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Technical Oscars Honor Achievements in Sound, Digital Technology


Hollywood will honor its stars and moviemakers February 29 with presentation of the Oscars, one of the film industry's most glamorous affairs. But the Oscars for scientific and technical achievements have already been presented, with a little less fanfare but just as much excitement for the winners.

The glamor on Friday was restricted to the hostess for the evening, the actress Jennifer Garner, who seemed slightly out of place amid the software designers, researchers and engineers.

The ceremony was heavy with technical jargon, as the actress presented awards to the authors of a paper called "A Practical Model for Subsurface Light Transport," and an Eastman Kodak group that developed anti-static-layer technology for movie film. Ms. Garner was only a little intimidated, however. She majored in chemistry in college before switching to drama, and she grew up in a technical household.

"My father is a retired chemical engineer of 37 years," she said, "and I grew up in a household where I was constantly hearing polyethylene and polypropylene and polystyrene and that's what he made for Union Carbide. So it's not completely unique to my ear."

Oxford-trained biologist Peter Parks received an Oscar for his microphotography. Using high-magnification cameras, he creates special effects in subminiature worlds, and produces scientific films with 3-D technology.

"I was a biologist at Oxford," explained Mr. Parks. "That was my degree, in biology, particularly marine biology. And because I was in marine biology, I was always looking at things in liquids and fluids floating around in the sea, and so on." That interest led to a 25-year career in the movie business.

The scientific awards, which include Oscar statuettes and special certificates and plaques, are presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Richard Edlund, who chairs the Academy's scientific and technical committee, is a fan of these people he calls "super-nerds."

He said one award went to the designer of a computer program that created dramatic battle scenes in the fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. "Those kind of programs are what enable you to have 200,000 soldiers fighting on the battlefield in a shot that lasts four seconds in the movie, but nonetheless, that's four seconds that the audience will never forget," said Mr. Edlund.

Other awards went to the designer of motion control technology for cameras, and to the team that created Pro Tools, a computer program for processing movie sound. Dave Lebolt, general manager for the company Digidesign, accepted an Oscar for the software, which he says adds new colors to the moviemaker's palette.

"It's just great that the digital technology made it possible for people with any need or budget to get into what they needed to do," said Mr. Lebolt, "and it's given directors a tremendous amount of choice and they can quickly make those changes. That flexibility has changed the way people work."

Actress Jennifer Garner says she's just as amazed as everyone else with the new technology, and with what it lets moviemakers accomplish.

"They can do anything, which is a little bit scary as an actor because we can be replaced now by something created digitally that has its own brain," said Ms. Garner. "That's one thing that makes us a little nervous. But it's also pretty exciting to think that the way that Andy Serkis did his role in Lord of the Rings - obviously, a lot's been made of that, but with good reason because he performed the role and then it was turned into something completely different. And that's one of the thing's we're celebrating tonight."

In The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the character of Gollum is computer generated, but actor Andy Serkis provided the voice and movements.

Microphotographer Peter Parks says such digital techniques are transforming the movie business. "I'm really excited that I've lived long enough to see digital effects take on the form that they have," he said. "It's quite a revolution. It's like living at the beginning of the industrial revolution, and looking at steam engines. It must have been quite exciting then, too."

Frank Pierson, president of the motion picture academy, says the new technology has advanced further than the ability of producers, directors and writers to fully use it. He says scientists and engineers are creating a new language, which Hollywood moviemakers are doing their best to master.

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