Ceremony gets facelift with new format, venue, producer

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences handed out its Scientific & Technical Awards Saturday night with a new venue, a revamped format and an outside producer overseeing the evening for the first time.

Producer David T. Friendly took the reins of the show this year, becoming the first outside producer to handle the Acad’s tech kudos. “What I wanted to do was pay homage to these guys,” he told Variety. “These are the unheralded heroes of the business.” One of Friendly’s first decisions was a change of venue, from the vast main ballroom at the Beverly Wilshire to the smaller but more elegant Crystal Ballroom at the Beverly Hills hotel.

“I felt the Beverly Hills Hotel is classic, and the Academy has certain classic characteristics.” said Friendly. “It’s a perfect match for an event like this that deserves to be elevated.”

Acad prexy Hawk Koch started the evening with welcome remarks and introduced a 4 1/2 minute compilation reel, produced by Dann Netter, saluting the contributions of visual effects, sound and other tech fields to cinema. “Without the science… without the technology, there is no art,” said title cards during the reel. Friendly said the Acad intends to post the short on their website.

Friendly put a greater emphasis on clips throughout the evening. Co-hosts Chris Pine and Zoe Saldana were introduced with a never-before-seen trailer for their upcoming “Star Trek Into Darkness.” Each presentation was accompanied by behind-the-scenes footage and/or movie clips showing it in use. Friendly, who has no science or technology background, had reviewed tapes of previous Sci-Tech presentations and wanted to make the presentation easier for non-experts to follow. “I’m the first to tell you that I don’t have a good grasp of what (the Sci-Tech honorees) do,” he said. “So I wanted to do the best job we could of explaining the awards in simple language and also making it an entertaining evening.”

Pine and Saldana still had some struggles with the jargon, as all Sci-Tech hosts do, but were answered with warm applause after soldiering through denser sections. Saldana gave a shout-out to Weta Digital during the first presentation, to three of its software engineers for Tissue Physically-Based Character Simulation Framework. “It’s an ‘Avatar’ thing,” she said with a grin. Several honorees expressed appreciation for not just getting their awards, but for getting them from “Captain Kirk” and “Uhura.” “What’s more glamorous than the crew of the Starship Enterprise?” said Steve LaVietes, accepting kudos for Sony Imageworks’ Katana scene management and lighting software.

Matt Cordner, an honoree for the Pose Space Deformation technique for CG animation, thanked the Academy for honoring such work, saying “It’s like a beautiful duet between two of the most defining aspects of the human experience, engineering and art.”

For the first time, the actual Academy Award presentations were split into three “Acts,” one following the salad course of the banquet, another following the entrĂ©e, and the last following dessert. The breaks allowed guests to get photos with the giant Oscars onstage and in the bar area — and for honorees’ children to get autographs from Pine and Saldana.

One of the highlights of the night came at the end of Act I, when Richard Mall received his Technical Achievement Award for the design and development of the Matthews Max Menace Arm. “I kind of just built something in my garage, but it had a useful purpose,” he said. But as his voice cracked, he admitted “I”m emotional because as a key grip for 36 years, if Isee a camera in front of me I’m in the wrong place.”

Another emotional moment came near the end of evening. Visual effects expert Bill Taylor received the Bonner Medal for his longtime service to the Academy. Taylor used much of his acceptance speech to praise his mentors, especially Petro “Pete” Vlahos, whose patents and innovations included bluescreen, greenscreen and the foundations of compositing, and who himself is a previous winner of several Sci-Techs and the service medal. Then Taylor revealed that Vlahos “has reached the end of his journey,” drawing a sad murmur from the crowd of pros. Later he explained to Variety that Vlahos had suffered a massive stroke and was removed from life support earlier in the week. His death is imminent.

The entertainment portion of the Sci-Tech Awards presentation had evolved over the last decade from lounge acts to prestigious musicians (last year the duo from “Once” reunited for a set, including their Oscar-winning “Falling Slowly”). Friendly decided to dispense with it altogether. “We’re going to watch the Oscars in a couple of weeks, the Grammys are tomorrow night, the Oscars are in a couple of weeks. People are not really coming here to see entertainment,” he said. He did, however, upgrade the band at the event. Tom Rainer led an ensemble of musicians who play in the Oscars orchestra. The band’s saxophone player got a salute for playing in every Oscars ceremony since 1958.

Cooke Optics received a rare Academy Award of Merit, i.e., an Oscar statuette, for 127 years of lens design and innovation. So ubiquitous are Cooke lenses that many Hollywood films are said to have “the Cooke look.”

Overall, the revamped Sci-Techs were a hit, though some said they missed the entertainment. The shorter program, however, meant the banquet ended around 10:00 p.m., early enough for Cooke Optics to host an after-party upstairs in the bar, where revelry continued well into the night.

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