New honors for old friends

Posted: 03.14.14

The Scientific and Technical Academy Awards honor long proven

No one comments on what they wore, and most moviegoers don’t realize what their work actually entails, but the winners of the Scientific and Technical Academy Awards make movie history as surely as did Marilyn Monroe. As usual, there is a solid contingent of winners coming from the Bay Area. There’s partying going on at Autodesk, at ILM, and at Pixar. Tinkerers, and mathematicians in New Zealand, have also had reason to thank the Academy for an award or two.

This year saw a long list of awards, so long that they’re not all going to fit in this space, and most of them are for software, sometimes pretty old software at that. Consider rendering. Always improving and evolving, rendering technology could probably win an award every year, but this year render gods Matt Pharr, Greg Humphreys, and Pat Hanrahan were recognized for a book they wrote in 2004, Physically Based Rendering, which includes source-code implementation and instructional information. Pure gold for software developers and artists alike. Eric Veach’s foundational research on efficient Monte Carlo path tracing for image synthesis, published in 1997, was also recognized.

Compositing, the ability to work on different layers or planes, is a core filmmaking technology that has become incredibly powerful with digital advances. Compositing has evolved into a true 3D capability, and some credit for that goes to Peter Hillman of Weta, along with colleagues Colin Doncaster, Johannes Saam, Areito Echevarria, Janne Kontkanen, and Chris Cooper, for creating tools for deep compositing. The technology grew out of work done for 3D animation where characters and objects and backgrounds are all composed in a scene and every leaf, star, particle, and strand of fur is created and placed. Those lessons learned about 3D are being applied to 2D filmmaking and giving filmmakers much more control over the scene—from front to back.

Thomas Lokovic and Eric Veach of Pixar were recognized for their deep shadowing technology, which enables shadow information to be stored for pixels at every possible depth. Their work, which has been used to create realistic fur and hair, was first revealed at Siggraph in 2000 and has provided a base for deep compositing.

Getting physical

Olivier Maury, Ian Sachs, and Dan Piponi of ILM were recognized for the Plume system, which simulates and renders fire, smoke, and explosions. A related award went to Ronald D. Henderson, director of R&D at Dreamworks, for the Flux gas simulation system. In both cases, the technology uses physics to produce realistic effects. The technology has become more practical for use in filmmaking as a result of GPU and multithreading technologies to speed up the processing. The Award notes that these tools have resulted in realistic effects and faster turnaround times.

In some cases, the better and more advanced digital technologies become, the closer they get us to a real-world experience. For example, the Academy recognized software that has made pixels malleable or at least given artists the feeling of working with real, physical objects. Andrew Camenisch, David Cardwell, and Tibr Madjar were recognized for the concept and design of Mudbox, while Csaba Koheghi and Imre Major were awarded for the implementation of Mudbox. ZBrush’s technology is similar to Mudbox, and Ofer Alon won an award for his work on multi-resolution sculpting of digital models. Both tools use the metaphor of sculpting clay to create organic shapes with 3D models, especially faces. The development of tools like Mudbox and Zbrush was inspired by technicians who went before—the people who created clay models for special effects. These people stayed in the business, moved to digital, but they never lost their love for working in clay and sculpting.

And that is a common theme for many of these awards—they recognize technologies that make it easier to create realistic effects or images using tools that work like they should in the real world. Lighting that better mimics real- world lighting, and colors consistent across applications.

Other winners actually are realworld tools, and they are fine tools that any 15-year-old boy would be proud to have invented. The Pneumatic Car Flipper, which yes, precisely flips a car when and where you want it flipped, and drone-mounted camera systems strong enough to fly professional film and digital cameras around and smart enough to focus, pan, tilt, and all that.

Team Hollywood

It’s fitting that in 2013, one of the best years for movies, the Academy saw fit to recognize so many people involved in the Sci-Tech side of movie-making. It also makes sense that these awards date back to work that’s been done over a decade ago (and actually much longer ago than that). It’s really a big pool of research, a long, on-going Manhattan Project for the arts, and it’s shared by people who love making movies and who also love making science.