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February 15, 2013

Sci-Tech Oscars Honor Science of Movie-Making

by Mike O'Sullivan

Special effects and other cinema technology are becoming more important in helping movie-makers tell their stories.  Hollywood's motion picture academy, which will present the Oscars Sunday, February 24, has already honored the engineers and scientists behind the industry's changing technology.  

The Oscars are presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which reminds us each year that filmmaking is both an art and a science.

The Academy's Scientific and Technical - or Sci-Tech - awards, are presented a few weeks before the Oscars.  This year, they were given out February 9. The British company Cooke Optics, which has been making cinema lenses since the early days of movies, received the Academy's highest honor, an Oscar.

Longtime special effects creator Bill Taylor received a medal of commendation for his service to the motion picture academy. Taylor has worked on visual effects in films that include Jim Carrey's fantasy Bruce Almighty and Martin Scorsese's 1991 remake of the psychological thriller Cape Fear.

"And Cape Fear was full of visual effects. And because Martin Scorsese is a great student, he understood how every visual effects shot on every movie ever made was done, basically, so he really fell into it," said Taylor. "And one of the greatest achievements in the history of visual effects was his Hugo, which was just last year.”

Scorsese's fantasy-adventure Hugo won five Oscars, including one for its visual effects team.

Ross Shain of Imagineer Systems was part of a group honored at this year's Sci-Tech awards for software that helps filmmakers create elaborate effects in post-production.  He said the company's system, called Mocha, has been used in many films, including Black Swan, a thriller about a ballet dancer, played by Natalie Portman.

"Throughout the film she sort of evolves into a climactic scene where she becomes a swan. And feathers and different visual effects are applied to her body," he said. "And the artists basically have to motion-track the movements of the actress to apply effects to it.”

Richard Edlund, who chairs the Academy Sci-Tech Awards committee, has won four Oscars over the years, including for Star Wars.

He said special effects are an important part of films of all genres, not just science fiction.

"The technologists in my opinion are just as creative as the actors and the directors on the other side of the camera because they’re the ones that produce the technology that enables the artist to create and to transmit artistic ideas to the audience,” said Edlund.

He said there are many challenges in making a great movie, and one of the biggest challenges for the 1977 blockbuster was not technical. It was finding an actor who could deliver lines like this, and make them believable:

He said the casting of Alec Guinness as Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi was one reason the Star Wars series was successful.  John Williams's dramatic music was another. Last but not least, he said creative effects helped director George Lucas create a classic.

Edlund said that collaboration between art and technology remains just as important today.