Inside the Academy's Science and Technology Council

Our Science of Hollywood columnist reports from a meeting of the "renaissance engineers" responsible for setting the technical standards of the motion picture industry

4 min read

One recent night in Los Angeles, a group of powerful people filed into a building to watch the 1982 movie Tron . The film, which is about a coder who gets stuck inside a video game, has become a cult classic. But the audience this evening wasn’t composed of the usual fan boys. Rather, Hollywood’s power nerds were gathering at a place that has become their clubhouse: the Science and Technology Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The academy is known worldwide as the organization behind the annual Oscar awards. Every year, the non-profit group’s 6000-plus honorary members—directors, actors, producers, and the like—vote, and the results are aired on one of Hollywood’s biggest nights. Behind the scenes, however, part of the roughly US $50 million earned from Oscars licenses goes toward funding the Science and Technology Council, a division of the academy dedicated to both preserving the film industry’s technical past and advancing its scientific future. That ranges from an event like the recent night when technology leaders discussed the breakthrough animation of Tron to fighting for new ways to preserve invaluable digital media. As Andrew Maltz, the trained engineer who serves as the council’s director, says, ”We view ourselves as the guardian of quality of the motion picture. We’re a common meeting ground for all the interests here.”

The Science and Technology Council’s roots go back to the founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927. From early on, there were committees dedicated to production matters such as sound and prints. But when the studios took control in the late 1930s, the focus shifted to the Academy Awards, leaving much of the geek work behind. It wasn’t until 2003, after Hollywood technologists began pushing for an umbrella organization, that the council came back bigger than ever. ”Doing this in the 21st century is different than doing it in the 1920s and ’30s,” Maltz says. ”In terms of technology, business, personalities, and laws, everything is different.”

With Hollywood offices in the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study and with a staff of six, the council is now composed of 23 science and technology specialists from throughout the academy. Maltz’s background is typical. After studying electrical engineering at the University of Buffalo, in New York, Maltz won an Emmy Award for his work in nonlinear editing systems, and then he built the servers and mastering systems for the digital projection of Star Wars: Episode II . ”It was like TiVo on steroids,” he says. Now at the council full time, Maltz guides the group on its three primary missions: preserving technology history, administering public education, and advancing technical innovation.

”Doing this in the 21st century is different than doing it in the 1920s and ’30s,” Maltz says. ”In terms of technology, business, personalities, and laws, everything is different.”

Preserving the technological history of the motion picture industry is no small task. Pockets of information are spread around the world, Maltz notes, but there is no central resource for those looking to conduct research. The council is busy archiving documentation—often drawn from applications for the academy’s technical awards—into a database. Currently the database is accessible only to visitors of the library at the academy’s office, but efforts are under way to get that information online. The council is also working on incorporating the project into a film history museum that the academy is developing. ”This won’t be a theme park,” Maltz promises. ”It will be a world-class and interesting museum that deals with all aspects of production.” The public programs include film screenings, discussions, and panels on digital compositing techniques.

”At the end of the day,” Maltz says, ”good movies are made on good characters. Technology is just another tool. So part of our programming is intended to stimulate discussion about how technology serves the platform, as opposed to dominates it.”

Perhaps the council’s most ambitious, and important, activities center around the advanced technology program, the subcommittee dedicated to pressing issues such as the industry’s rapid conversion to digital media. Today, approximately 500 movie theaters are utilizing electronic projectors with files coming from a digital-cinema server. The evolution is happening at each major stage of film production and distribution. For years, image processing was done by companies such as Kodak. Today, that work is being done largely on PCs and render farms—which means a variety of equipment, formats, and encoding schemes—a formula rife for potential inefficiencies.

The council is trying to standardize in order to improve the filmmaking process. For the past year and a half, leading imaging and processing experts have been convening at the academy to discuss the standardization project. The council’s role is to make sure that competitive interests don’t hamper innovation. ”We’re here to be the Switzerland,” Maltz says. ”There are competitors in the room, but they have to lay down their swords at the door.”

An even bigger dilemma in the conversion to digital media is data storage. ”Currently, film is an archival medium,” Maltz says. ”Put it in a cold room and it’ll last for hundreds of years. But what do you do when film goes away? There is not a corresponding archival medium in the digital world.” Although Maltz won’t name names, he says that CGI data from some major blockbuster films have been damaged—resulting in the expensive and time-consuming process of re-creating film data from scratch—or lost entirely. The gravity of the challenge can’t be overstated. ”There will be no such thing as a shoebox of negatives in the attic anymore,” Maltz says. ”This is a huge, huge problem. We’re in an era of digital nitrate, and everything we’re creating now will disappear.”

With such issues closing in on the industry, there’s a greater need than ever for qualified geeks to join the academy. Those with backgrounds in image processing and data storage and recovery are in particular demand, Maltz says. An interest in the arts is a plus. ”We need the renaissance engineers,” he says.

About the Author

David Kushner is a journalist and writer. His latest book, Jonny Magic and the Card Shark Kids (Random House, 2005), is about underdog gamers who hit Las Vegas. His previous book, Masters of Doom (Random House, 2003), about the co-creators of the video games Doom and Quake, is being developed into a movie for Showtime. He has written for Rolling Stone , The New York Times , Wired , Salon , Spin , and other publications.

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