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Software Development Goes to the Movies

Yeah, I'm a legend.

—Ellen Page

So right now, you are probably doing some creative visualization of your own...

The scenario: Michael Cera and Ellen Page awkwardly read from the teleprompter, fumble with the envelope, and finally announce the Academy Award for Best Software Development Effort in a Motion Picture. Running the gauntlet of hugs and kisses, backslaps, and high-fives like Stephen Colbert welcoming a guest, you mount the stage, step up to the microphone, and humbly but eloquently accept your Oscar, thanking the Academy, your mother, and Donald Knuth.

It's pure fantasy, of course. Not gonna happen. I'm not suggesting that you don't richly deserve the accolade, and the Academy does give out Oscars for technical achievements. They just don't give them out during the big ceremony with the red carpet where Jack Nicholson slumps in the front row like it's a Lakers game; no, you'll get your technical Academy award the week before in a Motel 6 in Oxnard.

But if those who write the software behind the 21st century's movies don't get all the glitter and glitz, there are other rewards. Solving software problems for moviemaking can pay off for software development generally, and in less "frivolous" applications.

But let's step back a second to note what we're not talking about here. It is true that all manner of cutting-edge technology is crucial to moviemaking today: at Sundance this year, according to CNet's Michelle Meyers, "indies and techies [were] one and the same." But technology in the movies is nothing new: Movies are technology, and the Academy has been recognizing technology at the Oscars almost since there have been movies. Just after World War II, the technology of movies seemed to ratchet up a notch, with innovations like the Acme Tool optical printer for manipulating film, and blue screen technology.

But no software. Until the 1970s, technological advances in movies generally didn't challenge the assumption that movies were made using cameras, microphones, cranes, and actors. Technology for special effects basically involved manipulations in front of the camera—to make fake clouds and fog and moving water and falling snow, that were then photographed. The parting of the Red Sea in 1956's The Ten Commandments? Water pouring out of tanks, photographed conventionally and then run backwards. The artful special effects in Kubrick's 1968 science fiction masterpiece 2001? All done without benefit of computers. There was essentially no software development involved in the making of movies until the 1970s.

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