Monday, February 9, 2009

"Oscar" science

Oscar will be here soon [February 22nd] and it is interesting to note the huge anount of physics and chemistry involved in the production of motion pictures. Probably 99% of the movie goers could care less about the technical side of making movies but without the sciences there would be no cinema entertainment.

Does the name Iain Neil sound familiar--probably not. But Iain Neil has won more Oscars than anyone else in the Scientific and Technical Academy Awards category with his work involving Panavision and optics. [Incidentally, recipients are awarded their prize long before the actual "Oscar" presentation and they don't really get an "Oscar" but a plaque.] His claim to fame was the development of a zoom lens [Panavision Primo Macro Zoom] that would enable the camera to keep in focus short and long focal length scenes in one movement.

Here is an audio interview with NPR's Scott Simon:

"Lens Advance Wins Academy Award/Cameras Now Can Zoom from Stem to Stern"

When you think about the Academy Awards, you probably envision the glint and glitter of Oscar night when actors, directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, and others are honored. Yet one set of Oscar presentations is little known: The Scientific and Technical Academy Awards were presented this year on 4 March. SPIE member Iain Neil received his 10th Scientific and Technical Academy Award, a record, at this year's ceremonies, held in Beverly Hills, CA.

"It's a record for the Sci-Tech for an individual," Neil remarks. "I'm sure many companies have won 20 or 30."

In the past, companies rather than individuals often received the awards. "The Sci-Tech committee in more recent history has tried to identify individuals as opposed to companies," explains Rich Miller, the Awards Administration Director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "In the last 10 or 12 years, the committee has made major strides to give the awards to the people who actually did it."

Neil, who works for Panavision (Woodland Hills, CA), was a recipient of a Scientific and Engineering Award for the electronic design of the Panavision Millennium XL Camera System.

Four members of the Panavision design team received the Scientific and Engineering Award for the Millennium XL Camera system: Al Mayer Sr. and Al Mayer Jr. were recognized for the mechanical design, Neil was honored for the optical design, and Brian Dang was cited for the electronic design.

The Millennium XL brings the full uncompromised performance of larger, heavy-duty cameras to cameras in the lightest weight category while providing ruggedness and advanced features previously expected only in specialized or effects cameras.

"Usually I work with lenses," Neil says. "In this case, it was the optics within the camera."
Much of Neil's work centered around the viewfinder optics. "It's a little bit different, so it's nice to get an award for something I don't normally work on," he says.

All 10 of Neil's Academy Awards have been received with Panavision, where he currently serves as executive vice-president of research and development and optics as well as chief technical officer. Neil started his Panavision career about 14 years ago as the vice president of optics. Three years ago, Panavision moved its headquarters from Tarzana, CA to Woodland Hills.

Prior to joining Panavision, Neil had spent two years at Ernst Leitz Canada Ltd. (now a unit of Raytheon Systems Co; Midland, Ontario) and eight years at Barr and Stroud (now Pilkington Optronics; Glasgow, Scotland).

And of course one remembers Stanley Kubrick's Doctor Strangelove, Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, etc. Well, there is one in the collection that most people don't remember: Barry Lyndon which was a surprise film in the fact that despite historical evidence dictating that long "costume drama" films are usually boring, Barry Lyndon was fast paced, entertaining, and employed a very special camera lens that enabled photography by candle light. And, it did win the 1975 Oscar for the "Best Picture". The lens in the spotlight [only three exist] is the Carl Zeiss Oberkochen 50mm f/0.7 [two stops faster than the f1.4]. Step back to the semi-darkages of motion picture lenses and film stock of the 1970's and understand that the fastest lens at that time was a Carl Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 and the fastest 35mm motion picture film had an emulsion speed of 100 ISO--both too slow for what Kubrick wanted to do for those interior candle lit scenes. Creativity ruled and the emphasis was placed on a new lens design rather than fuss with poor quality faster film emulsions. This is where NASA comes into the picture for NASA was using the Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7 via the Hassablad for the Apollo program. Kubrick borrowed two of the lenses and adapted them to a special camera for the low light scenes. The light readings were still low for the shooting so Kubrick pushed the film speed a full f-stop to 200 ISO and let the film laboratory make up the difference.

Incidentally, the Carl Zeiss 50mm f/0.7 has been used in other Oscar winning "Best Picture" movies: Schindler's List [1993], The English Patient [1996], and Shakespeare In Love [1998].

Persistence of vision

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