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Oscar Geeks

"Every science has its fans." So said Walter Matthau's blueblood character to botanist Elaine May in the 1971 comedy A New Leaf, and you know what - he was absolutely right. This evening, the world may be leering at the décolletage of this year's crop of starlets jiggling down the red carpet or forced into watching multiple reaction shots of the aging lions of the screen getting their fawning due from the Academy. Me? I'll be riveted to the two-minute montage that each year comprises the coverage of the Scientific and Technical Academy Awards.

I've always been fascinated with the technical aspects of moviemaking. I've long had The American Widescreen Museum bookmarked on my list of Internet favorites and believe wholeheartedly in that site's tagline: "Where artistry and technology combined to form Showmanship." I felt a shiver when I gazed at one of the actual two-strip Technicolor cameras used to shoot Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.'s great comic swashbuckler The Black Pirate (1926). (Bet you thought all silent movies were black & white, huh?)

These days, technology has come to dominate the production of the blockbuster films of summer that frequently make or break a studio's financial year. So prevalent have special effects become that the 2002 satire S1m0ne, in which a digitally-created actress becomes an overnight sensation, actually became a cause for alarm among flesh-and-blood stars. While I don't think our screen gods and goddesses will ever be replaced by computers, the casts of thousands that movies used to boast about are already a thing of the past, thanks to digital cloning.

The Sci-Tech Oscars have been awarded every year since 1930/31. They have their own nominating committee, which now includes experts from the fields of cinematography (production and technical), digital imaging, electronics and research, film and laboratory, lighting and equipment, mechanical and optical effects and engineering, product, project, exhibition techniques, and sound. And in recent years, the talent side has sent some hot actress to host the Sci-Tech awards dinner, a move rumored to have inspired the new reality-TV program Beauty and the Geek. In past years, the hostesses have included Charlize Theron, Scarlett Johansson, Salma Hayek, and Kate Hudson.

This year, on February 10, ultrahip actress Maggie Gyllenhaal helmed the awards dinner. Strongly represented among the honorees were software engineers. William Freightner and Chris Edwards of the company E-Film and Joshua Pines and Chris Kutcka of Technicolor Digital Intermediates all were honored for developing archival separation processes to preserve and manipulate digital images for future use. Florian Kainz of Open EXR received an Oscar for the Open EXR software package that enhances tiered and tiled images for the visual effects industry. Peter Litwinowicz and Pierre Jasmin were recognized for the RE: Vision Effects family of software tools for optical flow-based image manipulation for the visual effects industry.

Sci-Tech always favors new advances in camera technology, and this year was no exception. Klemens Kehrer, Josef Handler, Thomas Smidek, and Marc Shipman Mueller received a bald guy for their Arriflex 235 Camera System designed for handheld photography and for secondary production work. Look for a consumer-friendly version of this camera in the near future. In addition, Christian Tschida and Martin Waitz received Oscars for the design and engineering of the cmotion Wireless Remote System to ease focus and calibration of lenses.

Last, but not least, sound engineers Albert Ridilla, Papken Shahbazina, Ronald Belknap, and Jay McGarrigle got Oscared for the Brumagic MPST densitometer for reading soundtrack negative and positive densities. When you hear the incredibly realistic sound of spaceships battling in the airless, and therefore soundless, universe, don't forget that these are some of the guys who made it happen.

Movie folks are a lot more environmentally responsible than they are normally given credit for - particularly after one has had one's sight polluted by something like Basic Instinct 2. A special Award of Commendation went to a slew of folks who contributed to the environmentally-responsible industry conversion from a silver-based to a cyan dye analog soundtrack. For a list of these noble individuals and winners of Academy Plaques, click here.

The evening climaxed with the presentation of the highest honors the Sci-Tech Oscars can bestow: the John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation and the Gordon E. Sawyer Award. Visual effects expert Richard Edlund received the former award for ground-breaking visual effects work in such films as Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and his contributions to the Academy's Science and Technology Council and Museum Committee. Ray Feeney won the Sawyer Award for his many technological contributions. Since I can hear most of your brains clicking out of this article (thanks to my Brumagic MPST densitometer), I'll let you find out what they were by clicking here.

And just to prove that science geeks are just like the rest of us, there is a rumor circulating that the Thank You Cam might have X- rated content - er, NC-17 - content, courtesy of all the Sci-Tech winners. Oh, you crazy kids!

Catch up with the Beachwood's Oscar preview here.



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Posted on February 25, 2007


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