What it’s like to attend the ‘other’ Oscars or: How I learned a whole new story I hadn’t heard before about ‘Speed’

89th Academy Awards, Scientific and Technical Achievement Awards

“This isn’t like the other Oscars, or as I like to call them, ‘the dumb Oscars,’ where at the end of the night, 80 per cent of the people in the room are losers. You guys are tremendous. Those guys are sad.”

That was actor John Cho, of Star Trek and Harold & Kumar fame, presenting at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Scientific and Technical Awards, which I was lucky enough to attend last night in Los Angeles.

More on the incredible work that Cho and his presenting partner and This is 40 and How to be Single actress Leslie Mann did last night at the Sci-Techs, but first a note about how this all relates to Speed (yes, really).

In case you haven’t heard, I have a serious obsession with that 1994 ‘bus movie’. And I thought I knew everything there was to know about it, from every line of dialogue to how the movie was made in the streets and studios of Los Angeles.

That is, until I went to the Sci-Techs.

After making my way to the Beverly Wilshire, navigating the packed cocktail session and finding my seat on table number 24, I found myself seated inbetween some super heavy hitters in the VFX world – Digital Domain’s Doug Roble (a two-time Sci-Tech award winner) and former DD’er Bill Spitzak (who won a Sci-Tech for, oh, you know, inventing NUKE).

89th Academy Awards, Scientific and Technical Achievement Awards
Inside the Beverly Wilshire.

Somehow the conversation got to locations in L.A. where movies had been shot, and I revealed that I, as a self-diagnosed Speed tragic, had once scoped out the area near DD’s old offices in Venice where the first bus explosion had been filmed.

“Oh, we watched that,” Doug Roble casually told me.

“What?” I asked, heart pounding.

“Yeah, well, we went down there, and we saw Keanu and everything, but they had blocked off the area because it was going to be this huge explosion.”

“Oh, wow,” I gushed, hoping there was more.

There was.

“So we all watched the explosion from the roof of Digital Domain instead. Man, when that thing exploded they literally took the whole top off that bus.”

Doug added a few more details, including his own intimate explanation of how that ‘oner’ shot showing the explosion played out. I nearly asked if anyone happened to have taken a few stills back then in what was probably 1993, but I realised this was already a pretty surreal moment, so I let it go.

89th Academy Awards, Scientific and Technical Achievement Awards
The Sci-Tech award recipients.

Meanwhile, here I was at the Scientific and Technical Awards, sitting at a table with Doug and Bill and other visual effects luminaries, including one of the award recipients from the night, Chaos Group’s Vladimir Koylazov – or Vlado – who was being recognised for the creation of V-Ray.

Having not been at an event like this before, I was initially a bit overwhelmed. But it’s something that soon subsided because of the way the Sci-Techs was run, and has been run for several years – and that’s with a very relaxed and fun approach to the award giving.

Partly that’s because the recipients on the night – who represented the worlds of digital cameras and sound, visual effects, and animation – already knew they were winners, defusing any anxiety.

Above: an excerpt from the ceremony – the presentation to Marcos Fajardo for the creative vision and original implementation of the Arnold Renderer, and to Christopher Kulla, Alan King, Thiago Ize and Clifford Stein for their highly optimized geometry engine.

And partly it’s because the presenters were simply hilarious and self-deprecating, happily making fun of their limited knowledge of complex technical ideas and terms, but always taking great pains to respect the important work that was being recognised.

Mann started things off like this: “Now let’s get started with John and I explaining technical information we don’t understand to you, the few people in the world who don’t need it explained.”

The audience loved it, and so did the presenters, too.

“The academy cares so much about you that you get your own private evening,” joked Cho. “People say, ‘Where are the celebrities?’ We didn’t invite them! They wanted to come and the academy said no.”

89th Academy Awards, Scientific and Technical Achievement Awards
Kiran Bhat, Michael Koperwas, Brian Cantwell and Paige Warner were among the recipients for the design and development of the ILM facial performance-capture solving system (one of several Sci-Tech awards relating to facial animation rig solvers).

The award presentations went by pretty speedily (maybe I was distracted by the revelation that a whole bunch of VFXers I probably knew had watched the filming of a fantastic sequence from my favourite film). But that just gave more time for the recipients and others within the industry to catch up.

Every explanation of the technology – even despite the humorous stumbles – was enthralling. The audience was perhaps most responsive to the animatronic Creature Effects Animatronic Horse Puppet, star of films such as True Grit and The Revenant.

The author shamelessly posing with an Oscar statuette at the Sci-Techs.

Every speech was engaging. And heartfelt. These artists and technicians often work steadily away in the background to help produce incredible imagery and sound in the films we watch, and they’re also usually helped by many others – who they thanked, too.

I’ve listed all the recipients below – a veritable who’s who of the visual effects, animation and digital cinema industry. You will have most definitely seen or heard their work in some form or another.

All I can say is, if you get a chance to go to the Sci-Techs: do it. And just hope you’re sitting next to someone who witnessed the filming of some scene from Speed (so you can tell me about it, right?).


Full list of Sci-Tech Award recipients


To Thomson Grass Valley for the design and engineering of the pioneering Viper FilmStream digital camera system.

The Viper camera enabled frame-based logarithmic encoding, which provided uncompressed camera output suitable for importing into existing digital intermediate workflows.

