The Year's First Three Oscars Go to Filmmaking's Sci-Tech 'Nerds'

Times Staff Writer

Twenty-four hours before he was scheduled to accept his Oscar statuette, Bill Tondreau was still at home in New Mexico, fiddling with oscilloscopes and meters.

His tuxedo, "tasteful and slightly ill-fitting," had been chosen, but Tondreau, 58, wasn't worried about making a fashion splash.

His mind was on his remote-controlled camera rig in Australia and the software he's developing for a new Tim Burton film.

And Tondreau knew that the 22 other nominees selected to be recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the field of scientific and technical achievement would understand.

"The sci-tech guys have a lot of nerd heritage," he said with a hint of pride. "A lot of us have worn a suit maybe four or five times in our whole lives."

One of those times for Tondreau was Saturday night, when this year's winners were celebrated in a ceremony at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Pasadena.

Traditionally the first event of the Oscar season, the ceremony is the academy's nod to the pocket-protector set: the men and women responsible for inventions and innovations in sound and optical equipment, special effects, camera technology and other disciplines.

Their fashion sense notwithstanding, the "sci-tech guys" have made innumerable contributions to the motion picture industry, and since 1931 the academy has honored those contributions, said Richard Edlund, chairman of the scientific and technical awards committee.

There are certificates for technical achievement, plaques for scientific and engineering accomplishments and, for true pioneers, the coveted Oscar statuettes.

"The only reason you're going to win an Oscar is if you've had a revolutionary effect on the industry," Edlund said.

But in this Oscar campaign there were no media blitzes on behalf of nominees, no studios lobbying to land this or that award.

Instead, the winners were selected by a committee of 40 of what Edlund called "the top engineering and scientific minds in the movie industry," who winnowed submissions from as many as 50 candidates compiled in a 4-inch-thick notebook.

The process had its moments of contention, Edlund said, "but it's pretty obvious to an engineering mind what warrants an award and what doesn't."

Still, a competition in which honorees are praised for developing things such as "efficient algorithms, extensible architecture and intuitive interface" can stump even a scientific mind.

"There are times when someone says, 'What the hell is that?' " Edlund said.

In the end, this year's Oscar statuettes were awarded to Tondreau, Peter D. Parks, and the Digidesign company.

Tondreau was recognized for his advances with robotic camera technology, and Digidesign won for the design and development of the Pro Tools digital audio workstation.

Parks was awarded the Gordon E. Sawyer Award for lifetime achievement, much of it in the area of microphotography, Edlund said.

Tondreau, who runs a one-man company and whose Oscar comes after previous selections for a scientific and engineering plaque and a technical achievement certificate, said he won't forget the little people.

"I am the little people," he said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World