Who said engineers don’t win Oscars?
Cary Phillips, 1991 Ph.D recipient in computer science, officially became the proud recipient of his third Academy Award on Saturday, Feb. 7 — although his face never appeared on screen.
The Scientific and Technical Awards, commonly referred to as Sci-Tech Awards, have been conferred annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since their inception at the fourth annual Academy Awards ceremony in 1931 “in recognition of original developments that result in significant improvements in motion picture production and exhibition,” according to the Academy’s official webpage.
Phillips, the research and development supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic, a visual effects company, has been perfecting ILM’s digital animation methods for more than a decade along with fellow engineers Nicolas Popravka, Philip Peterson and Colette Mullenhoff, who also received honors during the ceremony. Although the Sci-Tech Awards are included among the Academy Awards, they are traditionally presented two weeks earlier than the Oscars are held. This year, the awards were presented by actors Miles Teller and Margot Robbie.
Not that Penn wasn’t represented at the Oscars themselves — 1999 College graduate John Legend took the Oscar for Best Original Song with his piece “Glory,” which appears in the film “Selma.”
But unlike other Academy Awards, achievements receiving Sci-Tech Awards need not have been introduced during the previous year — rather, they must demonstrate a proven record of significant contribution to filmmaking. Phillips’ ILM Shape Sculpting System has been used extensively in films for the past decade, including the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, the “Harry Potter” series, the “Transformers” series, “The Avengers” and even “Confessions of a Shopaholic.”
“It’s notoriously difficult to control [the movements of digital characters], and the systems the animators use require a lot of digital expertise,” Phillips said. While animating digital characters previously required the creation of separate frames and poses which animators would then need to tediously merge for a flawless visual effect, the ILM system “gives direct and immediate sculptural control over the shape of a photorealistic digital character as it moves,” he said.
Phillips has also received Technical Achievement Awards from the Academy for his work in developing the ILM Creature Dynamics System and the Caricature Animation System in 2001 and 1998, respectively. Phillips is currently involved in the animation processes of “Star Wars Episode 7,” coming out this December, and “Warcraft,” a film based on the popular online game, which premiers in theaters in December 2016.
“In this industry, there’s a constant pressure to push yourself to do things we haven’t been able to do before,” Phillips said. “There was a long period of my career [after winning my second award] when I would think to myself, ‘What am I doing now?’ — so there’s an enormous amount of validation you feel when you receive the award, validation that your earlier win wasn’t just a fluke.”
But while Phillips is proud of his achievements, admitting that winning is “a great feeling,” he describes his experiences as “also very humbling.”
“Knowing that you were one part of a large collection of really talented people who’ve all made this happen together...and the appreciation I’ve gotten from the artists I’ve worked with over the years is at least as meaningful as the awards themselves,” he said.
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