By Mary Ann Skweres
It’s the high profile “arts” awards that dominate the Oscars every year, yet several weeks before the televised ceremony the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honors the behind-the-scenes innovators who comprise the “science” branch of the society.
In the last 10 years alone, approximately 200 awards have been given in areas such as camera, camera cranes, cartoon process, digital imaging technology, editorial and preproduction, film, laboratory, lenses and filters, lighting, photography, projection, sound, special photographic, stage operations and systems. Some years there are multiple winners; other years some categories may not be awarded at all.
“The awards are an acknowledgment of the advances that change the process of movie making. That is the fundamental yardstick,” says Ray Feeney, five-time Academy Technical Award winner, engineer, founder of RFX and member of the Academy selection committee.
The annual nomination process begins in June: The Academy just sent out requests for a technology applications (see story on page 8). To get through the initial selection process, applicants must have created a product of consequence that advances the industry and has enough historical perspective to be award-worthy. The selection committee, decided upon by the Academy president and technical members from within the Board of Governors, comprises around 40 recognized industry experts, engineers, scientists and craftsmen. Subcommittees review specific areas of technology.
A combination of factors give weight to award-worthiness: impact on the industry, overall adoption by the industry and the level of technical invention in elegance and engineering skill involved. Awards fall into two categories: technological breakthroughs that enable storytelling that didn’t exist before (the wow factor), and technology that changes the behind-the-scenes moviemaking process. So, in the first case, it might create fantasies or recreate historical venues that would otherwise be too expensive to produce; or be a “hip visual” such as the bullet-time effect from the original Matrix movie.
Or the technology might change the economic model, the level of complexity involved in a certain process or establish entirely new techniques, but not necessarily affect details on screen. Work done in motion control, for example, was recognized because it continued to radically impact the industry, even though it didn’t change the content on the screen. But it changed the method by which the content was captured, and speeded up processes, with more accurate, sharper and higher-quality results.
During a preliminary screening of applicants’ techniques, some are weeded out and others that pass a certain threshold are presented to the selection committee. In the next round of judging, technologies are presented to the whole group, with a demonstration and dialog “in defense” of the applicant. A two-thirds majority vote is needed for Academy acknowledgment. Any technology that receives a two-thirds majority will then be voted up until it no longer receives a two-thirds majority.
Five different awards with different ranking honor the scientific, engineering and technical achievements developed specifically for the film industry. The John Bonner Medal of Commendation is presented to an individual “in appreciation for outstanding service and dedication in upholding the high standards of the Academy.” The Gordon E. Sawyer Oscar statuette is presented to “an individual in the motion picture industry whose technological contributions have brought credit to the industry.” Certain technologies make it up to a Technical Achievement Award, receiving a certificate for their contribution. Others move up to a Scientific and Engineering Award, receiving an Oscar plaque. A few absolute core innovations will be voted up until they receive the Academy Award of Merit. They are presented an Oscar.
In the 75 years since the awards have been handed out, only 42 achievements have merited this ultimate honor for their impact on the way movies are made. These include the invention of sound on film and the conversion from black and white to 3-strip color process.
The Academy recognizes various companies or individuals, sometimes giving several awards for a single industry-wide accomplishment. Such was the case in 1994 when the Avid Film Composer (William J. Warner, Eric C. Peters, Michael E. Phillips, Tom A. Ohanian, Patrick D. O’Connor and Joe H. Rice) and the Lightworks Editor (Paul Bamborough, Nick Pollack, Arthur Wright, Neil Harris and Duncan MacLean) each received an Oscar plaque for non-linear motion picture editing.
Certain years focus on specific areas in technology, as in 1988 when camera crane innovations were honored. And individuals are merited some years, such as Iain Neil of Panavision who has won an amazing 11 awards. Neil was responsible for the optical design of Panavision’s Primo series of lenses as well as other optical parts, such as camera viewfinders.
Award-winners are diverse. Wisconsin-based Dieter Sturm of Sturm’s Visual Effects created the Bio-Snow 2 Flake (1994 – Stage Operations). Emanuel Previnaire of Flying-Cam mounted a motion picture camera on a remote-controlled miniature helicopter (1994 – Photography). Marlowe A. Pichel developed the manufacturing process for Electro-formed Metal Reflectors which, when combined with the DC Short Arc Xenon Lamp, became the worldwide standard for motion picture projection systems (1999 – Projection). All reflect the Academy definition of the technologies considered “any device, method, formula, discovery or invention of special and outstanding value.”
Though these awards are overlooked by the public at large, industry folks, film historians and the actors themselves know that the impact of the technologies honored is what really keeps the reels in motion and the labs working year after year.
By Mary Ann Skweres