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HomeAwardsJonathan Erland's John A. Bonner Medal Acceptance Speech

Jonathan Erland’s John A. Bonner Medal Acceptance Speech

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Jonathan Erland accepted the John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation during the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Scientific and Technical Achievement Awards. (Photo by: Todd Wawrychuk/©A.M.P.A.S.)

Below we’ve reprinted Jonathan Erland’s acceptance speech for the John A. Bonner medal of commendation from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences‘ Scientific and Technical Awards, which were held Feb. 11.

I’m very grateful to the Board of Governors and our President Tom Sherak and to the Sci-Tech Committee and our Chair, Richard Edlund, for this singular honor – the John Bonner Medal. I’d also like to take this opportunity to welcome Dawn Hudson, particularly, to our Sci-Tech family.

While I’ve received awards before, this is a very special Award for me, and I’m going to take a few moments here to explain why. John Bonner was a friend, and I was very fortunate to know him. He was a former Chair of this Committee, a fellow Governor and a mentor and exemplar for me and many of us along with Lin Dunn and Don Trumbull each of whom has received this honour. Indeed, what a League of Exemplars they were, with: Rod Ryan, Geoff Williamson, Dick Stumpf, Joe Westheimer, Bud Stone, Pete Clark, Ed DiGuillio and, of course, Tak Miyagishima, who also became one of our first Academy Science Fellows; these are some of the most innovative minds our art form has known. With all of whom, and many more, I now share this distinction.

Eighteen years ago, while serving on our Academy’s Board, I had the great privilege of nominating John Bonner to receive the medal that now bears his name. I wonder how many of us here tonight remember, all these years later, how much the wonder that is the Goldwyn Theatre was due to John Bonner? I know Don Rogers does. John ran the “special projects department” at Warner’s, (AKA the “skunkworks”) where he generously encouraged people with new ideas, even from outside Warner’s, to come in and use his extensive lab to develop their own projects in return for no more than just giving him the right of first refusal. He was an early and ardent supporter of the restoration of the Sci-Tech Council. We all loved him and, towards the end, many of us literally would and did give our blood for him. His last public appearance was attending an event he loved – this one – in 1996. He was the epitome of “upholding the high standards of the Academy” and his legacy lives on in this.

The Goldwyn theatre. This Academy has named various facets of our institution after some very significant people. We have the Hersholt Award, named after the beloved actor Jean Hersholt who was not only an important Academy president but a founder with Fairbanks, Pickford and Chaplin, of the Motion Picture Home, which mercifully now has a new lease on life. Gordon Sawyer, the famous sound engineer, graces our Science award, which, in a few moments will be bestowed upon Don Trumbull’s son Douglas. There’s the Herrick Library, of course, and contrary to popular sentiment that our administration has been forever male, Margaret was Executive Director for at least a third of this institution’s life. The Fairbanks Centre, in which the Herrick is housed, named after our first President Douglas Fairbanks and, of course, the Pickford Centre, named after that other famous Pickfair resident and Academy founder, Mary Pickford.

All of these people, part of the heritage, part of the family that has always been this Academy. And these are not dusty old relics, these people are galvanic personages. To be sure, those who remember our last, bittersweet glimpse of Ms. Pickford in a filmed interview in 1976 saw a frail, housebound, reclusive old lady very close to the 1979 end of her life. But look into those eyes and in them, you could find the forever young, incredibly brave and dedicated actor. (She did her own stunts at a time that lacked all of the safeguards we now take for granted.) She not only invented “stardom,” she invented the star’s contract, but – she also made the working conditions and status of all actors better. She then became a brilliant producer which is what she was at the time the Academy was founded, when she was 45. She was an artist, passionate about the Academy she helped found and the pursuit of excellence she, and it, stood for. As she said, “There is no greater force for coordination, no greater avenue for constructive and intelligent cooperation for advancement than that offered by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.”

Watching her films, you can see those first vital chapters in the great book of the art of film acting being writ before your eyes as she transforms acting for the stage into acting for a camera lens. She could be tough and she was a perfectionist. “There are,” she said, “no shortcuts.”

Nor are there now, in these times of change and turmoil. Administration and staff changes within the Academy, and beyond – we have not one, but a multitude of dilemmas, digital and otherwise. There’s an ancient Chinese curse that says, “May you live in interesting times.” Well, we’re now way past “interesting” – we’re all the way to white-knuckle fascinating!

