Hollywood’s glitterati will turn out tonight to celebrate themselves and the motion picture industry at the 88th Academy Awards. Millions of viewers around the world will watch movie stars strut down the red carpet, blinking away a never-ending burst of camera flashes, as television personalities ask, “Who are you wearing?” Yet amid the glamor, the Oscars have become both controversial and mundane, with a great deal of critical press recently alternating between the lack of diversity in the nominees pool (#OscarsSoWhite ) and the tediousness of the annual ceremony (a recent New York Times column titled “Oscars Too Boring?” offered a kind of survival guide for getting through the telecast). There is another side of the Oscars, however, that deserves to be celebrated more publicly—and that could offer some much needed pizzazz to the ceremony.
Two weeks ago, a separate ceremony acknowledged the winners of the Scientific and Technical Awards “in recognition of original developments that result in significant improvements in motion picture production and exhibition.” The first presentations were made in 1931 as part of the 4th Academy Awards ceremony. In that year, DuPont and Eastman-Kodak won for innovations in black-and-white film and RKO and RCA were lauded for better microphones and audio production techniques. Together, these analog innovations defined the classic depression-era films, especially the musical extravaganzas. The following year, Technicolor received an Oscar for its color cartoon process. A few years later, in 1939, Walt Disney was honored with a special Oscar for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was filmed in Technicolor. The Academy “recognized [the film] as a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field for the motion picture cartoon.” (Disney received his Oscar statuette—and seven smaller versions—from Shirley Temple.) Hollywood continued to reward technological inventions with Oscars—for sound, cameras, photographic chemistry, supporting equipment like cranes and lighting, the growing field of special effects, and more.
Today, movies are so full of special effects that we tend to take them for granted. What the optical camera and audio microphone see and hear is routinely captured in digital form, and then thoroughly deconstructed and remixed with other data from myriad sources, including pure imagination. Mechanical-optical-electronic imaging systems for capturing live actors’ performances and then merging them into digitally reconstructed realities are standard. Fractal mathematics is enabling more “realistic” rendering of trees, leaves, fields of wheat, and mammalian hair for on-screen humans, animals, and completely imaginary beings.
The glass matte paintings of real and imaginary landscapes and buildings that thrilled audiences in the postwar golden age of science fiction cinema have been replaced by three-dimensional virtual or blended architectural systems of astonishing power and verisimilitude. In fact, one of the 2016 Technical Achievement Awards went to David McIntosh, Steve Smith, Mike Branham, and Michael Kirilenko for the engineering and development of the Aircover Inflatables Air Wall, a giant inflatable green screen. The Academy noted, “This system of modular inflatable panels can be erected on location, at lengths reaching hundreds of feet, with exceptional speed and safety. When used to support blue or green screens, the Air Wall permits composite shots of unprecedented scale.”
The result of all this innovative technology is an imaginary world more real than reality. It can be a two-way street, however. Scientists and engineers have always been not only enablers of movies but also subjects of the stories told; their research goes quickly into cinema and video productions, and that work bounces back ever more rapidly to inform their day-job research. Among many examples, the biggest in every sense is Interstellar, which was nominated for a number of awards last year and took home an Oscar for visual effects. Scientific advisor to the project Kip Thorne—one of the scientists who recently recorded proof of gravitational waves—has spent a lifelong-career working on the physics of black holes and other extreme astrophysical objects. His classic early work, a 1,200-page 1973 collaboration, Gravitation, set the bar for print culture tomes. Thanks to his work on the film, he was able to do quantitative and graphical rendering analysis not even thinkable in 1973, and not feasible today, even for a physics professor of his status and access to resources. A major scientific study and video on this science-fiction crossover work was published in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity within months of the film’s release.
Art imitates life, according to the old adage. In motion pictures, a technological art if there ever were one, the creative, inventive people behind the screen strive not to imitate life but to move beyond its earthly restraints, at least for a few hours. Sometimes, they are so good at their jobs that the “suspension of disbelief” doesn’t end when the final credits roll. One of us was at a public program recently and listened to a member of the audience ask an inventor, in all seriousness, why he didn’t just use something she saw in one of the Mission Impossible movies to solve his problem. The technology of the movies has become that convincing.
Perhaps the solution to the complaints about how boring the Academy Awards ceremony has become is to turn the spotlight away from the stars on the red carpet and back to the science and technology awards winners. That’s where the real movie magic is made.
Joseph N. Tatarewicz is an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and often plays Ebert to Joyce Bedi's Siskel (or something like that).