INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Horsing Around Pays Off for Scott Oshita, Todd Minobe

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

Apologies to Mr. Ed, but a horse is not always a horse, of course. What does that mean? Read on.

Last column I wrote about the 89th Academy Awards show that was televised live across the world on Sunday, Feb. 26, and how it at least showed improvements compared with the previous two years in terms of inclusivity.

For instance, I noted that during the show, actors John Cho and Leslie Mann were paired up to recap the Sci-Tech Awards, which had already been presented on Saturday, Feb. 11, at which they served as the ringmasters.

Incidentally, the Sci-Tech Awards is part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ annual recognition of the science and technology of moviemaking, which over the years has feted the people whose innovations advanced the behind-the-scenes processes, like advances in camera technologies.

But I failed to note that at the AMPAS’ Sci-Tech Awards Cho and Mann alluded to, there were two Japanese Americans among a group that won an Academy Award for an animatronic horse puppet. What, you’re probably wondering, is that?

From the Oscars.com website: “The Animatronic Horse Puppet provides increased actor safety, close integration with live action, and improved realism for filmmakers.” The company is Creature Effects and the four who won an Academy Award for that innovation are Mark Rappaport, Jeff Cruts, Todd Minobe and Scott Oshita. (According to the website horsenetwork.com, “Rappaport was recognized for the concept, design and development of the Animatronic Horse Puppet, Scott Oshita for the motion analysis and CAD design, Jeff Cruts for the development of the faux-hair finish techniques, and Todd Minobe for the character articulation and drive-train mechanisms.”)

Scott Oshita

Rafu Shimpo (and Into the Next Stage) reader Teiji Kawana of JSL Foods sent me an email after last column that the husband of his co-worker Brenda Masuda is none other than the aforementioned Scott Oshita.

One thing led to another, and I made an appointment to chat with Oshita about his Academy Award and his part in it. It was a fascinating discussion, and one of the most interesting details is that Oshita said that he has actually been out of the movie business for nearly 17 years now. Since then, he’s worked for Autodesk (a CAD company whose software is used in manufacturing and in designing the animatronic horse puppet) and also for one of architect Frank Gehry’s companies.

How Oshita came to be recognized for something he helped develop so many years ago and what led him to that point is itself an intriguing story.

The Yonsei from Monterey Park (and son of Mitsue and Mitsuru Oshita) said one of his areas of expertise is mechanical design, which makes perfect sense for someone who works in animatronics. Another of his strengths is CAD or computer-aided design. He attributes his getting a foot in the door in Hollywood to “luck and timing.”

In high school, Oshita actually had given serious consideration to joining to Army as a stepping stone to becoming a police officer, going so far as enlisting. (A mandatory call from the recruiter’s office to Alhambra High School led to a meeting in which the school made him promise not to join the Army!)

Fast-forward a few years. Oshita met Minobe during some down time during a Hollywood strike. “We date back a long time,” Oshita said. “I met Todd during one of the strikes. I was playing a lot of pool at a place called Hard Times in La Habra.”

They got to talking, found they had mutual interests and Oshita helped Minobe get his start working on 1993’s “Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday.” Minobe still works at Creature Effects, the company behind the animatronic horse.

Actor Jeff Bridges on an animatronic horse during the filming of “True Grit.”

Oshita says that when he was active in filmmaking, his mechanical design skills helped in practical special effects, which encompass things like mechanical puppets. Probably one of the most well-known such examples would have to be Yoda from 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back.” Back then, the Jedi master was a very lifelike puppet.

In more recent appearances, however, Yoda became a CG (computer-generated) character. While he gained mobility (his lightsaber battle with Count Dooku in 2002’s “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones” was almost comical) as a CG character, I told Oshita that movies that rely just on CG effects made me feel that something had been lost.

“It has. But the perfect balance is a combination of practical effects enhanced with computers,” Oshita said. Oshita said. “If you have a practical puppet on set, it adds a nice layer of reality for the actors.”

As for the prize-winning animatronic horse he helped design and build years ago, there was a movie project (almost fittingly, it was for “The Last Samurai”) that required an animatronic running horse and it required a very quick turnaround. According to Oshita, the day he left Gehry’s company, he got a call from Minobe at Creature Effects to see if he’d like to work on a short job. That turned out to be the animatronic horse puppet project.

Using his CAD skills, he created an armature (the interior “skeleton”), then had the parts fabricated, after which he helped assemble the parts into a working model.

That working model had a shell built over it, and on top of that was put a lifelike horse “skin.” The working model moved just like a running horse — and with CG enhancement for the legs, you had a lifelike horse an actor could sit astride, sans an actual horse.

The animatronic horse’s mechanical parts and outer shell.

“I brought the horse to life and Todd and his crew has been keeping it alive for the last decade,” Oshita said. If you’ve seen the recent “True Grit,”  “The Lone Ranger,” “The Revenant,” or the remake of “The Magnificent Seven,” then you’ve seen animatronic horses at work without even knowing it. (You’ve also seen Oshita’s handiwork in “Stuart Little” and the 1998 “Godzilla.”)

The reason it took so long from that initial running horse to now to get recognized for the award? Oshita said the Academy’s rules have a set time period over which an innovation needs to have been proven to work. Then, of course, the particular studio or effects company needs to submit an application to AMPAS for recognition.

Oshita learned in August that he and the other three members of the running horse team were in contention for the award.

“From August to December it was a basically a series of personal interviews, phone calls and video conferencing. It was really similar to filing for a patent. Most of it was just validating who really worked on it, who’s on this list and I believe it was sometime in late December that we got word that we won,” Oshita said.

Astonishingly, Oshita didn’t attend a particular school to learn his craft. “It was all self-taught,” he said, noting that when he broke into practical effects in the late 1980s, it was during what he called the “golden age” of special effects. When asked whether he’d ever go back to the film industry, he didn’t sound too enthusiastic — but if he did go back it would be in a different capacity than practical effects.

According to Oshita, a sign that his days in practical effects were numbered came when CG imagery made its biggest splash to date in 1993. “When I saw ‘Jurassic Park,’ I knew it was time to start looking for another job. That was the first time you saw CG characters that looked lifelike. It blended really well with the animatronic and practical stuff,” he said. “By 1999, 2000, is when I figured it was enough and time to move on.”

All in all, Oshita, who turns 48 this month, has done pretty well for someone who describes himself as “almost a high school dropout” — and despite what he describes as the work-related struggles that came after leaving Hollywood, now he has an Academy Award. Not only that, he’s in a better, more stable work environment post-Hollywood. Guess it goes to show that sometimes horsing around can pay off.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2017 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

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