Acad’s Sci-Tech Oscars Raise the Bar On ‘Wow’

David Gray Dolby Theatre Oscar Science
Jordan Murph

From finding new ways to shoot the most adrenaline-infused car chases to taking exhibition audio into new frontiers, this year’s recipients of the Academy Scientific & Technical Awards are pushing the limits of cinema in every way they can.
These awards are sometimes called the Sci-Tech Oscars, but most honorees are given plaques or certificates, as opposed to the fabled statuettes. Only two of the awards come with actual Oscars and those nods aren’t given every year, though this year both will be presented.

The highest Sci-Tech Award — and one that comes with an Oscar — is the Academy Award of Merit. The award is designed to single out game-changing technology. This year Larry Hornbeck will receive the citation for his digital micromirror technology that powers DLP cinema projectors, now the standard throughout the industry. These micromirrors, 37 years in development, are used for “intelligently steering light” in order to help deliver bright, efficient HD projection.

In addition to honoring Hornbeck’s DLP work, the Academy is awarding Scientific and Engineering Awards to Brad Walker, D. Scott Dewald, Bill Werner, Greg Pettitt and Frank Poradish for their refinement of the Texas Instruments DLP Cinema projection technology that’s designed to give accurate color in both post-production and movie theaters. DLP cinema technology is now used on 117,000 screens worldwide.

Dolby executive David W. Gray, who started his audio career working with Frank Zappa, Steely Dan and the Kinks, will take home an Oscar as recipient of the Gordon E. Sawyer Award. This honor is designed as a kind of lifetime achievement award for someone whose contributions have “brought credit to the industry.” Gray has been a longtime collaborator with both filmmakers and engineers.

“Dolby Atmos is really the result of filmmakers saying to us that they wanted to be able to place a sound anywhere in space when their films are shown,” Gray says of the surround-sound technology inspired by artists who wanted to make their movies more immersive.

If you wondered how they got those shots of Ryan Gosling driving backward at shockingly high speeds in “Drive,” you’ve already seen the work of one of this year’s Technical Achievements Award winners. Camera car developer Allan Padelford and stunt coordinator Robert Nagle pulled audiences in with the Biscuit Jr., a rig that makes it possible for a stunt driver to operate a car from almost any position around the outside of the car — and to stay out of the view of the camera. The rig has a moveable pod that holds the stunt driver. For the scene in “Drive” the car body was flipped around so that it was backward while the pod was mounted so that the stunt driver would be driving forward.

Originally developed and named for the movie “Seabiscuit,” Padelford and Nagle wanted to develop a newer high performance rig to push the limits of what they’d done in the past.

“I want people to feel the rush, the adrenaline, the excitement of sitting where I’m sitting in these stunts,” says Nagle.
The Biscuit Jr.’s credits include “Thor,” “The Book of Eli,” “Cowboys & Aliens,” and this year’s “Jupiter Ascending.”

Iain Neil has already been recognized at the Sci-Tech Awards a dozen times, but this year he and Andre de Winter will be given a Scientific and Engineering laurel for the design of a lens series that’s helped reestablish a legendary company — Leica. The duo’s Summilux-C series lenses work with digital cameras especially well in tricky situations like trying to get the right skin tones while shooting actors and have firmly entrenched Leica’s place as a major player in the cinema lens marketplace. In the past few years alone, these lenses were used to shoot “The Theory of Everything,” “Birdman,” “Gone Girl,” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”

“I think there will be a time when we’re just using a lens and chip to shoot in the future,” says Neil of image capture.
Another innovation in camera and lens equipment, the Tiffen Co.’s development of dye-based filters that reduce infrared contamination with lenses of all focal lengths, has been recognized with an Academy Award of Commendation. Steven Tiffen, Jeff Cohen and Michael Fecik will take home the special plaque for pioneering filters that allow cinematographers to get the same results they once had with film-based technology. The filters have been widely adopted throughout the film industry and even used by NASA.

The Academy also recognized a cluster of teams who created software tools that can help filmmakers do what could be deadly, extremely expensive or simply impossible on set.

First designed after filmmakers came to ILM with requests for building demolition that could be carefully choreographed, the ILM PhysBAM Destruction System earned Brice Criswell and Ron Fedkiw a Technical Achievement Award. The software makes it possible to do multiple iterations of the destruction of a building so that filmmakers can stage the perfect big bang for their project without having to do multiple real-world explosions.

