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February 21, 2014

Hollywood Sci-Tech Awards Honor Scientists, Engineers

by Mike O'Sullivan

Hollywood's motion picture academy will present the Academy Awards, or Oscars, March 2, in an annual celebration that honors actors and filmmakers.  Some of the scientists and engineers who help create the movie magic have already been honored with the academy's Scientific and Technical Awards held on February 15. 

Tony Postiau of Flying-Cam, a company based in Belgium, was honored for helping develop a small drone helicopter that carries a camera.  

“It's a tool that makes it possible to take shots including for the cinema at close-range aerial filming. So it's really a helicopter. It's a flying camera, actually,” he said.

The flying camera was used in the 2012 James Bond film Skyfall to follow the hero from the air, as he rode a motorcycle over the rooftops of Istanbul.

Many award winners developed digital tools that have made fantasy films realistic.  

Ofer Alon received an Academy plaque for creating the computer program ZBrush.

“Which is a sculpting tool that's used in motion pictures to create fantastic creatures and things that are not existing, like environments," he said. "You've seen those in many popular movies like Avatar, Lord of the Rings, and stuff like that.”

​​Canadians Andre Gauthier and Yves Boudreault  are part of a team that created FiLMBOX, a motion capture and animation software program that lets actors transfer their movements to a virtual character.  It has been used in many fantasy blockbusters, and the men say the team is proud to be honored.  They said developing FiLMBOX involved working six, seven days a week, 12-13 hours a day, for almost 20 years.

Many of these technologists, like physicist Ronald Henderson of DreamWorks Animation, had no idea that they would one day work in the movie business.

“I really didn't. I started off in aeronautical engineering at Purdue University, and then I went on to Princeton and I studied simulation and applied math, and I worked at Cal Tech in the applied math department for five years,” he said.

Henderson was honored for creating a computer program that simulates smoke, fire and explosions.  It has been used in such films as the recent animated adventure Rise of the Guardians, and the upcoming animated comedy Mr. Peabody and Sherman.

Peter Hillman earned a technical achievement award for his work in digital compositing, seamlessly blending video elements together with the help of computers.  He says new technology expands the range of what we see on screen.

“The movies that I most enjoy are the ones which couldn't have been made in any other way and where it is part of the story, and possibly where you don't know," he said. "I mean, hopefully, people see The Planet of the Apes and don't realize that those weren't just very well trained monkeys, that it was all computer-generated, that there weren't really any primates in it at all.”

Actor Michael B. Jordan and actress Kristen Bell hosted the ceremony, and both were pleased to meet the engineers and scientists who make their work easier, and less dangerous.  Bell stars in the upcoming murder mystery Veronica Mars.

“When you have geniuses sitting at a computer somewhere in the world that are creating programs that make it look like bombs are going off, or avatars exist, it only makes you more excited to be a part of this industry because everybody is telling the story better,” Bell said.

She says it all results in more exciting movies.