Scientific and Technical Academy Awards: Oscar Bids Bittersweet Farewell to Film

Christopher Nolan calls celluloid "the gold standard" as he presents Oscar honoring lab workers

Sci-Tech Academy Awards: Chris Nolan helps
Michael Yada / ©A.M.P.A.S

This year’s Scientific & Technical Academy Awards featured an unusually large number of honorees — 52 individuals representing 19 technical achievements, plus career honorees — but it also summed up the digital revolution that has swept through the filmed entertainment industry

On the one hand, an Academy Award of Merit (that is, an actual Oscar statutette) was awarded “to all those who built and operated film laboratories, for over a century of service to the motion picture industry.” It’s the first time the Acad has ever given an Oscar to a large group of people, and an unprecedented salute to a segment of the film biz that is passing into history.

The Award of Merit is reserved for achievements that have stood the test of time, and the vanishing photochemical crafts certainly have done that, but more than a dozen Academy certificates and plaque were given to more recent innovations, most of them digital filmmaking tools.

The Academy Award of Merit Oscar is somewhat rare, and not all those who planned the awards were convinced the presentation of such an award at the Sci-Tech banquet was the appropriate place to salute the contributions of labs. But the decision sends a signal. David Reisner, secretary of the American Society of Cinematographers technology committee and himself a recipient of an Academy Certificate this year, told Variety “This (unofficially!) acknowledges the death of film and its replacement by digital. It’s kind of a big deal.”

But Christopher Nolan, who surprised the gathering at the Beverly Hills Hotel to present this Oscar, voiced a different view. calling the processing of photochemical film “the technology that lies at the heart of filmmaking and still represents the gold standard of film technology.”

Nolan, a champion of film for capture and exhibition, announced this Oscar will be on display at the Acad’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills until the new Academy Museum is completed. “Where it will be on permanent display as a reminder to future generations of the fine work of all of these men and women.”

By the time Nolan spoke, though, the evening had already shown both sides of the digital divide, with some barbs thrown at digital tech along with the awards for it.

The first three awards were for mechanical innovations: the pneumatic car flipper and two helicopter-camera combos. Then began the software awards, starting with ASC Color Decision List technology, which Reisner received with Joshua Pines, Lou Levinson, Curtis Clark and David Register.

Technicolor’s Pines explained their innovation by reminding the gathering that in the days of film, paper tape was used to record the decisions made in color timing and the look of a shot or sequence. “D.p’s complained they didn’t have a way to consistently describe their looks as things went downhill — I mean, went digital,” quipped Pines. Hence the need for the ASC Color Decision List.

Pines had started off saying “It is an honor to be competing at the Winter Olympics for geeks” and added “I’d like to thank the Academy for giving us only 45 seconds each,” a limit that was often broken over the evening. He got so many laughs that when he and his fellow ASC CDL honorees left the stage, co-host Kristen Bell went off-script to quip “I’m going to quit acting and work with those guys.”

Bell and Michael B. Jordan handled hosting duties gracefully, and for once it was the diversity of honorees’ names, not the jargon needed to describe their achievements, that tripped up the thesps as they read from the teleprompter.

Awards sent to achievements from several of major visual effects and animation studios: Industrial light & Magic’s Zeno framework and Plume system; Deep Compositing and Spherical Harmonic Lighting System tech from Weta Digital; Sony Imageworks Open Color IO; DreamWorks Animation’s Flux; and Rhythm and Hues Studio’s Voodoo.

The acceptance by Rhythm & Hues vets was especially emotional. Hans Rijpkema thanked R&H founder John Hughes “for creating a community spirit that made us do better work and made us better people.” Perry did not have to mention that R&H went bankrupt before winning the vfx Oscar last year for “Life of Pi” and what’s left of the company no longer has anything resembling the spirit Hughes built there.

Another highlight came when Ofer Alon accepted his award for Z-Brush digital model software. Alon methodically took out his cell phone and took a selfie at the podium.

“I’ve never Tweeted in my life but this would be a good reason to do one,” he said.

He then recalled growing up in Israel next to a movie theater, where he’d sneak in and watch films. “I thought that everything that happened on the screen was real, so if I saw someone die on screen, I thought he really died. So I grew up believing movies were so important they’re worth dying for.”

As usual, many of the honorees admitted they’d never imagined getting an Academy Award for the academic and technical. One made a point of reminding his wife he was keeping a promise he’d made 17 years earlier when she’d said, “If you ever get an Academy Award, mention me in your speech.” Eric Veach, who did basic reasearch that led to deep shadowing technology, said at the podium “This means (my wife) can’t make fun of my thesis anymore.”

And ILM’s Dan Piponi, one of the honorees for ILM’s Plume system for rendering fire, smoke and explosions, spoke for many when he said: “When I was a kid, nobody told me that if I wanted an Academy Award, I should study mathematics, but that’s what I did and here I am.”