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The film academy honors unsung innovators at the annual Scientific and Technical Awards

The film academy honors unsung innovators at the annual Scientific and Technical Awards
Sir Patrick Stewart hosted the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Scientific and Technical Awards on Saturday in Beverly Hills. (Matt Petit / A.M.P.A.S.)

The motion picture academy's annual Scientific and Technical Awards, which were handed out on Saturday evening at the Beverly Wilshire hotel, are like a bizarro version of the Oscars.

There is no red carpet. There is no live TV audience of millions around the globe. There are no envelopes to open, since the winners are announced weeks in advance.

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Instead of the dazzling celebrities, at the Sci-Tech Awards, the film industry's unheralded nerds get the spotlight, as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences celebrates the scientists and engineers whose behind-the-scenes innovations make much of the spectacle of the movies possible.

Only about a minute of the three-hour, jargon-heavy ceremony, which was hosted by actor Patrick Stewart, will be edited into the Oscars telecast on March 4. But for this year's 36 winners, the thrill of being honored for their work was no less great — even if a lay person without a degree in computer science or engineering might have struggled at times to understand what exactly was being honored.

This is an awards ceremony where the mere mention of a "rig" — the basic skeleton of a 3-D model used in digital animation — can inspire a hearty round of applause and where a wry joke about the programming language C++ can bring the house down.

(Given their relatively arcane nature, the Sci-Tech Awards are not voted on by all academy members but selected by the Board of Governors on the recommendation of the Scientific and Technical Awards Committee.)

"These awards have always had their own ambience, separate from that other red-carpet show over on Hollywood Boulevard," John Bailey, the academy's president, told the crowd in his opening remarks.

"For example, the buzz this evening will not be who is wearing what designer label," he added, "but will address far more consequential matters, such as: Do most filmmakers really need the tank-sized 73-foot Hydrascope self-leveling telescoping crane or can we squeak by using the 32-foot model?"

Visual effects technologist Jonathan Erland received the Gordon E. Sawyer Award.
Visual effects technologist Jonathan Erland received the Gordon E. Sawyer Award. (Valerie Macon / AFP/Getty Images)

Jonathan Erland — a legendary film technologist whose career stretches back to 1977's "Star Wars" and who helped establish the academy's visual-effects branch — was awarded the Gordon E. Sawyer Award in recognition of his lifetime contributions. But even as he graciously accepted the statuette, Erland directed some criticism at the academy for placing too much emphasis on awards over the years and for allowing a growing administrative staff to displace academy members from many of the organization's functions.

"The academy became increasingly awards-centric, and members largely relegated to an award-voting panel, a mere appendage of the academy," Erland said. "However, this community is comprised of much of the best practitioners in the field of cinema. To waste the awesome potential of the resource is unconscionable. If we are to fulfill the dream that [Douglas] Fairbanks, [Mary] Pickford and the other founders had for our art form, we must collectively reassume more responsibility for our institution."

Erland told the crowd that the academy's "role as midwife for the adoption of new technology is needed as much as ever," offering a quote from silent-era screenwriter and filmmaker William DeMille that summed up the spirit of the entire evening: "If we don't get the science first, there ain't gonna be no art."

As host, Stewart came to the event with unrivaled geek credentials, having starred as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard in TV's "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and as professor Charles Xavier in the "X-Men" movie franchise.

"You are the film scientists, the film magicians," Stewart told the crowd. "Personally I am in awe of all of you. You turn equations and code into fantastic visions, showing us worlds of pure imagination."

Still, in handing out the highly technical awards — which recognized such innovations as "a novel approach to character rigging that features topological independence, continuously editable rigs and deformation workflows with shape-preserving surface relaxation" — Stewart admitted that he was way out of his depth.

"I have to tell you, I wouldn't know the difference between a warp-core breach and the space-time continuum if they got into bed with me," he said. "I apologize for my pathetic ignorance." When Stewart conceded that he had no clue, say, how many miles per hour the Starship Enterprise could travel, a voice from the crowd shouted, "We know!"

Jeff White, left, Mike Jutan, Rachel Marie Rose and Jason Smith arrive for the ceremony.
Jeff White, left, Mike Jutan, Rachel Marie Rose and Jason Smith arrive for the ceremony. (Valerie Macon / AFP/Getty Images)

Not surprisingly given the critical importance of digital effects in the modern film business, many of the evening's awards went to innovations in software tools developed to create ever more eye-popping computer-generated razzle-dazzle.

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Among those honored with certificates and plaques were teams from Industrial Light & Magic, Rhythm & Hues, DreamWorks Animation, Digital Domain and Pixar Animation Studios. Mark Elendt and Side Effects Software earned the Academy Award of Merit for the development of the Houdini visual effects and animation system.

On the hardware side, the academy awarded the creators of the Shotover K1 Camera System, an innovative aerial camera mount used in helicopter shots, and the designers of the Hydrascope camera crane system, which features waterproof construction to allow for submerged underwater filming.

In contrast to every other awards ceremony this season, there was no mention of the ongoing sexual harassment scandals that have roiled the entertainment industry in recent months. But with the scientific and technical fields remaining largely male-dominated, Industrial Light & Magic's Rachel Marie Rose drew applause when she told the crowd, "To any young woman who may be watching this and dreaming about her future career, I am proof that you can."

Twitter: @joshrottenberg

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