The Academy's Scientific and Technical Awards ceremony has been dubbed the nerd Oscars before – but after Saturday night's show at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, you could also call it the anti-Oscars.
After all, the show began with something that the big show has decided to do away with this year: the live performance of an Oscar-nominated song, in this case the Oscar-winning "Falling Slowly" from Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.
It included far more smart guys than movie stars. Not one of the winners had his speech interrupted by music, even if he pulled out a piece a paper and read a list of thank-yous.
(The choice of pronoun is not sexist: Not one of the 30 winners was female.)
And near the end, it featured a very lengthy and literate speech that took to task all those who think the Academy Awards need updating or freshening.
You won't find any of those things at the big show in two weeks, but they were all on display at the Sci-Tech Awards, an annual tribute to the people who put the Sciences in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The Sci-Tech Awards are a night when an actress (this year, Milla Jovovich) gets to use phrases like "mico-voxels" and "active servos" and "inner actuators" and "motion vector fields" and "high-efficiency anti-halation layer."
"I won't be taking questions," said Jovovich after donning a pair of glasses but before tackling the lengthy and technical descriptions of the eight achievements that were awarded with Sci-Tech Awards by the Academy's Scientific and Technical Awards Committee.
In a way, the Sci-Tech Awards honor the folks who give the tools to the ones who'll be getting higher-profile Oscars two weeks from now.
It's easy to say that if it weren't for these guys, Harry Potter wouldn't have his magic and the Transformers wouldn't be able to transform – but it goes beyond that, because the technological advancements also make it possible for cinematographers to shift focus quickly, and directors to position cameras on moving vehicles, and for films to be preserved for generations to come.
They help the big-budget CGI flicks and the smaller art movies; they can help Martin Scorsese make "Hugo," and help preserve the old films that are celebrated in "Hugo."
So while the Sci-Tech Awards are occasionally the subject of a punchline or two on the Oscar show, they're also a necessary part of what the Academy does.
And they drew a full house to the Beverly Wilshire's ballroom – including Oscar show producers Brian Grazer and Don Mischer, who sat near the front but were powerless to stop even the lengthiest of the night's speeches.
And as one winner, Pictorvision's Michael Vellekoop, said, "It's really exciting to climb out into the linelight for us backroom boys."
As usual, the evening began with the Sci-Tech Committee chair Richard Edlund welcoming the guest and adding, "Just as in part years, we'd like to … begin the evening's festivities with some great entertainment."
At that, a chuckle came from one table; at the Sci-Tech Awards, "entertainment" has typically means a ventriloquist straight from Branson, Missouri.
But this time the Academy wasn't messing around: They'd called Hansard and Irglova, whose "Falling Slowly" is one of the most beloved Oscar-winning songs of recent years.
And the duo agreed to participate immediately: "The Oscar show is such an amazing memory for us," Hansard told TheWrap before going on, "that it was a no-brainer for us when they asked."
Their three-song set was warm, inviting and exceptionally well-received, with Hansard saying "this is for Whitney" before going into a tender final verse of Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic," and then dedicating "Falling Slowly" to the late publicist Ronni Chasen.
Edlund and Academy president Tom Sherak (right) then congratulated the winners and lauded the achievements of the Academy's Science & Technology Council, which presents public programs, is working to set industry standards for visual formats, and has just released "The Digital Dilemma 2," the follow-up to its well-received 2007 report on film preservation.
The Sci-Tech Awards themselves come in three types: the Technical Achievement Award, which brings with it a certificate; the Scientific and Engineering Award, a plaque; and the Academy Award of Merit, an Oscar statuette.
On Saturday, the Academy bestowed two certificates, for one achievement; 23 plaques, for six different achievements; three Oscar statutettes; and two honorary awards, the John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation and the Gordon E. Sawyer Award.
"Sitting in front of the computer 10 hours a day really doesn't prepare you for this kind of speech," said Mark Elendt, who as one of the creators of "micro-voxels in the Mantra software" was one of the night's first winners.
Two of the night's winners, Dr. Jurgen Noffke (designer of ARRI Zeiss Master Prime Lenses) and John D. Lowry (head of the company that created the "Lowry Process" for noise reduction and image enhancement) passed away before the ceremony, leading to emotional moments onstage, particularly when Lowry's team and his widow accepted his award.
