AMPAS Sci-Tech Awards explore the connection between art and science
The awards show that focuses on the sciences part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences took place on Saturday night in Beverly Hills, with two Oscar statuettes and a batch of certificates and plaques going to the folks responsible for flipping cars, getting aerial shots, animating characters and doing path tracing, digital sculpting and deep compositing.
And if you aren't quite sure what those last few phrases mean, the winners at the Academy's Scientific and Technical Awards won't blame you; they're used to being the brainy guys (sorry, no female winners on Saturday) whose technical innovations give filmmakers the tools to do things they don't really understand.
“It's an honor to be here at tonight's Winter Olympics for geeks,” said winner Joshua Pines, who in this particular room was known as the guy who did so much for the ASC Color Decision List technology.
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Richard Edlund, the chairman of the AMPAS Scientific and Technical Awards Committee, put it in layman's terms (or, to be more accurate, in Cole Porter's terms) when he and Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs kicked off the show by welcoming the honorees to a night designed to celebrate “the voodoo that you all do so well.”
But it fell to hosts Kristen Bell and Michael B. Jordan to talk about that voodoo for the next few hours, tossing around phrases like “deep image compositing,” “physically-based rendering,” “multiple importance sampling,” “holdout-order independence” and “pyroclastic effects” as if they knew what they were talking about.
“You just gotta pick up the vernacular,” Jordan told TheWrap during a break in the show. “With movies like ‘Fantastic Four’ coming up, I'm going to be depending on the guys in this room. So it's good to put faces to names.”
Curiously, the presentation that had seemed likely to be an emotional high point was disappointingly dispassionate. At a time when film is rapidly being supplanted by digital, the Sci-Tech Committee had recommended and the Academy's Board of Governors approved a special Oscar to “all those who built and operated film laboratories, for over a century of service to the film industry,” the first symbolic, group award in Sci-Tech history.
The Academy kept secret who would present and accept the award. It turned out to be “Inception” and “The Dark Knight” director Christopher Nolan, one of the last holdouts who insists on making his movies on film rather than digital.
But while Nolan spoke fondly of the “alchemists” who spent their time “turning silver and plastic into dreams,” his presentation was relatively matter-of-fact, and he gave little sense of the timing that made the award so poignant. After thanking the countless unnamed recipients for 100 years of service, he added, “I personally am very excited to look forward to the next hundred years.”
About 50 workers from film labs were in attendance, but none spoke; instead, Nolan simply noted that the Oscar statuette would be displayed in their honor at Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
The unprecedented nature of the award, and of the Sci-Tech Awards looking to the past instead of the future, never really made an impression during Nolan's brief presentation, though some shouts of approval from the back of the Beverly Hills Hotel ballroom hinted at an emotional release that might have come.
Still, the show did a clean, brisk job of conveying complicated achievements simply – and without the pressure of a televised show and a flashing “PLEASE WRAP UP” sign, most of the honorees showed that smart guys are smart guys whether they're researching Monte Carlo path tracing or writing acceptance speeches.
“I might quit acting. I want to work with those guys,” said Bell after one group of winners spoke.
Bell and Jordan also managed the tongue-twisters with good-natured aplomb, with Bell getting particular laughs when she breezed through the names of honorees Colin Doncaster, Johannes Saam, Areito Echavarria and Janne Kontkanen, and then pretended to stumble over the name of the fifth winner, Chris Cooper.
A couple speeches included Michael Bay jokes, a lot of the film packages illustrating the honored achievements included clips from “Avatar,” and the DreamWorks table seemed louder and rowdier than the tables from any other company. And at the end of the night, Gordon E. Sawyer Award winner Peter W. Anderson summed up the dichotomy at the heart of the Sci-Tech Awards:
“Without the sciences, what would the art be? And without the art, what would the sciences be?”
An hour or so before that, winner Ian Sachs (you've probably seen the results of the ILM plume system he co-created) put this particular Oscar show in perspective.
“When I was a kid,” he said, “nobody told me that if I wanted to win an Academy Award I should study mathematics.”