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Time for the other Oscars

Eve Troeh Feb 10, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: It’s Oscar season, the Academy Awards — as in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The arts part gets all the attention, which is why we’re doing the science part today. It, too, has an awards ceremony this weekend. And while you’ve probably never heard of the winners — Pictorvision Eclipse, electronically stabilized aerial camera platform, anyone? — the movie industry would be nowhere without them.

Marketplace’s Eve Troeh reports.

Eve Troeh: For most people, the Scientific and Technical Oscars are a bathroom break during the “real” Oscars. In under a minute, some gorgeous actress recaps the Sci-Tech awards dinner — an untelevised affair — and up pops a photo of her with, hate to say it, but the nerds.

Scarlett Johansson’s 2007 presentation was a classic.

2007 Oscar clip: With the Louma crane in place, the appetite of filmmakers was whetted for even more flexiblity in their equipment. In 1982, Horst Burbulla began to imagine…

Andy Romanoff: Of course I remember it! It’s that thing of making young and beautiful women try to explain technical things, which they have no understanding of.

Andy Romanoff is a veteran cameraman, and longtime member of the Sci-Tech awards committee. He admits part of the fun is watching a Hollywood A-lister stumble through the jargon. But the real celebration is for the way technology helps Hollywood tell its stories better.

That Louma crane Johansson described?

Romanoff: Completely changed the language of film in a visible way for the audience.

It was invented in the 1970s to better capture the action throughout a scene.

“Hugo” clip: Act natural, just keep on walking.

This year’s “Hugo” used a Louma 2 as the characters roamed a Paris train station.

“Hugo” clip: Halt! Good day, monsieur. Where are your parents? Grr…

Unlike the other Oscars, the Sci-Tech awards have no set categories each year. They honor lifetime achievement or big leaps forward — instead of the latest 3-D advance. But most of the awards do involve digital technology. Mark Noel won last year for his Servo Winch system.

Mark Noel: Took about six years to develop. They’re similar to crane winches except they’re computerized.

OK. Basically Noel’s system uses cables and computers to control big things flying through the air — like cars. At the end of “Spider-Man 3” when Mary Jane gets stranded again?

“Spider-Man 3” clip: A young woman held hostage in a taxi suspended 80 stories above the ground, in what appears to be a giant web.

The Servo Winch let the camera shoot that taxi from every angle as it dropped and jumped and spun around with the actor inside.

Noel: It’s kinda direct. You get their performance and it’s right there.

The filmmakers didn’t have to digitally insert Kirsten Dunst. Or shoot fake reactions. That saved money. Noel says the next Spider-Man movie — not yet released — makes even better use of the invention. This time it’s shooting a limosine and… Well, if he told me more than that there’d be trouble.

Many awards go to innovations that are invisible to the audience, like software that speeds up processing for digital effects. Richard Edlund is an effects legend. He did the “Star Wars” movies, and many other films.

Richard Edlund: There’s very few movies made anymore that have no visual effects in them. Even if it’s getting rid of a billboard in the background, or getting rid of a mic boom that dipped into a shot.

Movies that push the digital edge, like Best Picture nominee “Hugo,” will always be expensive. But Sharon Waxman at TheWrap.com says the Sci-Tech awards go to broader innovations that help all kinds of filmmakers stay on budget.

Sharon Waxman: The cost of technology is, on average, lowering the cost of making films and of the kind of result you can get for the money.

Better looking movies, for cheaper. That may be the most special effect.

In Los Angeles, I’m Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

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