For some time now, we’ve been hearing, both from within and from without, that the Academy has to be fundamentally transformed to stay relevant to current trends. In my personal view, which is all I’m reporting here, that’s the same erroneous “tail wag the dog” notion that holds that the TV show we’re so famous for is why we have an Academy. Nonsense. When this Academy was founded, we not only, of course, didn’t have a TV show, we didn’t even have Awards, and the record shows that it was by no means certain that we would ever have Awards.

But Ms. Pickford, and her fellow founders certainly did have a crystal clear vision and a wonderful mission; a mission shared down the years by the likes of John Bonner; a mission just as relevant today as the day it was minted: the pursuit of excellence of motion pictures. And it was precisely to foster that pursuit of excellence, by the way, that we did create the Academy Awards – and the Show that celebrates them. But, the Show exists to support the Awards, and the Awards exist to support the Academy’s mission to foster the pursuit of excellence in our art form. And we should be ever cognizant of that hierarchy. If our Academy still stands for excellence in motion pictures – and it must – then the real task before us is to manage the trends such that motion pictures stay relevant to the Academy’s mission and the ideals we espouse and not the other way about. When all motion pictures are excellent, then we can perhaps talk about a new vision for this Academy.

We hear that young people don’t like the films our Academy honors with awards; that the Academy is for old people – or is that simply code for adults? If we’re now supposed to become what some people think young people want us to be today, then what the hell is there left for them to grow up for? We, and what we do, are why they grow up, and the fact that they do grow up, and grow up to want excellent films, is why we’re here. With time and experience, come maturity, knowledge, perspective, discernment and above all – wisdom. Armed with these, we can resist becoming unduly perplexed by the turbulence of future shock. Yes, of course, technology advances at a breakneck speed. I’ve been an R & D director for much of my life, and I’m as guilty as anyone for this (though it’s been pointed out to me that the R & D on my office door at Apogee actually stood for “Remorse and Disappointment”).

But be that as it may, humanity and human nature doesn’t change as much as many might think. From the caveman to the present, we still amuse, inform, influence and enlighten each other through the medium of telling stories. We “tell” stories in a variety of ways: with literature, poetry and song, but the most compelling way we’ve ever devised is to “act them out.” Which has given us the theatre, opera, ballet, and particularly, the twentieth century’s great gift to our civilization – motion pictures. It was that great gift that inspired the Founders of this Academy. When we were formed, the “commodity” motion picture of simple entertainment was already being served quite adequately by other entities, like the Producers Association; but our founders recognized that film wasn’t simply a commodity entertainment, nor was it merely inclusive of other arts, but it was, at its best, an amalgam of the arts that created a wholly new art form. And that fact, that new art form, required the creation of an Academy – this Academy.

Our Academy thus joined and became an integral part, indeed a pillar, of that community of non-profit institutions, which already included the then sixteen year old ASC, the eleven year old SMPE, as it then was, and the Producers Association; and later the BKSTS, NATO, the VES, and so on. This family of “non-profit” institutions forms the matrix that connects and binds together our disparate and fractious industry of “for profit” companies. Each addresses an essential but discrete facet of this fabric of our community. The for-profits and the non-profits comprise the essential ying and yang of competition, on one hand, versus co-operation on the other, from which derive the equilibrium and stability in which our art form can thrive. For the non-profits, it’s commonweal, not competition. In a culture that obsesses about competing, the equal, opposite and essential pole of co-operation is rarely celebrated. But you heard it just now in Ms. Pickford’s words, and it’s codified in this Academy’s Mission Statement, in Article II of the by-laws, as integral to this institution.

As is our science. And this Science and Technology contingent of the Academy, gathered here tonight, understands very well the remarks made by William DeMille, Cecil’s brother and the second president of this Academy, when he addressed concerns voiced at the 1929 Annual General Meeting (sadly, we no longer do those, by the way). About the Academy’s early focus on science, he said – “if we don’t get the science first, you ain’t going to get no art.”

Well, we’re still trying to get the science right, and we dare never stop trying to get it right. With us here tonight is Dick Glickman, a Bonner laureate and Academy Science Fellow, who, for many years, has called for the creation of a Science Branch for our Academy. Perhaps, Dick, we’re getting closer to that now. Both our art and our science are moving targets, indeed rapidly moving targets – something our Chairman, Richard Edlund, here, a devoted skeet shooter, can well appreciate.