The presentation of the three Academy Awards of Merit, which went to the ARRILASER Film Recorder, was what the Sci-Tech Awards calls an "upgrade" – the achievement won a plaque in 2001, but over time has proven itself to be so important that the committee voted it Oscar statuettes this year.
The evening culminated with the two honorary awards – including Sci-Tech's top honor, the Gordon E. Sawyer Award. It went to legendary visual effects creator Douglas Trumbull, whose career in effects included "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and, recently, "The Tree of Life," and who has also worked as a director, inventor and advocate for improved methods of filming and exhibition.
"I want to accept this in terms of an affirmation of my work, which is ongoing," said Trumbull (below, with Jovovich), who went on to describe his current vision: "I am trying to figure out how to make a movie that you are in, rather than looking at."
The goal, he said, is simple: to enable Hollywood to make movies "so big and cool and so spectacular that people want to go out to the movies to see them."
But the other honorary winner, visual effects technologist Jonathan Erland, gave the night's biggest, longest and most all-encompassing speech.
An early member of ILM who worked on "Star Wars" and went on to work in research and development on a large number of film-related projects, Erland delivered an enormously long speech that paid tribute to his mentors ("what a league of exemplars they were") and then to the Academy itself.
He mentioned the Chinese curse "may you live in interesting times," and quipped, "We're now way past interesting – we're all the way to white-knuckle fascinating."
But the way for the Academy to adjust to the new, changing era, he insisted, was not to change in an attempt to stay relevant, or to make alterations in the Oscar show to attract a younger audience.
"The show exists to support the awards, and the awards exist to support the Academy's mission to promote the excellence of motion pictures," said Erland. "… If we are now to become what some people think young people want today, what the hell will they have to grow up for?"
He also called for the creation of a new Science Branch of the Academy, said he was creating a new non-profit institute for motion picture study, and said "I look to history to light a way to the future."
And at the end of his speech, Erland disputed the idea that the Academy has members – "if this is an academy, the proper term is academicians" – before trotting out a variation on a famous John F. Kennedy speech: "Ask not what your Academy can do for you, ask what you can do for your Academy."
And along the way, he found a quote from screenwriter and director William C. DeMille that might as well serve as the unofficial motto for the Sci-Tech Awards: "If we don't get the science first, you ain't gonna get no art."
The night's winners:
Technical Achievement Awards (Academy Certificates):
Andrew Clinton and Mark Elendt for the inventiion and integration of micro-voxels in the Mantra software.
Scientific and Engineering Awards (Academy Plaques):
Radu Corlan, Andy Jantzen, Petru Pop and Richard F. Toftness for the design and engineering of the Phantom family of high-speed cameras for motion picture production.
Dr. Jurgen Noffke for the optical design and Uwe Weber for the mechanical design of the ARRI Zeiss Master Prime Lenses for motion picture photography.
Michael Lewis, Greg Marsden, Raigo Alas and Michael Vellekoop for the concept, design and implementation of the Pictorvision Eclipse, an electronically stabilized aerial camera platform.
E.F. "Bob" Nettmann for the concept and system architecture, Michael Sayovitz for the electronic packaging and integration, Brad Fritzel for the electronic engineering, and Fred Miller for the mechanical engineering of the Stab-C Classic, Super-G and Stab-C Compact stabilizing heads.
John D. Lowry, Ian Caven, Ian Godin, Kimball Thurston and Tim Connolly for the development of a unique and efficient system for the reduction of noise and other artifacts, thereby providing high-quality images required by the filmmaking process.
FUJIFILM Corporation, Hideyuki Shirai, Dr. Katsuhisa Oozeki and Hiroshi HIrano for the design and development of the FUJIFILM black and white recording film ETERNA-RDS 4791 for use in the archival preservation of film and digital images.
Academy Award of Merit (Oscar statuette):
Franz Kraus, Johannes Steurer and Wolfgang Riedel for the design and development of the ARRILASER Film Recorder.
John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation:
Gordon E. Sawyer Award:
(Photos by Todd Wawrychuk/AMPAS)