Green screen garners B.C. inventors an Academy Award

DELTA, B.C. -- As Godzilla rises from the ocean depths and attacks the Golden Gate Bridge, movie audiences suspend disbelief at the captivating on-screen spectacle.

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But strip out the immense monster that's clawing apart cables and what's left is a corps of actors in military fatigues and one gargantuan, inflatable green screen.

The unique screen, stretching more than 200 metres for the 2013 "Godzilla" film shoot, has garnered its Vancouver-area inventors Hollywood's highest honour -- an Academy Award.

Four partners -- David McIntosh, Steve Smith, Mike Branham and Mike Kirilenko -- have been named Oscar winners for engineering and developing the cutting-edge green screen, called the Aircover Inflatables Airwall. The Technical Achievement Award will be presented on Saturday at the annual Scientific and Technical Award ceremony in Los Angeles.

"We took a huge risk. We built these units without knowing if they'd ever work. We all believed it was a good idea, but we didn't know," said Smith, CEO of Aircover Inflatables, based in the Vancouver suburb of Delta.

After the team demonstrated its invention to the director of photography, visual effects supervisor and producer, they got the nod to incorporate it into the blockbuster.

"They loved it and they took a chance on us."

A green screen is a backdrop made entirely of one distinct colour -- often green, but sometimes blue -- that is mounted behind a scene during the filming of a movie. In post-production, the single hue is replaced by video footage or computer generated graphics, such as the enraged Godzilla.

The airwall has quickly amassed a roll of credits since its debut. Some other major motion pictures that used the visual effects tool include "Tomorrowland," "Avengers: Age of Ultron," "Captain America: Civil War," "X-Men Apocalypse" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales."

The invention was the brainchild of McIntosh, a key grip of 15 years who wanted to lessen the dangers of another device -- an overhead frame -- used by lighting and rigging technicians during filmmaking. They constructed one using air, and in the process realized the concept could be modified into a wall for visual effects. The inflatable green screen was born.

Its huge impact stems from a simple design. Giant, vinyl air mattresses that rapidly inflate to about 12 metres by seven metres by 2.5 metres are mounted on top of cargo containers. Multiple mattresses can be attached to meet the art director's specifications. Green or blue screen material is draped over the expanse.

The apparatus is considered innovative because it replaces an earlier concept: constructed green walls that involved scaffolding, stacked cargo containers or a phalanx of telephone poles.

"It's faster, more versatile," Smith said of the inflatable version. "We can do things you could never do with a solid structure."

For example, they easily deflated the airwall when the director sought more sky in a shot for Pirates of the Caribbean. And when high winds gusted through the "Game of Thones" production in Ireland, they released air until the stormy conditions subsided.

"Dave describes it as a bouncy castle. It's his way of saying, 'Ah, no big deal,' " Smith said of his colleague. "But it is a big deal."

Seamus McGarvey, the cinematographer for "Godzilla," said he believes the airwall will become the industry standard.

"They are so quick to inflate and deflate when sections are not required and to minimize spill," he says in a testimonial posted on the company's website. "I look forward to having them on every film. "

The team was elated upon learning of the academy's accolade, said Smith. He doesn't mind that technical achievement winners are only presented with a certificate.

"I'm happy that we're able to do this as grips in the industry, to say to other grips, 'Keep going, keep innovating, keep doing this. Because you could win an Academy Award,' " he said.

"I don't say (grips are) unsung heroes. But they're a huge contribution to the film industry and rarely get any recognition for it."


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