“In ‘Captain America: Winter Soldier’ there’s a scene we did where two heliocrafts are colliding into each other and then they collide into a building,” Criswell says. “We’re able to do art-directable destruction this way.”

The package has been used on “Transformers,” “Pacific Rim,” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”
Another ILM team — Cary Phillips, Nico Popravka, Philip Peterson and Colette Mullenhoff — has also been recognized with a Technical Achievement Award for the architecture, development and creation of the Industrial Light & Magic Shape Sculpting System.

This software has been key to transformation shots like Mark Ruffalo going green in “The Hulk” and the movement of Davy Jones’ face and beard in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.”

“The director often has very detailed instructions on how they’d like it to look (when a character transforms),” says Phillips. “And the skin is notoriously difficult to control. But this system allows us to keyframe the motion in a convenient way so that the believable look of the skin is the result.”

A Weta Digital team — Marco Revelant, Alasdair Coull and Shane Cooper — earned a Technical Achievement Award as well for the Barbershop hair-grooming system, which was used to coif the chimps in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”

Several years ago, team members realized their current internal software could take them only so far before artists were required to do a lot of technical work when dealing with hair. In order to free up their artists to be more creative for films like “The Adventures of Tintin” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” they needed something that could give their artists the tools of a hairdresser.

“There’s a combing tool that can allow you to lengthen and pull the hair out or pull through the hair like you’ve got a clump of gel in your hand,” Coull says. “We can also clone groups of hair so that the artist doesn’t have to do them over and over again, which was important for the most recent ‘Apes’ film where there were large groups of the apes.”

When DreamWorks Animation needed to find a tool that would allow artists to manipulate trees and foliage in a similar way for films like “Shrek” and “Madagascar,” one of their teams created a foliage package that gave their artists the freedom to create shrubbery in any fashion.

Films like “How to Train Your Dragon” required more realistic trees with specific kinds of details while movies like “Madagascar” asked for more whimsical background bushes.

Scott Peterson, Jeff Budsberg and Jonathan Gibbs have been acknowledged with a Technical Achievement Award for the DreamWorks Animation Foliage System, which gave artists great freedom without bogging them down with too much technical detail.

Another DreamWorks Animation team — Ken Museth, Peter Cucka and Mihai Alden — was recognized with a Technical Achievement Award for a system that makes it much easier for artists to deal with smoke, fire and mist.

The OpenVDB makes it possible for creators to make smaller, confined areas of these natural phenomena so that it’s possible to render the effects on a desktop machine instead of with something as robust and expensive as a supercomputer.
Because the software is so efficient, it’s possible to set up something like smoke to travel through a shot with certain wind parameters, using a fraction of the work and rendering time, according to Museth.

DreamWorks Animation collaborated — along with many other studios such as Pixar — to develop the HP DreamColor LP2480zx Professional Display. John Frederick, Bob Myers, Karl Rasche and Tom Lianza have earned a Scientific and Engineering Award for the monitor that fast became a crucial piece of equipment for feature animation and vfx studios.
Before this advanced LCD monitor hit the market, the industry standard was the CRT (cathode ray tube) monitor that gave artists gorgeous color. The monitors were phased out by manufacturers because they were too expensive to make and LCD was quickly taking over. So, HP set about working with the studios to create a professional grade LCD monitor.

The DreamColor monitors require much less downtime for calibration and were specifically made to be used by animation and vfx pros.

The Sony team of Ichiro Tsutsui, Masahiro Take, Mitsuyasu Tamura and Mitsuru Asano were also given a Scientific and Engineering Award for a monitor designed to be an alternative to CRT.

The Sony BVM-E Series Professional OLED Master Monitor was created to give high performance playback on set. This is the first display technology that doesn’t have any contrast limitations. The monitor can also display complete black and there are no viewing angle issues, which can be a problem with some LCD monitors.

All these developments might not seem that sexy in technical terms but they have reshaped the industry overall, and made possible those “how did they do that?” moments so crucial to the movies going forward.

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  1. There was no diversity in these winners. Only one woman and no people of color (Asians don’t count). Must be racist. Al Sharpton needs to have a protest about this.

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