Scientists Take to Red Carpet at Technology Oscars

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences feted scientists on Saturday night. One night a year, the men and women behind the scenes who create special effects and other technologies are honored.

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MADELINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeline Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up: Dr. Sydney Spiesel on why you really should was your hands.

BRAND: But first, the organization behind the Oscar Awards is called the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but we don't often hear much about the sciences part. Well, one night a year the show biz spotlight shifts from the stars to the engineers who design moviemaking technologies. Day to Day tech contributor Xeni Jardin attended the Scientific and Technical Awards this weekend and she has this report.

XENI JARDIN reporting:

The biggest night in Hollywood for tech heads is the Scientific and Technical Academy Awards, a couple of weeks ahead of the glitzy, glamorous Academy Awards. This year they took place at the Beverly Hilton International Ballroom. The red carpet was shorter, half-dressed starlets were few, and the pre- ceremony's ventriloquist act made Oscar's entertainment look, well, entertaining.

But actress and host Rachel McAdams insisted that the movie business owed a great debt to technology.

Ms. RACHEL MCADAMS (Actress): Well, we wouldn't be here without it. It's just incredible to know what's happening behind the scenes. It's really exciting.

JARDIN: McAdams understands that first hand. She starred in last year's thriller Red Eye.

(Soundbite of movie Red Eye)

JARDIN: One of Red Eye's stunt men, Scott Leva, was honored at the awards. He even appeared on stage with Ms. McAdams. She wore a glittering floor length designer gown, and Leva was a little less fashion conscious.

Who are you wearing tonight?

Mr. SCOTT LEVA (Stuntman): Actually, that's a good question. Where the heck is the name on this? Because it's not an Armani. It's an Italian suit. And I can't give you the name of it.

JARDIN: The names that matter here are those of inventions and inventors. The awards handed out are for devices, formulas and discoveries that have changed the way movies are made and not just in this year. Some awards honor development from years past, others are for lifetime achievement. It's kind of a movie engineering hall of fame.

Leva was recognized for inventing a better air bag for stunt falls and he's taken a lot of those himself.

Mr. LEVA: I used to be my own test dummy and then I found other stunt guys. I said, Hey, come on, guys, and jump.

JARDIN: How did you manage to convince other people to try this technology?

Mr. LEVA: You can get a stunt guy to do anything. You say you want to set yourself on fire? Okay. So they'll do anything.

JARDIN: Air bags have been in use for movie stunts since the 1970s and Leva had been tinkering with new designs for years. But his work took on new meaning when a stunt man friend died because his air bag failed to protect him.

Leva knows inventions like his precision stunt air bag may be invisible to audiences, but that doesn't diminish the impact of science in moviemaking.

Mr. LEVA: If I'm going to do a car flip and I've got cameras, I calculate speed, distance, trajectory, impact. There's a science to that, and I do think a lot of people overlook that to where they'll see a movie, Oh my God that was cool! Oh, whoa, dude, do it again! But they don't realize the actual handiwork that goes behind it.

JARDIN: Not all the tech in movies is about whiz-bang special effects.

(Soundbite of Rocky theme)

JARDIN: Thirty years ago, when Sylvester Stallone climbed into the ring in Rocky, some of the signature shots in that film owed their look to the Steadicam, whose inventor Garrett Brown was honored tonight. Rocky was one of the first movies to use that camera-stabilizing gear in 1976. A few years later Brown used the world's first portable computer, called the Osborne, to control some of his inventions.

Mr. GARRETT BROWN (Steadicam Inventor): The Osborne was a giant box that had all the smarts of a modern Palm Pilot. I mean, I think you're electric toothbrush has more computing power than the Osborne had then. It was prehistoric.

JARDIN: Today, computers are smaller and faster. And what inventors can design with them is more spectacular. But even now, does tech get any respect in Hollywood?

Mr. DAVID GROBER (Inventor): I think technology in Hollywood gets respect from those who use it.

JARDIN: David Grober received a tech award this year for a camera device called Perfect Horizon. It makes it possible to film steadier footage on a bumpy, fast-moving boat or car. Like this famous scene in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, where Harry takes a wild ride on a bus.

(Soundbite of movie Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban)

Mr. GROBER: You used to be able to say, well, that's a great special effect, but you could tell it was a special effect.

JARDIN: Grober says the fact that tech work is often overlooked in movies is proof that it's getting better. This ceremony may not be the Hollywood tech community's last moment of glory, however. Excerpts from the tech awards will be dropped into the Oscar's broadcast on March 5th. For NPR News in Los Angeles, I'm Xeni Jardin.

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