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Hollywood Honors Engineers, Inventors with Sci-Tech Awards

Richard Edlund, Chairman of the Academy's Sci-Tech awards committee (file photo)
Richard Edlund, Chairman of the Academy's Sci-Tech awards committee (file photo)

Technology is changing the movie business, and Hollywood’s technical whizzes get their moment in the spotlight at the Motion Picture Academy’s Scientific and Technical Awards presentation. Hollywood engineers and inventors were honored recently for their work behind the scenes.

David Laur helped solve the problem of managing the workload for the huge banks of computers used for special effects. The process of creating realistic images on computers is called "rendering."

"And so this queue management, of which there are several awards tonight, is all about managing these giant clusters of computers," said Laur. "We call them 'render farms.' So I'm a render farmer, is one way to think of it."

Laur was one of the honorees at the Sci-Tech Awards, which were presented on February 12th by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The organization is better known for its Academy Awards, or Oscars, which will be handed out on February 27.

Laur came to this industry with a degree in aerospace engineering. Now he works for Pixar Animation Studios, and he says he is enjoying the glamour of Hollywood.

"This is a dream come true for me," he said. "I know a lot of these guys at Pixar who have won these awards, and they have always been my heroes. And so to get a chance to give my gratitude to the Academy as well has been just magical for me."

Mark Sagar is a bioengineer who was also honored for his work in the movie business. Sagar helped develop the motion capture technology that transfers the facial expressions of actors to animated characters on screen. The process is essential to many films, including James Cameron’s hit fantasy Avatar. Sagar says getting the eyes right is the hardest part.

"For films like Avatar, we had helmet cameras, so the camera sees the eyes of the actor," said Sagar. "So that makes it a lot easier because you know that you're tracking it exactly. There's a sort of synchrony between that and expressions and what your eyelids are doing. All those things, you can actually tell a lot because when we look in other people's eyes, we tell their emotional state. We know intuitively. And we have to capture that level of fidelity."

Richard Edlund is Chairman of the Academy's Sci-Tech awards committee. He has won four Oscars over the years for his work in visual effects, including his pioneering work in the first three Star Wars films. Edlund says the industry has changed since then.

"When I came into the visual effects business to do Star Wars, there was no infrastructure," said Edlund. "I couldn't find anybody; I had to teach anybody I hired how to do whatever I needed to be done. So it's become an industry, and it's become so ubiquitous that there's almost no movies being made today that don't have at least some visual effects in them."

But these technical people say story lines and acting still are at the heart of films, even those with computer-generated effects.

Actress Marisa Tomei, who hosted the scientific and technical awards presentation, says the new technology often is in background.

"I'm certainly not aware of it, which is the beauty of it, actually, because the more refined it gets and the greater the level of craftsmanship, the more effortless it is," said Tomei.

The new movie technology has opened exciting opportunities for film makers, says visual effects artist Richard Edlund. He says that with enough money, a producer can put almost anything on the screen. And he says the new direction of Hollywood has opened opportunities for talented engineers and inventors.

"They look around; they read the magazines; they're smart," he said. "There's something magical about movie making, and it suckers them in."

Edlund says many computer whizzes are heading to Hollywood, along with aspiring actors, to get into the movie business.