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Making the Scenes

Academy Fetes Tech Wizards Behind the Movies' Magic

March 02, 1998|KAREN KAPLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite the smattering of golden Oscar statuettes--the famed bald men clutching slender swords--it was clear from the start that this was not the Big Night for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

While the men were snazzily dressed in tuxedos, the women's gowns weren't nearly as outrageous as the designer get-ups favored by Hollywood's elite ladies. There was a red carpet, but it wasn't lined with paparazzi or adoring fans.

Most of all, the atmosphere lacked anxious "and-the-winner-is" anticipation, as all of the honorees at Saturday night's Scientific and Technical Awards Presentation had been announced in early January.

This was the night when the academy feted the unsung heroes of Hollywood. These were the people who engineer the tools--ranging from camera lenses to fog machines to computer graphics software--that movie makers use to create the films that get the glory.

"It's a good night in Hollywood for hackers," said Roy Hall, who won a Scientific and Engineering Award for spearheading development of the Wavefront Advanced Visualizer, the first commercial software package for modeling, animating and rendering digital images good enough to be used in major motion pictures.

Indeed, the academy spared little expense at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. Film star Ashley Judd officiated the Sci/Tech Awards ceremony, as it is known in engineering circles.

"I'm very esteemed to be in the company of all you geniuses," she told the crowd. After an evening of reading technical jargon off a television monitor at the back of the room, she seemed genuinely impressed by their accomplishments.

Awards went to 60 honorees--with only two of the winners women, a common ratio in tech circles--for inventions that moviegoers take for granted. And it only took an hour and a half.

One of the first technical achievement award certificates of the evening went to Philip Cory for the design and development of the Special Effects Spark Generator, a non-pyrotechnical device that produces a controllable and reliable shower of sparks for action movies such as "Speed."

Another technical achievement award went to a group that created the Liquid Synthetic Air system, which safely combines liquid oxygen and liquid nitrogen to make breathable fake fog, used in "Batman and Robin" and other films.

Nearly half of the evening's awards were for computer graphics and animation inventions that have become as prevalent in Hollywood as Panavision cameras.

"How lucky my colleagues and I are to have been around for the 25-year period when computer graphics went from nothing to dinosaurs on screen," said Richard Shoup, who won a scientific and engineering award plaque for helping to develop digital paint systems at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

As with the actors, composers, make-up artists and costume designers honored with Oscars on national television, Saturday's Sci/Tech winners tended to thank the academy, their colleagues and their families. But sometimes their thank-yous had a geeky feel.

"This is the room we had the 'Tron' party in," observed Michael Wahrman as he picked up his technical achievement award for his work on the Wavefront Advanced Visualizer. (Wahrman wrote out notes for his thank-you speech on graph paper.)

"I'd like to thank Pepsi for all the caffeine that kept me up all night," said Greg Hermanovic as he accepted his technical achievement award for being a member of the team that developed complex three-dimensional modeling and animation software used to simulate natural phenomena.

The evening culminated with the presentation of two Oscar statuettes, the academy's highest honor. The Academy Award of Merit went to Gunnar Michelson, a onetime aerospace engineer who built a high-speed precision light valve that greatly improved the efficiency of motion picture printing machines. Michelson thanked his son for encouraging him to put his skills to work for Hollywood and accepted a kiss from Judd.

Don Iwerks won the Gordon E. Sawyer Award for building advanced projection systems in his 35-year career at the Walt Disney Co., then for founding Burbank-based Iwerks Entertainment to create simulation attractions for theme parks and other sites. A visibly moved Iwerks brought a yellow silk handkerchief with him to the podium and never touched the Oscar with his bare hands.

That kind of humility is rarely seen at the traditional Academy Awards.

*

Karen Kaplan covers technology and can be reached at karen.kaplan@latimes.com

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