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Hollywood Honors Technical Innovators at Academy SciTech Awards

On Sunday, March 7, the biggest stars in Hollywood will turn out in tuxedos and evening gowns for a glamorous presentation of the Academy Awards.

But the Academy's presentation of scientific and technical awards last week was a more subdued affair.

Academy President Tom Sherak says the winners of these honors, the engineers, inventors and software designers behind the camera, are just as important as the stars on the screen, even if less glamorous. "You never hear their names. You might never see them. You might never see them on television. But they are so important to movie making," he said.

The technical innovators were in the spotlight for the annual SciTech Awards. Actress Elizabeth Banks provided the glamour for the evening. She has had roles in films such as "Seabiscuit" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." She says she knows something about technology, but not too much.

"For instance, the first award is given to the engineering behind a lens motor that is silent, and then [to the engineering behind] a camera. I couldn't tell you step one in that process. So believe me when I say, 'Yes, there's a little nerd in me, but it is not in the science and technical categories whatsoever,'" she said.

For Bjorn Heden, who received the first award that evening, the journey has been a long one. The Swedish engineer invented a silent focusing motor for cameras nearly 40 years ago, and was nominated for a technical Oscar. "I was nominated in 1972. But at that time, I failed," he said.

But the camera focusing mechanism, which underwent successive improvements, was highly successful. His devices became industry standards. This year, Heden was honored for his achievement.

Many awards this year were for computer software design. Michael Bunnell and his colleagues earned a golden plaque for a process developed for the game industry and adapted for movies. It creates realistic lighting for computer-generated images.

Bunnell says it has been used in more than 30 films, including the recent animated feature "Up" and live action films like "Iron Man" and an earlier seagoing fantasy. "'In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest,' Davy Jones and his whole crew were all computer graphics characters, and they were just massive amounts of geometry. And to light those characters realistically was taking too much time," he said.

He says it was done more quickly with the new software.

German engineer Christian Baeker and his two colleagues were honored with a technical achievement award for a color software and hardware system. "I'm very proud to get this honor. We never ever thought about winning this award. So it's really a big surprise and it makes us feel really great," he said.

Baeker's colleague, Klaus Anderle, helped develop the system known as LUTher. Anderle says it ensures that production people know how films will look when they are shown in theaters, or anywhere else. "What I would have liked on my last flight was a LUTher for the television in the airplane because the colors were so strange," he said.

Recipient Per Christensen says these Academy honors acknowledge the science behind the art of moviemaking. It is all, he concedes, highly technical and a little difficult to explain. "It's all math and physics, and programming," he said.

Host Elizabeth Banks says these engineering whizzes and their technical innovations make performers like her look great on the movie screen. "It all enhances our performances. It all helps us look great and blend into the background and puts us into worlds that don't really exist and that only exist in people's imaginations, and creates a whole world for our characters to live in and for audiences to love," she said.

Academy President Tom Sherak says these inventors and innovators create the tools that let filmmakers move to the next stage of movie making. He says it has happened before, when the industry made the transition from silent to sound films, and from black and white to color. He says it is happening again as filmmakers use computer-based production techniques and three-dimensional processes, like those in the recent hit film "Avatar."