Sci-Tech 2011

This year’s Scientific and Technical Achievement Awards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were presented at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on February 12.

Marisa Tomei. photo: Richard Harbaugh ©A.M.P.A.S

The event, hosted by Marisa Tomei, honored many innovations in the digital realm in the industry, as well as gravity-defying systems for sending cameras and props zooming through the air and enabling shots and special effects previously impossible to achieve. But the star of the evening was a man who has dedicated his life not only to furthering technical advances in cinematography, but to putting the best tools in the hands of filmmakers around the world and teaching them how to use them.

Denny Clairmont, owner of Clairmont Camera, received the John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation for his many years as the head of one of the world’s largest and most respected camera rental houses. From his early days as a camera technician, Denny never lost his love for the technical aspects of cinematography. His company has introduced a number of unique and specialized products for cinematographers, including the Crazy Horse Rig, the Squishy Lens and the Image Shaker. In 2000, Denny, along with Ken Robings, received a Technical Achievement Award for the design and development of Swing-Shift Lenses for motion pictures.

Denny Clairmont. photo: Todd Wawrychuk / ©A.M.P.A.S.

Denny began his acceptance speech by honoring his long-time partner and brother Terry who passed away a few years ago. “He was one of the forces that encouraged me to keep doing this. He’s a very important part of this.” Denny also singled out long-time collaborator and Senior Executive Vice President Alan Albert, whom he credited with a number of original ideas that enabled the innovation of systems for which Clairmont Camera is known around the world. Giving back to the community has long been a priority for Denny, who is a member of the Academy’s Science and Technology Steering Committee.

In the digital domain, four Academy Certificates were awarded to four variations of render queue management systems, which process large, complex digital image files.

  • Greg Ercolano for the Rush render queue management system.
  • David M. Laur for the Alfred render queue management system.
  • Chris Allen, Gautham Krishnamurti, Mark A. Brown and Lance Kimes for development of the Queue scalable render queue management system.
  • Florian Kainz for design and development of the ObaQ render queue management system.

photo: Todd Wawrychuk ©A.M.P.A.S.

For the creation of global illumination techniques, by which light in animation bounces realistically off objects in accordance with their reflectivity and color, Eric Tabellion and Arnauld Lamorlette received Academy Certificates. Their work was first seen in Shrek 2 and the animation community took notice of the difference in lighting between the first Shrek and the sequel. Tabellion’s global illumination has been utilized in every Dreamworks picture since, and has been replicated by all the major animation studios.

Tony Clark, Alan Rogers, Neil Wilson and Rory McGregor received Academy Certificates for cineSync, a software tool that allows visual effects teams from all corners of the globe to quickly and easily share and collaborate on VFX sequences. The cineSync system is used by Weta Digital and many other effects houses.

An Academy Plaque went to Dr. Mark Sagar, whose work in facial motion capture and retargeting was used in a number of high-budget, effects-driven films such as Avatar and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. With this system, digital capture of emotion on the faces of actors can later be animated with a high degree of realism.

But not all filmmaking has been transformed into 1s and 0s. The Academy recognized three systems that have changed the way cinematographers are able to move about and manipulate the physical world.

Mark Noel and John Frazier were awarded Academy Plaques for the NAC Servo Winch System, a control system and cabled apparatus that allows large props such as cars and airplanes the ability to quickly, smoothly and safely fly around in three-dimensional real-time space. The accuracy of the system exhibits reliable repeatability allowing for minor adjustments and multiple takes.

Two companies received Academy Plaques for suspended cable camera technologies, allowing cameras to be flown with smooth consistency and programmable paths beyond the reach of traditional cranes and below the minimum altitudes of helicopter cams. Tim Drnec, Ben Britten Smith and Matt Davis of Spydercam were unable to attend the event at the last minute and the Academy accepted the award on their behalf.

James Rodnunsky, Alex MacDonald and Mark Chapman of Cablecam took the stage to receive their Academy Plaques. In his acceptance speech, Alex gave all due credit to James for his persistence and encouragement and recounted how James first approached him with the idea for the Cablecam.

“In 2002 I’m standing in a booth at Cine Gear testing a motion control laptop computer and this crazy guy comes into the booth and says, ‘I’ve got this thing, 800′ long and 200′ wide, and it goes like this, and like this, and up, and down, and it’s run by hydraulic compressors the size of Volkswagens, and it goes 100mph. Can you make it work on that little computer thing you’ve got there?’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding…I can do that.’”

That one phrase describes what the Science and Technology Awards are truly about, what it takes to turn a good idea into a great invention for motion pictures: four simple words. At one moment or another, every honoree on the stage has thought, said and believed, “I can do that.”

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