Engineering Innovation Continues To Make Hollywood Dreams A Reality

May 24, 2012
In his editorial, editor-in-chief Joe Desposito describes how a Hollywood PR firm landed a cover in Electronic Design by promising access to the technical gurus behind the sci-fi flick, Prometheus. He also delves into some recent Academy Awards for technical achievement.
If you’re aware of Electronic Design’s editorial calendar, you’ll notice that it doesn’t include anything about the new movie, Prometheus. The truth is we didn’t consider it until Brian Boothe, a PR representative from Warren Betts Communications, contacted us earlier this spring.

The company handles science and technology publicity for movie studios, and Boothe asked if we would consider interviewing the filmmakers, design engineers, and technologists behind the films they were promoting.

In our feature article (“Prometheus Takes Flight With Cutting-Edge VFX Technology”), Embedded Technology Editor Bill Wong delves into the 3D challenges of Prometheus, which was shot with two Red Epic cameras mounted on a 3ality Technica Atom 3D rig.

Engineers are no strangers to Hollywood, being involved from day one in the film industry and receiving awards from the Motion Picture Academy for their work since the 1930s. Nowadays, electronics and software play larger roles as cameras and other equipment go digital and special effects rely on software algorithms.

And the Oscar Goes To…

As you may know, the ceremony that bestows the awards for scientific and technical achievement takes place several weeks before the Academy Awards extravaganza on TV. I had not checked the accomplishments of the 2011 winners, but was able to tune into parts of this “geek” awards ceremony at

There are three levels of scientific and technical achievement: the Technical Achievement Award (certificate), Scientific and Engineering Award (bronze tablet), and Academy Award of Merit (Oscar statuette). For 2011, software took home a Technical Achievement Award and a Scientific and Engineering Award, while hardware earned three Scientific and Engineering Awards and one Oscar.

Andrew Clinton and Mark Elendt of Side Effects Software won a Technical Achievement Award for inventing and integrating micro-voxels in rendering software called Mantra that’s built into a program called Houdini. A voxel is a volumetric picture element or volumetric pixel. Their work allowed, for the first time, unified and efficient rendering of volumetric effects such as smoke and clouds, among other things.

In his acceptance speech, Clinton said, “Before my first interview with Side Effects Software, when I first graduated from school, I learned that my future colleague, Mark, had won a Sci-Tech Oscar. This served as inspiration for me to enter the field where I would get to work on software and where I could contribute to the visual effects industry. I never imagined that I, myself, would be a recipient of this award.”

Mark Elendt wrote the Mantra renderer. His story is fascinating. He was working for an insurance company when he first showed up at Side Effects Software in 1988 looking for a job. He showed the company some rendering work he had been doing at home with an Amiga 1000 computer. He had essentially written a ray tracer as a hobby. He got the job.

The Scientific and Engineering Award went to Michael Lewis, Greg Marsden, Raigo Alas, and Michael Vellekoop for the concept, design and implementation of the Pictorvision Eclipse, an electronically stabilized aerial camera platform. With this system, cinematographers can capture aerial footage at faster flying speeds and use aggressive platform maneuvering. PV Labs developed this device.

Lewis and Vellekoop work for PV Labs, while Marsden works at L-3 Wescam. Alas was a PV Labs contractor. Pictorvision, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of PV Labs Inc., launched the Eclipse in the summer of 2008. It incorporates a GPS system and proprietary XR Motion Management technology for unique steering, pointing, and tracking capabilities. Pictorvision says that this advanced control system enables creative shots not obtainable with any other system.

The underlying “XR” technology began development at Wescam under the leadership of president and CEO Mark Chamberlain. L-3 Communications bought Wescam in 2002. Wescam’s Entertainment Group, including rights to the XR technology, was spun out two years later to form Pictorvision. The Eclipse is the first product under the new brand, and it’s the first advance of its type that the industry has seen in almost two decades.

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