The Sci-Tech Awards genuinely acknowledge the most invisible aspects of filmmaking. Often the artists, engineers and scientists who receive these trophies invented technologies a decade or more before they receive an honor; it simply takes that long to see the impact of their invention.
This year we take a look at several of the achievements being honored. Chances are you’ve already watched dozens of scenes that benefitted from these advances.
If you’ve seen Laika’s “Boxtrolls,” “Coraline” or “ParaNorman,” then you’ve seen the use of rapid prototyping for character animation in stop-motion film production, which earned Brian McLean and Martin Meunier a Scientifiic and Engineering Award. In this process, multiple parts of a handcrafted puppet’s face are replaced in order to make it appear as though it’s moving. These pieces are 3D-printed in the prototyping process. First, handcrafted puppets are made and then scanned. They’re brought into Maya, an animation and modeling program used to do 3D full-motion VFX, for detailing, where many of the qualities of the puppet are overstated to counterbalance the softening impact 3D printing will have later. Stop-motion animators and CG animators work together to choose facial poses, which are then 3D-printed and brought to the set.
Because these passes are done in the computer first, it’s possible to make minor adjustments or scale up or down with much greater ease. “What used to mean that sculptor would have to start over from the beginning now just means we adjust things slightly — like making the model 10% larger in the computer — and then use the 3D printer to see if we have what the director wants,” says McLean, head of rapid prototyping for Laika. “The process evolves with every project we do.”
The sheer number of possible facial expressions means this technology saves everyone a ton of time and effort. “Coraline” had approximately 650 unique mouth shapes and 319 specific eyebrow shapes. There were more than 6,300 faces printed.
While this technology meant a complex and detailed process, sometimes solutions are incredibly simple. Grips who consistently found themselves trying to put up large, unwieldy and potentially hazardous greenscreens settled on an inflatable solution.
David McIntosh, Steve Smith, Mike Branham and Mike Kirilenko spent about eight years developing the materials and system that resulted in the Aircover Inflatables Airwall, which garnered a Technical Achievement Award this year. Their system, which has been used on “Game of Thrones” and “Godzilla,” uses an air pump similar to the kind designed to inflate children’s bounce houses to inflate their airwalls, which can then be covered in the fabric chosen by the production. The airwalls are stackable, so it’s possible to create enormous outdoor screens. The company has a patent on their technology, but they have licensed it in the U.S. to PRG Paskal film production and lighting grip equipment.
Previous outdoor greenscreens posed a huge physical hazard for the grips so they were determined to find an alternative.
“I can tell you we really wanted this to work because we knew we would be safer,” says Smith. “But I’m honestly surprised it’s become this popular.”
Michael John Keesling’s Image Shaker, recipient of a Technical Achievement Award, is another solution to a potentially hazardous problem that was developed about two decades ago. To get the shaking effect needed for shots in things like disaster movies, filmmakers once actually shook the camera. But Keesling wanted to do it a different way.
“I thought there’s no point in shaking a camera and potentially hurting the camera operator and the camera itself,” says Keesling. “Why not just have an optical system that makes it look like the camera is shaking in a believable way.”
Today, animators and visual artists take for granted they can have a real time review of their work with other members of their team across town or across the globe. And that’s why Richard Chuang and Rahul Thakkar were acknowledged for the system design and Andrew Pilgrim, Stewart Birnam and Mark Kirk were recognized for the workflows and playback features of the DreamWorks Animation Media Review System with a Technical Achievement Award.
“We’ve been developing this system for more than 20 years so we can have instantaneous collaboration for the artists who need it to do their work,” Chuang says.
We also just expect digital and live elements to simply fall together in a scene but it wasn’t until Ronald Mallet and Christoph Bregler designed and engineered the Industrial Light & Magic Geometry Tracker, which produces a much more seamless integration between the two, that it really started to work. Mallet is no longer with ILM and has begun working the virtual reality field.
“Things are taking off in VR and there’s application for this tracker in that world as well,” Mallet says.
The Dolby team of Trevor Davies, Thomas Wan, Jon Scott Miller, Jared Smith and Matthew Robinson were awarded a Technical Achievement Award for their Dolby Laboratories PRM Series Reference Color Monitors, designed to give accurate representation of images and replace the cathode ray tubes widely used in reference monitoring.
The monitors were so reliable they were soon used for on-set work, VFX and color grading. Their increased dynamic range made it possible or them to truly display what the latest cameras are able to capture.
“The greatest challenges in developing these monitors was meeting the rigid specifications for a reference monitor that can be used in both theatrical and television content,” wrote Curt Behlmer, senior VP, Content Solutions & Industry Relations for Dolby Laboratories.