants to be sure it honors all significant achievements, but because as technology accelerates, it’s easy to bypass or overlook the pioneers and innovators of a particular advancement.

In the early days of filmmaking it took the original Sci-Tech committee of nine people about 10 days to reach a decision. “Now it’s a year-long, worldwide process. The main committee has 42 people. And there are nine sub-committees of 15 people each,” he says.

The main committee is chaired by Don Rogers, who explains that while only 26 of the committee men and women are actual Academy members, all are experts in such areas of the industry as cinematography, opticals, special effects, camera manufacturing and animation.

Every year in June the Academy sends out canvas letters to companies around the world–any company involved in cameras, sound, lighting, visual effects or other technologies–asking for submissions.

One of the main criteria is that the devices entered be in active use in the industry.

That explains, for instance, why morphing is being honored this year, when most are already familiar with the technique. It’s that very familiarity that breeds recognition and confirms its importance as a filmmaking tool.

This is where Rogers and Edmund DiGiulio’s roles take prominence. As chairman and vice-chairman of the Sci-Tech committee, they supervise the process of winnowing down the entries, the wishers and hopers from the doers.

Rigorous process

Last year, they received 55 applications and considered about 24 or 25 of them. “It’s a rigorous process,” says DiGiulio, who is a winner this year for the design of the CP-65 Showscan Camera System. “I applied like everybody else and when it came time for the vote, I got out of the room,” he laughs.

“There’s no more dedicated committee than ours,” says Rogers. “They do a thorough job and they’re real picky.”

Sub-committees spend the next few months considering the entries in their particular areas of expertise and then meet in September. By that time they’ve eliminated any submissions that are not unique or otherwise invalid. Among the submissions that are strongly being considered, an effort is made to search out other possible contributors.

This was true with the 65mm camera submission this year by Panavision (it was prominently used in Universal’s “Far and Away”). The committee decided to also honor Cinema Products’ 65mm camera for Showscan.

Further consideration continues until late October or early November, at which time devices are demonstrated for the Academy committees. If the devices are not portable, the committee or surrogates visit the facility and report back. After the sub-committees have made their recommendations, the main committee meets in December to vote, based not only on their own recommendations , but the live demostrations and the sub-committees’ decisions.

Final recommendations are arrived at by secret ballot and a two-thirds vote is necessary to warrant recognition.

The main committee’s decisions are presented to the Board of Governors in January (Rogers is also a member of that board) and the awards are announced soon thereafter. Rogers, committee chairman for eight years, says that the board hardly, if ever, rejects the committee’s recommendations.

The rare quibble may come if the board is asked to provide an upgrade to an award. According to Miller, in some cases an achievement that has been cited by certificate is later considered for a plaque or an actual Oscar. The reason usually has to do with its wide acceptance in the industry. The Nagra sound recorder was one such upgrade, the Fisher boom was another.

Like the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and the Irving Thalberg Award, the Sci-Tech area has its own special Oscar of recognition, the Gordon E. Sawyer Award (Sawyer was, for many years, head of the sound department at Samuel Goldwyn Studios).

This award, not necessarily given each year, is designated to honor “someone who has spent his life adhering to high standards of technology,” says Rogers.

Perhaps the best known past winner was Ray Harryhausen who was honored for his technical work in creating special effects–he was a pioneer in stop-motion photography. This year’s winner, Erich Kaestner, was the chief engineer for Arnold & Richter, the parent company for Arriflex, from 1930 until his retirement in 1974.

Lest anyone forget, says DiGiulio, “it’s the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. We’re the guys who make it possible for movies to work, especially today when our contributions are critical.”

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