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Oscar's Nerdy Cousin: Honoring the scientific and technical geniuses who make movie magic

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The Oscars are a few weeks away, but the show’s geekier cousin, the Scientific and Technical Awards, happens tomorrow. KPCC’s Sanden Totten reports.

The Oscars are a few weeks away. But the show’s smarter, geekier cousin – the Scientific and Technical Awards Presentation happens tomorrow. It’s a chance to honor the brightest technicians, inventors and computer programmers in the entertainment business. KPCC’s Sanden Totten takes a look at some of the winners.

Nobody blows things up like Hollywood. Those jaw-dropping pyrotechnics are often done digitally. But for a long time, there was a problem with the main software used to create the images.

“It was really good at cigarette smoke simulation or like a campfire simulation, but we wanted to do something a little bit bigger," said Theodore Kim, assistant professor of media arts and technology at UC Santa Barbara. A few years back – he teamed up with three other researchers to design a bigger digital boom.

“The simulation that everyone always thinks about is a Mount Saint Helen’s explosion or something like that. Like a volcanic explosion. Or maybe even like a forest fire," said Kim. "You know, lots of really rich detail coming out in the smoke and the fire. So we wanted to do something like that.”

Eventually – his team created the Wavelet Turbulence Algorithm. They released it to the world and since then it’s been used to simulate explosions in more than 20 films. Kim’s favorite example is in 2011’s Super 8. There’s a scene where a group of kids witness a colossal train wreck.

“Almost every single explosion in that sequence used our algorithm. It’s so spectacular and it really moves the story along in that movie as well. So I thought it was used to very great dramatic effect there," said Kim

The members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences were also impressed. This year they’re giving Theodore Kim and his partners, Nils Thuerey, Markus Gross and Doug James, an award for their software. It’s one of 9 achievements being honored at the 85th annual Scientific and Technical Awards Presentation this weekend.

Other winners include programmers from Sony Pictures Imageworks. They created software that lets users manipulate the lighting of digital environments. There’s a team that invented a better way to simulate skin on computer-generated creatures. And a group that developed something called the Pose Space Deformation technique.

Yeah – a lot of it is pretty abstract stuff. But some of the winning entries are much more tangible.

Take for instance Key Grip Richard Mall's creation – the Matthews Max Menace Arm. Picture a portable crane about as tall as a basketball player. It’s used to position light in tight spaces. As Mall demonstrates – it has a really long reach.

“This is Matthews Max Menace Arm. It’s a device I developed for film sets," said Mall. “It’ll extend out in increments of one inch from 6 feet to 16 feet. It’s strong and safe and fast so you can very quickly position a light anywhere on a set.”

The menace arm — which is the industry term for a device that holds lights — debuted in 2005. Since then it’s worked up a resume that would make any actor jealous.

Avatar, Inception, Black Swan, The Artist, There Will Be Blood, Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Dark Knight, Iron Man 1, 2 and 3. I could go on. Anyway it’s about 300 movies,” remarked Mall.

It goes to show how quickly new technology can become indispensable in the entertainment business.

“The technical community is just as creative as the artists in their way in coming up with these device," said Richard Edlund, chair of the Scientific and Technical Awards committee. He’s also the visual effects supervisor behind movies like Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Ghostbusters.

He admits that the contributions of the scientific community don’t get the same press actors and directors do, but he says these technical types are rock stars in certain circles.

“There are lots of geek magazines and there are lots of geeks in the world that are really interested in that. And I love my nerds – always do, you know, because like I say they are very creative people," said Edlund.

He points out that the Scientific and Technical Awards show is much more laid back than the televised Oscars. Key Grip Richard Mall is looking forward to that party, but he says it’s not the award that he’s most proud of.

“It’s nice to be recognized for giving something back to the industry – creating something that will live a lot longer than I am on a film set," said Mall.

That’s the kind of response you’d expect from somebody used to life out of the spotlight.

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