Mo-Cap Night at Sci Tech Awards

The occasion was black-tie but many of the award recipients were perhaps more comfortable with blue spandex covered with ping-pong balls. Three leading motion-capture companies were among the honorees at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ 2004 Scientific and Technical Awards held Saturday night at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, Calif.

Critically acclaimed actress Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation, The Girl with the Pearl Earring) hosted this year’s event, appropriately sporting a slightly cyber-punk look with her faux-hawk hairdo and angular black pantsuit with a revealing, low-cut top. Following a reel of highlights from her 11-year career in film, she commented, ‘After all these years being in front of the camera, it’s really an honor to be here recognizing those behind the camera.’

While the two Oscar statuettes went to developers of the Technocrane telescoping camera crane and the Louma camera crane, animation was well-represented. The audience was even treated to a classic clip from Bambi as Disney’s Steven Boze received his Academy Certificate for the design and implementation of the DNF 001 multi-band digital audio noise suppressor.

Following the brief appearance of traditional animation, a host of acceptance speeches were made regarding achievements in digital advances in the film industry.

First up were Dr. Julian Morris, Michael Birch, Dr. Paul Smyth and Paul Tate, who earned Academy Certificates for the development of motion-capture technology for Vicon of Oxford, U.K. Used by such leading studios as Industrial Light & Magic, Sony Pictures Imageworks and Moving Picture Company, Vicon’s systems have been used in Spider-Man, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Titanic and The Polar Express.

Vicon’s Dr. Smyth ecstatically told Animation Magazine Online that it was great to be recognized for something that is supposed to be invisible to audiences. He also noted that he and his colleagues are looking forward to pushing the science of mo-cap even further. ‘The fundamental problems are not going to change,’ he said. ‘What’s going to change is the way we approach them. When the technology has matured, people will stop noticing the technology and start noticing the performances’what the actors and stunt people are doing onscreen’which is the way it should be.’

Dr. John O.B. Greaves, Ned Phipps, Antonie J. van den Bogert and William Hayes next took the stage to pick up their certificates for the development of Motion Analysis Corp.’s Motion Analysis motion-capture technology. Upon accepting his award, van den Bogert commented, ‘Being the scientist of the group, I have to say this is a great day for the science of motion-capture.’ Phipps, the mathematician, then told us his biggest breakthrough was bringing real-time capabilities to mo-cap. ‘We did it at least two years before anybody else,’ he said, adding that performances improve greatly when performers are able to immediately see how their movements translate to the character on the screen. However, he said the real-time technology has not yet been perfected and much of their work will be dedicated to getting rid of the bugs that can show up at any number of points in the sophisticated mo-cap pipeline. ‘We’re always trying to find ways to simplify that pipeline.’

Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Motion Analysis Corp.’s systems have been used on the films Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Animatrix, both Matrix sequels, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, I-Robot, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Peter Jackson’s upcoming remake of King Kong.

Accepting Academy Certificates on behalf of Giant Studios were Dr. Nels Madsen, Vaughn Cato, Matthew Madden and Bill Lorton, developers of the company’s software solution that applies a unique biometric approach.

‘I think it’s such a fascinating business, enhancing what performers do,’ said Madsen. ‘Performance is the thing and being able to bring that to a new light is really satisfying.’

Based in Atlanta, Georgia, Giant Studios has contributed to the production of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Van Helsing, among others. In 2001, the company produced its own animated short film titled Fruits of Labor, a Charlie Chaplin-esque comedic sketch about a small creature’s misadventures with an apple.

Alan Kapler of Digital Domain also picked up an Academy Certificate for the design and development of Storm, a software toolkit for artistic control of volumetric effects. Storm employs an efficient method for directly manipulating volumetric data to create effects such as clouds, water and avalanches with familiar operators inspired by image compositing and painting operations. In his acceptance speech, Kapler said, ‘I’d like to thank my parents for letting me spend my youth pissing around on a computer instead of getting a real job.’

Kapler informed us that Storm is actually a name that was made up just for the Oscar submission. The software is actually called Voxel Bitch, a cousin of Cloud Bastard. Voxel Bitch was used in such films as XXX and The Day After Tomorrow, and is now being used for Stealth, a Vin Diesel vehicle which Rob Cohen (XXX, The Fast and the Furious) is directing. Kapler tells us the action flick revolves around a super-charged fighter Jet and will contain lots of cloud effects and explosions. ‘One thing I didn’t expect when developing the system was the positive environmental impact it would have,’ he notes. One scene in the film called for a giant pyrotechnical effect where fuel bursts into flames in the ocean, launching an enormous cloud of smoke into the air. According to Kapler, the filmmakers were planning on doing it for real before his software entered the picture.

The Academy Plaque was given to Lindsay Arnold, Guy Griffiths, David Hodson, Charlie Lawrence and David Mann for the development of the Cineon Digital Film Workstation. Cineon pioneered a commercial node-graph compositing system, establishing a new visual method for direct manipulation of the compositing process, which influenced and defined modern digital compositing workflows.

Arthur Widmer, who was a significant contributor to the development of the Ultra Violet and bluescreen compositing processes, received a special Award of Commendation. Widmer began his work with the Ultra Violet Traveling Matte process while at Warner Bros., where he also developed and refined technologies for other motion picture processes including 3D and widescreen. He was later hired by Universal Studios to design and build an optical department, where he researched many developments in blue-screen technology and optical printing.

Widmer, a man in his 90s, told the audience that he finds it difficult to communicate with the newer generation of film technology developers since the language has changed so drastically. ‘In my day, being digitally adept meant you could play the piccolo,’ he said, adding ‘Your award to me seems a little out of place because, with it, you have honored analog achievements made in an era devoid of acronyms.’

The final kudo of the evening, the coveted Gordon E. Sawyer Award, was given to Takuo Miyagishima for designing new technologies at Panavision for nearly fifty years. Miyagishima took home an Oscar statuette for his contributions to cinema.

Highlights of the Scientific and Technical Awards will be included in the telecast of the 77th Academy Awards ceremony, to be presented on Sunday, Feb. 27, at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. ABC will begin airing the festivities at 5 p.m. PST. Clips of the Sci Tech portion will also be available online at Oscar.com.

Photo: Scarlett Johansson flanked by Takuo Miyagishima and Arthur Widmer.