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Sci-Tech Awards Honored After Effects, Photoshop Developers’ Major Impact on VFX

ILM John Kroll Star Wars VFX
Knoll: Brian To/Variety/Shutterstock; Star Wars: Lucasfilm/Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

On Feb. 9, two weeks and a day before the Oscars, the Motion Picture Academy held its annual Scientific and Technical Achievement Awards — sometimes referred to as the nerd Academy Awards — honoring achievements in motion picture technology. 

The ceremony included no surprise winners — Sci-Tech kudos are announced in advance, and the achievements need not have been introduced in 2018. Two of this year’s honorees were chosen because their accomplishments democratized the field of visual effects.

Before the mid-’90s, most VFX tools were too expensive, cumbersome and time-consuming to be used by anyone other than artists working on big-budget films. But then two groups of engineers began to develop the kind of nimble software that nearly anyone could learn to use. With the introduction of After Effects and Photoshop, now both owned by Adobe, anyone willing to spend a few thousand dollars on a speedy desktop machine can work with image manipulation and motion graphics at home. Both programs have gone on to upend professional visual effects and alter filmmaking forever. 

After Effects — currently used in VFX compositing around the world — was originally developed by a small start-up called the Company of Science and Art (Cosa) in Providence, R.I., where a group of Brown University grads got the idea to create a streaming image player. Their original vision was dashed when Apple announced QuickTime in June 1991. They knew they couldn’t compete with the tech giant, so they retooled with an idea for a motion graphics software package, which soon looked like it would work. The team considered the names Video Banana, Movie-Twist and Effectasy before settling on After Effects.

“The idea was to give the user a set of tools that, once they understood them, they could use to piece things together,” says David Simons, a Cosa founder. “It’s sort of like Lego in that we know how to bring together these few simple operations, and then you can build anything you can imagine.” 

Simons, along with Daniel Wilk, James Acquavella, Michael Natkin and David Cotter have been awarded the Academy Plaque for developing the software.

The other breakthrough, Photoshop, now a mainstay for images used in video, print and all over social media, was also developed by a small team: Industrial Light & Magic chief creative officer John Knoll (whose credits include the “Star Wars” franchise and “Aquaman”) and his older brother, Thomas Knoll, an engineer. When the older Knoll showed his brother an image-manipulation program he was building while at the University of Michigan, they both realized they had something. 

“I was working the night shift at ILM at the time, so I had my days free to work with my older brother, and I encouraged him to basically quit school so we could do this,” says John Knoll. “A lot of the initial features that I was thinking about were [geared toward] visual effects, but we put effort into building a very general architecture for the program that wasn’t specific to any one industry, [creating] a generic tool set that allowed anybody working with images to manipulate them in intuitive ways. I had no idea that the name of our product would become a verb.”

For the original design and continued development of Photoshop, Thomas Knoll, John Knoll and Mark Hamburg, who led the creation of successive versions of Photoshop, have received an Academy Plaque. 

Of the nine scientific and technical achievements honored on Feb. 9, After Effects and Photoshop have had the most disruptive impact on visual effects, delivering that art to a much larger group of creators, and empowering them to bring to life the worlds of their imagination. 

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