As we all know, the remaining founding members of the Academy’s Sci-Tech Council, including myself, will be terming out under our by-laws’ nine year rule later this year. Hence this valedictory homily. Given that I’ve been working to expand the film-makers’ palette for some thirty years now, and, at seventy-two, I’ve only a handful of viable years left, it’s not likely I’ll be able to give it up immediately – not quite yet. So, while my direct involvement with the Academy Council will inevitably diminish, I and my wife Kay, who’s name, by the way, really ought to be inscribed on this award along with mine, are in the process of creating another member of that non-profit family, an Institute for Motion Picture Studies, in which we can continue this work. The goal will be to cooperate and collaborate as closely as possible with the Academy Council, the SMPTE, ASC, VES and all the non-profit family that share the vision Mary Pickford described.

While we’ll still work on projects like “Solid State Light” and “Lens Metadata,” the last few decades have brought huge advances in the brain science of human perception and we’re looking forward to continuing to delve into how the human mind processes the motion picture phenomenon. This was a moot point while we were locked into the constraints of our electro-mechanical photochemical process, and the advent of sound had forced us into a rigid observance of frame rate which denied the cinematographer the extremely subtle but effective psycho-physiological influence of the variable frame rate.

We’re about to bestow upon Douglas Trumbull, a genius of theatrical presentation, arguably this Academy’s most prestigious honour, the Gordon Sawyer Award – an Oscar. One of Doug’s many brilliant contributions, the stunning sixty frame per second Showscan, offered a dramatic escape from that 24 frame prison. In just a few moments, Doug will be standing at this podium, and I’m hoping he’ll describe for us his new Digital Showscan process and its potential for hyper-real imagery.

The direction I’m concerned with just now however, is a little different, as it lies along the other axis of the continuum, the sub-twenty four frame region, and the subtle shifts in time base, where our forebears of the silent era wove their own special magic. Constant motion imaging, rather than the intermittent imaging we’ve always lived with, has remained a film-makers’ dream for many years. Digital cameras have now made that readily accessible, and so today’s rapidly evolving technology paradoxically promises to restore some of the lost palette of the cinematographer from the silent era. The decoupling of flicker fusion and motion fusion, along with pitch control of sound, further free us from the omnipotent metronome.

We can now, on a scene to scene basis, exploit frame rates from the teens to the hundreds, and even advance or retard the time base of the scene by as much as twenty-five percent. By the way, I wonder how many of us are aware that one of this years leading Oscar contenders, The Artist, besides being shot in black and white and silent, was shot at twenty-two frames per second, for projection at 24 – a time base shift of eight percent? It must be obvious to this community that our art form isn’t necessarily about a literal depiction of reality; but is essentially an insightful and nuanced interpretation of reality, and we now have at our fingertips a plethora of new tools to expand that insight and interpretation.

All this underscores what many of you know about me already; that I look to history to light our way to the future. I’ve often said that our Academy is, at once, “the guardian of our past; and the guarantor of our future.” Our heritage, its preservation and restoration looms large for all of us. Restore films, we must; build a museum, we must; but, to guarantee our future, we have also to restore and reassert the conviction, consistency and the focus of our core mission.

It’s that mission, the high standard of excellence, symbolized by this Bonner Medal, the Sawyer, and all our awards, that drives the selection process for entry into our Academy. A very rigorous process that selects for seasoned professionals, with demonstrably excellent credentials, who have a key creative role not only in the films they make but in the life of the Academy they join. For ultimately, it is these people, and not the edifice on Wilshire nor the Awards, nor the Show, but these people and the staff and volunteers who share our devotion to this cause, that comprise this family and this Academy.

And we are not members, by the way. You can be a member of Costco, or Kaiser or a book club, but when the institution in question is an Academy, such as this, then the correct term is “Academician.” And with that term comes a great deal more responsibility than you have as a Costco or Kaiser member. You are engaged in the pursuit of excellence and running a marathon until you drop. Which is exactly what John Bonner did, and Lin Dunn, Don Trumbull, Tak Miyagishima and all the others in our League of Exemplars. And so, to borrow a phrase from an American president, “Ask not what your Academy can do for you; ask what you can do for your Academy.”

Thank you very much.

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