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This page was last updated 26 april 2003. The event was on 1 March 2003.
Every year, the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences awards Oscar statuettes to actors, directors, and others in the film business, in an elaborate gala that marks the highlight of the annual Oscar season. The Academy also hosts a separate gala for technical awards, which go to people who have made important contributions to the various gadgets and software that are an essential part of film production. I suppose they don't want a bunch of Spock types spoil the exuberant actor's gala so they keep them separate.
Technical awards come in three flavors: Technical Achievement Awards (a certificate), Scientific and Engineering Awards (a boxy brass plaque), and an Academy Award of Merit (an Oscar statuette). In 2003, I and our team at our company, mental images received a Technical Achievement Award for some aspects of our rendering software mental ray, a program that has made lots of special-effects images in most large Hollywood movies in recent years.
Although my name is on it, it's clearly an award for a large group of people who contributed. The academy doesn't like long lists of names and picked mine just because I lead the group, not because my contribution was bigger than anyone else's. The world is not fair.
So my boss and I got invited to the gala, which took place in the Regent Beverly Wilshire hotel in Beverly Hills in Los Angeles. We also stayed at the hotel. It's a large grand hotel with marble halls all over, large fancy rooms, and plenty of liveried bellmen, doormen, porters, and receptionists. The picture to the right shows the lobby. The hotel is at the end of Rodeo Drive, the highly touted centerpiece of posh Beverly Hills. It's actually a rather plain and boring shopping street like so many others. Of course all the usual fashion industry suspects have shops there.
Since I also visited one of the big studios in Hollywood who are using our software for two days, I had an opportunity to check out Hollywood Boulevard on a free evening. I have been in Los Angeles many times and have always avoided the big tourist destinations, I felt obligated to take a look, given the occasion. Hollywood Boulevard is the place where they show ecstatic actors drooling over their ``stars'' sunk into the sidewalk. Must be a fancy place, right? Wrong. It's a depressing shopping street with the usual cracked sidewalks. There are indeed some named stars in it, but nobody pays any attention. A couple of movie theaters are more elaborate than absolutely necessary, but in general Hollywood Boulevard is completely forgettable.
When I am in Los Angeles, I always contrive to spend some hours in Santa Monica, a pleasant suburb at the northern part of LA's Pacific Ocean front. There is a nice pedestrian street, Third Street Promenade (left picture below), with lots of bookstores (fewer than in recent years though) and lots of odd places and restaurants that are fun to visit. It's also a good place to walk on the beach (right picture below); there is a beach promenade that goes all the way to Venice Beach. (Venice Beach is another prime tourist destination, primarily distinguished by its clusters of T-shirt vendors.)
The gala was on a Saturday, so I had a few more few hours that I decided to spend in the Getty Museum. That's a huge complex up in the Hollywood hills. They have lots of temporary and permanent exhibitions there, but the real attraction is the building itself. Reportedly it cost a billion of dollars to build, and it shows. It's a huge sprawling place, with a central courtyard that most of the exhibition building are grouped around, and many gardens with different themes around the main complex. The picture to the right shows a view of a building from a cactus garden.
The whole complex is built on a hill overlooking Hollywood, and there are many vista points with beautiful views - if the weather isn't too hazy. One can't just drive up to it; there is a visitor's center at the bottom of the hill and a short railway that takes visitors up the museum. Only a limited number of people is allowed in at any time. It's a wonderful place to see exhibitions, or just sit in one of the gardens. Definitely recommended.
I won't go into much more detail about Los Angeles. I have been there many times, but it's not my favorite city. Too much traffic, a shabby downtown surrounded by suburbs also shabby to varying degrees. Downtown has a faceless business district, including a convention center where I have attended various Siggraph computer graphics conventions, and a run-down Broadway just a few blocks away that feels like a poor Mexican bazaar, complete with youths showing their knives to each other. I have actually ridden my bicycle across town a few times, which is a very unpleasant and dangerous experience that I cannot recommend to anyone. The jewels are few and far in between in Los Angeles, and many famous destinations like Hollywood do not live up to their reputation.
Ok, back to the Oscar gala. It was in the ballroom of the Regent Beverly Wilshire. Everyone walks over the obligatory red carpet, shown in the obligatory picture to the left, into the reception area, a marble hallway with mirrors, marble staircase, and trestle tables with people who verify the invitations. The gala has a fixed guest list of some 700 people. There are about 30 award winners, about 200 people from the press, some members of the Academy, and lots of people who were invited by the winning companies, mostly business partners, friends, and people invited for PR reasons, and their spouses.
So we had about 700 people, most of whom normally dress in whatever outfit they please, but that day slightly uneasy in their rented tuxedos or evening gowns. The winners got a red carnation pinned to their silk lapels.
We then had a chance to talk in a large bar outside the actual ballroom. It did get fairly crowded, and everyone milled around and talked to their colleagues and business partners, sipping champagne or mineral water. After a while, the ballroom doors opened, and we were shown to our tables. The winner tables were in the center in a sunken area, with more tables all around, with ten people to the table. At the head of the room, there was a stage with a large Oscar statue, and two video screens to the side.
The event started with a dinner, ok but nothing to write home about (the year before, two hundred people got food poisoning), interrupted by speeches by the Academy president, Frank Pierson, and entertainment by the Canadian Paul Dubé, involving impersonations of various singers, most of which I had never heard of. They also showed a reel of past awards and bloopers (it's commendation, not condemnation).
The actual award presentation was surprisingly short. The presenter was Kate Hudson, a well-known actress. She came on stage in a pretty top that had some structural problems, and she warned that she might, quote, pop upen at any time, unquote. She did a good job with her text - she had to announce the winners of all technical awards, describing what the winners do and their contribution to the movie industry. That involves a lot of highly technical terms, but she soldiered through without mistakes. After a particularly convoluted sentence about our award, she exclaimed "are you doing this on purpose"... Yes, Kate, we do.
Each winner, or group of winners, got to come on stage, receive the award, and say a few words. Speeches were limited to 45-60 seconds each. Just when my boss started speaking, Kate's dress started disintegrating, which amused the crowd greatly and lowered the attention to the speech. When it was my time to speak, Kate had the situation under control. I am not good at addressing large crowds, which I couldn't even see well because of the glare of the stage lights, but I guess it went ok.
All the awards combined only took 45 minutes or so, and then we got ushered out back to the reception area, where more drinks were served. The winners all got to line up on a large staircase, and lots of press photographers took pictures. The academy later sent a print. After that it seemed that the organizers felt their job was done, and they got everyone out pretty quickly. There was a lot of partying afterwards, but I had a really early flight to San Francisco the next morning so I didn't stay long.
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