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Academy Sci-Tech Awards: Women Stand To Make a Point and Margot Robbie Soars

Over the years, the Academy’s Scientific & Technical Awards banquet has been called many things: warm, intimate, classy and, at its best, emotional.

But one description that has never been associated with the Sci-Techs is “a hoot.”

Until tonight.

For 2015 the Sci-Techs traded a smidgen of elegance for a few megawatts of electricity, much of it provided by Margot Robbie.

Robbie co-hosted the presentation with Miles Teller, and the pair bantered like a comedy team. Both had moments to shine and each got laughs, but it was Robbie who stole the show, bringing a loose charm and infectious energy to her hosting duties. She turned what could have been a laborious litany of technical jargon into a lively and sometimes uproarious evening.

Some 59 individuals were honored at the banquet. One of the early presentations showed why the Sci-Techs can be endearing: As honoree Steven Tiffen stepped up to accept an Award of Commendation, a voice shouted “That’s my dad!” Tiffen smiled and said “That’s my son,” adding “Third generation Tiffen in the business.”

The acceptances — as usual — comprised a parade of men thanking their wives and girlfriends. Almost 50 had been to the podium before the first and only female honoree of the night made her way to the stage: Colette Mullenhoff, one of four honorees cited for the Industrial Light & Magic Shape Sculpting System.

They were met with the night’s loudest cheers and a standing ovation led by — but not limited to — the women in the audience. Nobody had to ask why. Robbie was among the femmes cheering, as she held her hands high to clap and the audience roared.

Teller quipped “We’re breaking down barriers here.” Mullenhoff appeared humbled and a bit shaken by the reception.

There were laughs and bittersweet moments at the podium as well. Ron Fedkiw, honored with Brice Criswell for the ILM PhysBAM Destruction System, thanked “all the supervillains and giant monsters that like to destroy stuff — and keep us in business.”

Scott Peterson, one of four honorees for the Dreamworks Animation Foliage System, dedicated the award to Pacific Data Images, the Bay Area animation facility recently closed in DWA’s cutbacks. “(PDI) made this possible by creating an institution where art and science combined to create beautiful images.” His co-honoree Jeff Budsberg said of the laid-off PDI artists: “My heart goes out to them.”

Two Oscar statuettes were presented. The Academy Award of Merit went to Larry Hornbeck for the invention of the digital micromirrors that form the heart  of DLP cinema projectors.

Hornbeck said “My father taught me by example to ask the question ‘Why?’ and go out and find the answer.” He added “I humbly accept this award on behalf of every engineer who ever had a dream of doing anything.”

The second Oscar and final award of the night went to sound expert David Gray, the Gordon E. Sawyer honoree. Gray warned the audience he would speak at some length, saying “This is only going to happen to me once, so I’m going to take advantage.” He recalled his time in the 1970s as a roadie for Steely Dan, the Kinks and Frank Zappa, recalling he once built Zappa a synthesizer to make a guitar sound like a french horn.

“It was horrible,” he said. “It was so stupid… But when we added about 20 percent distortion, the result was magical.”

Gray said he had a love for the film industry and especially a love of sound. “ I doubt I will ever be as proud,” he said, “and I’ll never be as excited as I am right now.”

The show was a departure from previous years in several ways. First, after a couple of years at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the event returned to the more spacious ballroom at the Beverly Wilshire. Academy governor Richard Edlund called the BevWilshire “our favorite venue” — about as close to criticism of the other venue as one would hear at the dignified Sci-Techs.

Gone was the usual live jazz combo for the event, replaced by a DJ playing a contemporary mix. And the hosts’ script was peppered with jokes, as if it had occurred to the event’s producers to take advantage of having two hosts — a relatively recent innovation.

And then there was Robbie, whose laughter and energy disarmed audience and honorees alike.

As Robbie introduced Open VDB, a system for efficiently storing “voxels” for 3-dimensional vfx rendering, started to laugh and confessed “I don’t know why this sounds so sexual to me,” eventually laughing so hard she had to leave the stage. Returning with a drink, and wiping tears of laughter from her eyes, she proposed a drinking game: a swig every time she said “voxel.”

After dessert, Greg LaSalle of Digital Domain brought a glass of wine to the podium for his acceptance “in case someone said ‘voxel.’” And, in faux dismay, cursed and took a drink.

Robbie also had several “geek” moments including noting the size difference between different classes of “Star Trek” starships. If the Australian beauty is indeed that much of a genre-lover, an entire generation of fanboys may be ruined for other women.

Teller and Robbie will appear on the main Oscarcast to recap the evening. She may not get the chance to charm that room as she did the Sci-Techs, but she earned a lot of admirers in the Academy and the tech community tonight.

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