To Larry Gritz for the design, implementation and dissemination of Open Shading Language (OSL).

OSL is a highly optimized runtime architecture and language for programmable shading and texturing that has become a de facto industry standard. It enables artists at all levels of technical proficiency to create physically plausible materials for efficient production rendering.

To Carl Ludwig, Eugene Troubetzkoy and Maurice van Swaaij for the pioneering development of the CGI Studio renderer at Blue Sky Studios.

CGI Studio’s groundbreaking ray-tracing and adaptive sampling techniques, coupled with streamlined artist controls, demonstrated the feasibility of ray-traced rendering for feature film production.

To Brian Whited for the design and development of the Meander drawing system at Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Meander’s innovative curve-rendering method faithfully captures the artist’s intent, resulting in a significant improvement in creative communication throughout the production pipeline.

To Mark Rappaport for the concept, design and development, to Scott Oshita for the motion analysis and CAD design, to Jeff Cruts for the development of the faux-hair finish techniques, and to Todd Minobe for the character articulation and drive-train mechanisms, of the Creature Effects Animatronic Horse Puppet.

The Animatronic Horse Puppet provides increased actor safety, close integration with live action, and improved realism for filmmakers.

To Glenn Sanders and Howard Stark for the design and engineering of the Zaxcom Digital Wireless Microphone System.

The Zaxcom system has advanced the state of wireless microphone technology by creating a fully digital modulation system with a rich feature set, which includes local recording capability within the belt pack and a wireless control scheme providing realtime transmitter control and time-code distribution.

To David Thomas, Lawrence E. Fisher and David Bundy for the design, development and engineering of the Lectrosonics Digital Hybrid Wireless Microphone System.

The Lectrosonics system has advanced the state of wireless microphone technology by means of an innovative digital predictive algorithm to realize full fidelity audio transmission over a conventional analog FM radio link, by reducing transmitter size, and by increasing power efficiency.

To Parag Havaldar for the development of expression-based facial performance capture technology at Sony Pictures Imageworks.

This pioneering system enabled large-scale use of animation rig-based facial performance-capture for motion pictures, combining solutions for tracking, stabilization, solving and animator-controllable curve editing.

To Nicholas Apostoloff and Geoff Wedig for the design and development of animation rig-based facial performance-capture systems at ImageMovers Digitaland Digital Domain.

These systems evolved through independent, then combined, efforts at two different studios, resulting in an artist-controllable, editable, scalable solution for the high-fidelity transfer of facial performances to convincing digital characters.

To Kiran Bhat, Michael Koperwas, Brian Cantwell and Paige Warner for the design and development of the ILM facial performance-capture solving system.

This system enables high-fidelity facial performance transfer from actors to digital characters in large-scale productions, while retaining full artistic control, and integrates stable rig-based solving and the resolution of secondary detail in a controllable pipeline.


To ARRI for the pioneering design and engineering of the Super 35 format Alexa digital camera system.

With an intuitive design and appealing image reproduction, achieved through close collaboration with filmmakers, ARRI’s Alexa cameras were among the first digital cameras widely adopted by cinematographers.

To RED Digital Cinema for the pioneering design and evolution of the RED Epic digital cinema cameras with upgradeable full-frame image sensors.

RED’s revolutionary design and innovative manufacturing process have helped facilitate the wide adoption of digital image capture in the motion picture industry.

To Sony for the development of the F65 CineAlta camera with its pioneering highresolution imaging sensor, excellent dynamic range, and full 4K output.

Sony’s unique photosite orientation and true RAW recording deliver exceptional image quality.

To Panavision and Sony for the conception and development of the groundbreaking Genesis digital motion picture camera.

Using a familiar form factor and accessories, the design features of the Genesis allowed it to become one of the first digital cameras to be adopted by cinematographers.

To Marcos Fajardo for the creative vision and original implementation of the Arnold Renderer, and to Christopher Kulla, Alan King, Thiago Ize and Clifford Stein for their highly optimized geometry engine.

The novel ray-tracing algorithms unify the rendering of curves, surfaces, volumetrics and subsurface scattering as developed at Sony Pictures Imageworks and Solid Angle SL. Arnold’s scalable and memory-efficient single-pass architecture for path tracing, its authors’ publication of the underlying techniques, and its broad industry acceptance were instrumental in leading a widespread adoption of fully ray-traced rendering for motion pictures.

To Vladimir Koylazov for the original concept, design and implementation of V-Ray from Chaos Group.

V-Ray’s efficient production-ready approach to ray-tracing and global illumination, its support for a wide variety of workflows, and its broad industry acceptance were instrumental in the widespread adoption of fully ray-traced rendering for motion pictures.

To Luca Fascione, J.P. Lewis and Iain Matthews for the design, engineering, and development of the FACETS facial performance capture and solving system at Weta Digital.

FACETS was one of the first reliable systems to demonstrate accurate facial tracking from an actor-mounted camera, combined with rig-based solving, in large-scale productions. This system enables animators to bring the nuance of the original live performances to a new level of fidelity for animated characters.

To Steven Rosenbluth, Joshua Barratt, Robert Nolty and Archie Te for the engineering and development of the Concept Overdrive motion control system.

This user-friendly hardware and software system creates and controls complex interactions of real and virtual motion in hard real-time, while safely adapting to the needs of on-set filmmakers.