SciTech Honoree Jonathan Erland Says Academy Focuses Too Much on Awards

John Erland - P 2018 Getty
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Even as technologist Jonathan Erland accepted the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, an Oscar statuette for his industry contributions, during the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Scientific and Technical Awards on Saturday night at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, he criticized the Academy for focusing too much on awards at the expense of its other missions.

The Academy, Erland said, has become "increasingly award-centric, and members largely relegated to an award voting panel." He went on to say, "The community is comprised of much of the best practitioners in the field of cinema. To waste the awesome potential of these resources is unconscionable. If we are to fulfill the dream that [Douglas] Fairbanks, [Mary] Pickford and the other founders had for our art form, we must collectively reassume more responsibility for our institution."

Erland, a founding member of the Science and Technology Council who has been previously honored with two SciTech Awards, argued that "our Academy was created to make art possible, to make the excellence of the art and science of cinema possible," but added that "in the middle of the last century we became complicit in the blacklist, damaging people's lives and tarnishing our reputation. I hope today we can stay focused on fostering the pursuit of excellence of cinema and let cinema itself be the agent of change in our society."

In this time of rapid technological change and challenges, "the Academy's role as midwife for the adoption of new technology is needed as much as ever," said Erland. He also emphasized the part that the SciTech community can play, quoting silent filmmaker and USC Film School co-founder William DeMille by saying, "If we don't get the science first, there ain't gonna be no art."

As he concluded his remarks, Erland received a standing ovation and a hug from Academy president John Bailey.

Host Patrick Stewart closed the show quoting Puck's epilogue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

During the ceremony, the Academy also recognized 10 scientific and technical achievements.

Mark Elendt and Side Effects Software received the Academy Award of Merit, an Oscar statuette, for the development of the widely used Houdini visual effects and animation software. With more than 20 years of continual development, Houdini has helped VFX artists to bring natural phenomena, destruction and other digital effects to the screen in films such as Kubo and the Two Strings and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Side Effects co-founder and CEO Kim Davidson thanked the Side Effects team and the "artists who continue to inspire us to improve Houdini."

There are still only a limited number of women in the scientific and technical field, and another moment of enthusiastic applause came as honoree Rachel Marie Rose — who received a Technical Achievement Award for ILM’s BlockParty procedural rigging system — asserted, “To any young women watching and dreaming of their future career, I am proof that you can.”

Technical Achievement Awards (Academy certificates) were presented to Rose, Jason Smith and Jeff White for the BlockParty procedural rigging system at Industrial Light & Magic (used on films including Kong: Skull Island); Joe Mancewicz, Matt Derksen and Hans Rijpkema for the Rhythm & Hues Construction Kit rigging system (Life of Pi); Alex Powell, Jason Reisig, Martin Watt and Alex Wells for the Premo character animation system at DreamWorks Animation (How to Train Your Dragon 2); and Rob Jensen, Thomas Hahn, George ElKoura, Adam Woodbury and Dirk Van Gelder for the Presto Animation System (Inside Out) at Pixar Animation Studios.

Scientific and Engineering Awards (Academy plaques) were presented to John Coyle, Brad Hurndell, Vikas Sathaye and Shane Buckham for the Shotover K1 camera system, and to Leonard Chapman, Stanislav Gorbatov, David Gasparian and Souhail Issa for the Hydrascope telescoping camera crane systems. Plaques were also presented to Bill Spitzak and Jonathan Egstad, Abigail Brady, Jon Wadelton and Jerry Huxtable for the Nuke compositing system (an upgrade to a prior honor), and Jeff Lait, Mark Tucker, Cristin Barghiel and John Lynch received plaques (also an upgrade) for their contributions to Houdini.