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Sci-Tech Awards Honor Decades of Digital Camera Development

By Debra Kaufman

The 89th Scientific and Technology Awards, first established for the 4th Academy Awards in 1931, were held on February 11, 2017 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Hosted by actors John Cho and Leslie Mann, the 2017 Sci-Tech Awards featured 18 separate awards, given out as citations and plaques to 34 individuals.

A well-written script and comic delivery of the two hosts provoked frequent laughter in a show where the awards are described in dense scientific and engineering terminology. Cho and Mann, who got appreciative laughter for their self-deprecating befuddlement at the text they read off the prompter, hit the mark when they dubbed the Sci-Tech Awards a “secret, private awards ceremony” that turns away the many celebrities who want to attend.

The main star of the evening was digital cameras, which, as Scientific and Technical Awards committee chair Ray Feeney noted, “helped facilitate the widespread conversion to electronic image capture for motion picture production … [and] significantly expanded filmmakers’ creative choices for moving image storytelling.” Two awards – to Sony/Panavision’s Genesis and Thomson Grass Valley’s Viper FilmStream – acknowledged the pioneering work of those companies that built the cameras at a time when the idea of digital cinematography was new and, often, unwelcomed. The Committee then recognized three digital cameras that are in widespread use today, featuring the latest technologies: the ARRI Alexa, RED Digital Cinema’s RED and Epic cameras, and Sony’s F65 CineAlta camera.

In the arena of digital visual effects, which has reached a high level of sophistication and maturity, the Academy honored advances in facial performance capture with awards to several responsible companies and individuals: Parag Havaldar’s work on expression-based facial performance at Sony Imageworks; Nicholas Apostoloff and Geoff Wedig for their animation rig-based system at ImageMovers Digital and Digital Domain; Kiran Bhat, Michael Koperwas, Brian Cantwell and Paige Warner for ILM’s facial performance capture system; and Luca Fascione, J.P. Lewis and Iain Matthews for creating Weta Digital’s FACETS facial animation capture system.

The trend towards production that incorporates heavy use of CGI and animatronics put Steven Rosenbluth, Joshua Barratt, Robert Nolty and Archie Te in the spotlight for their work on the Concept Overdrive motion system, which coordinates real world, virtual and animatronic imagery into a seamless workflow. Brian Whited was honored for designing and developing the Meander drawing system at Walt Disney Animation Studios

Awards more specific to the creation of digital imagery recognized Larry Gritz for his creation of Open Shading Language, which has become “a de facto industry standard,” and several awards to those whose work has improved rendering. Carl Ludwig, Eugene Troubetzkoy and Maurice van Swaaij were awarded for an early rendering breakthrough, with CGI Studio at the now-defunct Blue Sky Studios. The popular Arnold renderer was honored, with awards going to Marcos Fajardo for the “creative vision and original implementation” as well as Chris Kulla, Alan King, Thiago Ize and Clifford Stein for “highly optimized geometry engine and novel ray-tracing algorithms” developed at Sony Imageworks and Solid Angle. Vladimir Koylazov was awarded for “the original concept, design and implementation” of V-Ray, at Chaos Group, widely used for its approach to ray-tracing and global illumination and “its support for a wide variety of workflows.”

An animatronic horse puppet, developed originally for use in “Seabiscuit,” won honors for Mark Rappaport for the concept, design and development, Scott Oshita for the motion analysis and CAD design, Jeff Cruts for developing the faux-hair finish, and Todd Minobe for character articulation and drive-train mechanisms. Digital wireless microphones systems were awarded to Glenn Sanders and Howard Stark at Zaxcom and David Thomas, Lawrence E. Fisher and David Bundy at Lectrosonics.

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