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Hollywood Hands Out Technical Oscars - 2002-03-09

Hollywood will honor its best this month when the movie industry presents the annual Academy Awards, March 24. But the year's first Oscar has already been given out, along with other film awards for scientific and technical achievement.

Officials of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences say the "sciences" part of the movie business should not be forgotten. And each year, the Academy pays tribute to its engineers and scientists a few weeks before it honors its movie artists.

"A lot of the heroes are unsung. These are the people who create the magic of movies and enable the movies to be made," says Richard Edlund chairs the academy's scientific and technical committee.

Mr. Edlund notes that movies themselves are an illusion, a series of separate images that appear as fluid motion. And each year, he says, the ways of creating movie illusions improve.

This year, the Academy is honoring a lens from Panavision, new technical devices, and movie-making software.

Ed Di Giulio was given the Oscar for lifetime achievement for accomplishments that include development of the Steadicam, a stabilizing device for handheld cameras.

German scientist Uwe Sassenberg was honored with his partner, Rolf Schneider, for a software program called the " 3D equalizer." The program integrates computer-created objects with real footage. Mr. Sassenberg says his system was used in a number of recent films.

Lord of the Rings is a good example," he explained. "Our customer [the filmmaker] has done about 200 shots with our software. For example, there is a scene when one of the main actors, Gandalf the wizard, is sitting on top of a tower. And the camera is moving around the tower."

The tower was generated by a computer, the actor playing the wizard was real, and the surrounding environment was a miniature model, all seamlessly integrated into a single sequence.

Cary Phillips of Industrial Light and Magic, a California company started by Star Wars creator George Lucas, was honored with colleagues for developing software called the Creature Dynamics System, which enhances computer images in movies.

"We like to tell the joke that George did not want his characters to perform nude, so we had to develop technology to simulate clothing so that they could wear garments. Most of the digital creatures that we have brought to life in the past have been dinosaurs and animals, and monsters and things that are less human, and I guess there is progress to more and more human-like creatures," he said.

Cameraman Pete Romano also received an Academy certificate for technical achievement. He developed and built and underwater camera system used in the films Pearl Harbor, Jurassic Park III, and U-571.

" The reason that my company started was because when I came to Los Angeles to seek my fortune, the equipment to pursue my dreams was not available and I had to go ahead and design it, and make it so I could go out there and do my job," said Mr. Romano.

Academy president Frank Pierson says technology cannot replace the artistry of movies, but the industry's technical experts are expanding the language of film. Mr. Pierson, a screenwriter, says the industry's scientists and engineers are opening new horizons for people like him.

"These are the people that essentially have created, over a period of 100 years, the language, the syntax and the vocabulary of film, which have been so expanded dramatically, especially in the last few years by the scientists and technologists and the computer technologists who make it possible to pursue our dreams," he noted. " There is nothing that a writer or director could imagine that cannot now be put on film convincingly as reality or as fantasy, and we owe it all to these people."

In addition, jokes Mr. Pierson, the movie industry does not kill off its stuntmen any more, as technology makes dramatic sequences more vivid, but safer to film.

Will the new technology eventually replace human actors? That is not likely, say officials of the movie academy. Most scenes in movies are filmed more cheaply and quickly using live performers, but science and technology are enhancing the finished product.