A group of Montrealers who made "bullet-time" possible in The Matrix, a digital sculptor who came up with a refined technique to create the giant ape in King Kong, and a visual-effects expert who devised an efficient way to merge images in The Day the Earth Stood Still are some of the Canadians receiving special Academy Awards this weekend.
Tibor Madjar, Colin Doncaster and Yves Boudreault are among 52 people being recognized for 19 scientific and technical achievements by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which also hands out the Oscars.
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Boudreault said he was on his way to a vacation in the Turks and Caicos with his girlfriend when he got an email from the Academy announcing the win for him and fellow Montrealers Andre Gauthier, Benoit Sevigny and Robert Lanciault.
"I was so excited. We were going there with a couple of friends and when they arrived we told them, 'We have great news!' And they thought that we were about to get married," Boudreault said Thursday from San Francisco, where he stopped to sightsee before heading to Los Angeles on Friday.
"It's a big thing. It's a recognition of all the work that I've done. ... At the beginning when I started developing Filmbox I was working six days a week, 12-13 hours a day."
Although lesser known than the more glitzy televised bash, Boudreault said the sci-tech awards are a big deal within his industry, jokingly calling them "Oscars for the nerds."
Award winners get their own gala dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Saturday, where Veronica Mars star Kristen Bell and Fruitvale Station star Michael B. Jordan will hand out the accolades.
Toronto-based Madjar said his whole family is proud to accompany him to the bash, including his wife, seven-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter.
"My son will wear a tuxedo as well and he will have a big camera. He will be taking the photos," said the 46-year-old Madjar, who helped devise a new way to sculpt digital models for films including King Kong, Avatar, Life of Pi and The Avengers.
"They are all excited."
Unlike other Academy Awards which recognize achievements in the past year, the sci-tech awards celebrate contributions that have a proven record of aiding in the process of movie-making.
And instead of little gold statues, technical achievement winners receive certificates while scientific and engineering winners get plaques.
Madjar and his co-winners David Cardwell and Andrew Camenisch, as well as Hungarian super-coders Csaba Kohegyi and Imre Major, will get technical achievement certificates for developing software called Mudbox.
Madjar said he, Cardwell and Camenisch came up with the idea in 2005 while working on the third The Lord of the Rings film for Weta Digital in New Zealand.
"It was out of desperation, basically," Madjar said Thursday from his home in Toronto, describing the previous way of doing things as too time-consuming and costly.
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"Because the old work flow included clay process — you actually sculpted creatures out of clay, putting all those details in. A few people would be working on those for months and then it would be scanned into the computer and then it would go through lots of cleanup work ... so you spend months and months and months before you even know if you can animate that."
The Cleveland, Ohio-born Cardwell, who moved to Canada from New Zealand in 2005, said the team courted many suitors before selling Mudbox to Autodesk in 2007. He noted that even in the product's early stages, interest was immediate and widespread.
"There were over a thousand beta testers at all kinds of different companies," said Cardwell. "Everyone from NASA (to) Disney, Sony, Pixar ... Everybody was using it. That's how it really took off."
Ontario-based visual-effects whiz honoured
Doncaster said his technical achievement certificate comes many years after he first came up with a technique for deep compositing — an approach that offers a smooth way to merge two different images like hair and tree leaves into each other, rather than just on top of each other.
"Part of what the award is acknowledging is the fact that it's not just coming up with the technology but industry adoption," noted the 37-year-old Doncaster, a self-taught visual-effects whiz who was born and raised in Mississauga, Ont., and now lives in Dundas, Ont.
"It's one thing to create something. It's another thing for industry to say, 'Yeah, that's cool. Let's use that."'
Doncaster, who now runs the consulting company Peregrine Labs with his wife, came up with the technique while working for Weta on The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Doncaster's co-winners include compositor Areito Echevarria, who was working with Weta at the same time, Johannes Saam and Chris Cooper from a company called Animal Logic who converged on the same idea at roughly the same time, and Janne Kontkanen, who was doing deep compositing work at another company called PDI.
Dr. Peter Hillman, who continued working on the technique at Weta after Doncaster left the company, is also being honoured for deep compositing.
Boudreault began working on the software application in 1996 at a company called Kaydara, and that it quickly evolved into a groundbreaking way to integrate motion-capture performances with computer animation in real-time.
The product, now owned by Autodesk and known as MotionBuilder, got its big breakout in "The Matrix" when it was used to create the slow-motion effect known as "bullet-time."
"They were looking (for) software that would trigger 120 cameras with a one-millisecond delay between each and the only company that could do that on the planet was Kaydara with Filmbox. ... That really put us on the radar for other projects," said Boudreault, noting Filmbox was later used to capture Andy Serkis's digital performance in "The Lord of the Rings" to animate the character of Gollum.
Boudreault and his fellow Quebecers will each receive a plaque as part of the scientific and engineering awards.
Other innovations recognized this year include a miniature helicopter camera system that can capture shots impossible for full-size helicopters and a high-pressure pneumatic device that safely launches a full-sized car on a predetermined trajectory.
Portions of the Scientific and Technical Awards presentations will be included in the Oscar ceremony March 2.
Doncaster said he was looking forward to seeing industry pals at Saturday's bash, noting that more typical gatherings tend to be casual affairs.
"It'll be nice to see them. It'll be a different context. Usually we're dressed really casually and drinking beer and this will be tuxedoes and hopefully expensive wine."