Oscar Geek Love

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I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business.

With all your attention focused on the glitz and the glamor of this weekend's Oscars, I don't blame you for forgetting about the Academy's Scientific & Technical Awards.

You know, the Oscar's Sci-Tech Awards luncheon? The one that took place the weekend before last?

Wait, you never heard of the Sci-Tech Awards? Of course you have. You know, they run that two-minute clip during the grown-up Oscars? Okay, now I'm seeing a glint of recognition.

Yep, awards for scientific and technological achievement have been handed out by the motion picture academy since the 1930's. But you're excused if you're a little out of the loop…they're not televised and they keep moving them around.

At times, the Sci-Tech Awards were announced at the actual Oscars. At their low point, winners were just announced in the lobby of the Academy. These days, they're held at the mildly swank international ballroom of the mildly swank Beverly Hilton. It's all very Oscaresque -- complete with red carpet, a well-dressed stage festooned with ten-foot tall Oscars and a live orchestra…well. It's a band. There's a sea of bespectacled men in tuxedos…and a single starlet. Scarlett Johansson, Charlize Theron and Jessica Alba have done the hosting honors in recent years; this time around it was the lovely Jessica Biel.

It's worth watching the awards just to see these earnest young ladies try to muddle through phrases like anamorphic desqeezer and pronounce names like Volker Schumacher. It's also fun to see the look on the faces of the brilliant but somewhat socially challenged award winners as they approach the podium and try to figure out whether to the shake the beautiful host's hand, kiss her cheek, hug her or just faint at her feet.

Jokes at their expense aside, I kind of wish the guys in the metaphoric pocket protectors got a little more love from Hollywood and movie-lovers everywhere. Because before movies are anything else, they are science. We never could have made pictures move if not for the understanding of persistence of vision. Simply put, the guys behind the guys behind the scene make movie magic possible, and they've provided some of the most breathtaking and moving moments in film. This year's awards provides a great example in the bearded geek named Ed Catmull who received the Gordon Sawyer Award at this year's Sci-Tech luncheon -- the one accolade, by the way, that qualifies for an actual Oscar statuette...everyone else just gets a plaque. Catmull was a computer scientist at the University of Utah in the 70's who believed in digital animation when almost nobody else did..and that includes visionaries like george lucas. Remember – this was years before PC's were widely available. Catmull is now the president of Pixar and Disney Animation, and perhaps the single man most responsible for bringing Pixar's brilliant movies to the screen – from Toy Story to Wall-E.

Other Sci-Tech winners this year were a bit more esoteric, but no less fascinating. One award went to three guys who invented a spotlight that can illuminate the side of skyscraper –- but it stays cool to the touch and it works in the rain.

That may not mean anything to you, but ask any grip who's been burned or shocked on the set and see what they think of that invention.

It is these evolutionary steps in the science and technology of film that have kept Hollywood alive.

Giving directors the tools to take what's in their heads and put it on the screen is what keeps us coming back to the theater time and again.

Doubt the role of technology in the continued success of film? Then ask yourself this question: if we still had to peer into Edison's kinetoscope to watch a movie, would entertainment have become a billion-dollar business? So, hats off to the Sci-Tech Award winners…even if I don't understand what you've done and can't pronounce your name.

I'd love to know what you think. Send me an e-mail at TheBusiness@KCRW.org. You can download a podcast of this commentary, share it with a friend, or embed it on your blog with the click of a button from our new media player at KCRW.com/TheBusinessBrief. For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman.



Matt Holzman