Meet Abigail Brady, The Trans Techie Who Has Already Won an Academy Award
Abigail Brady received a Scientific and Technical Award, for those who “demonstrate a proven record of contributing significant value to the process of making motion pictures.”
The Associated Press has called this year’s Academy Awards a “breakthrough” for transgender talent, citing Oscar nominations for Strong Island director Yance Ford and the Chilean film A Fantastic Woman, which stars transgender actress Daniela Vega.
We’ll have to wait until March 4 to find out if those films take home honors.
Software engineer and transgender woman Abigail Brady, along with her colleagues Jon Wadelton and Jerry Huxtable, was one of 34 recipients of a Scientific and Technical Award, given to those who “demonstrate a proven record of contributing significant value to the process of making motion pictures,” as an Academy press release notes.
Indeed, if you have seen a movie this century, you’ve already benefited from Brady’s work on an digital compositing application known as Nuke.
“Nuke is a piece of software nearly universally used for ‘compositing’—bringing footage from different sources and combining it,” Brady patiently explained to The Daily Beast. “You have your live action, your model shots, your CGI renders—Nuke is where it all comes together.”
Citing their fact-checkers, the Academy Publicity Department told The Daily Beast that they know of only one other openly transgender person to win a Scientific and Technical Academy Award: visual effects artist Paige Warner who, as Complex noted, is one of only three known transgender nominees in the history of the awards.
Warner and her colleagues at Industrial Light and Magic won Sci-Tech Awards in 2017 for their work on an innovative facial performance capture system—a system that, as the New York Times reported, was used in the Star Wars movie Rogue One to create a young Carrie Fisher.
“Trans women have done some pretty amazing and pioneering work in tech and I’m proud to be following in that tradition,” Brady told The Daily Beast, when asked about the significance of her victory—maybe not the first, but certainly among the first.
Indeed, to Brady’s point, there’s a strong chance you’re reading this very article on a device that runs off an ARM processor first developed by a transgender woman named Sophie Wilson—a processor that is used, as the Register noted, in the overwhelming majority of smartphones.
Brady, who lives and works in England, studied computer science at the University of Southampton in the late 1990s and began working at the Foundry, an industry-leading London visual effects house, in 2007. At first, she says, it was a job meant to make ends meet.
“Sure, it had been of interest to me … but never something I’d imagined getting into, as I thought you had to have a background in it,” Brady said. “I’d not even specialized in computer graphics at university.”
But over the course of her seven years at the Foundry, Brady and her colleagues did now-award-winning work on the ubiquitous Nuke compositing system, essentially boosting its ability to handle “more complicated situations,” as the software engineer told The Daily Beast. One example of the evolution of the Nuke compositing system, Brady said, is “a particle system for simulating dust or sparks or whatever.”
(Another area of Nuke that Brady worked on—“deep data”—could not be translated into words small enough for this reporter to understand, but the Foundry has an excellent summary for more technically-inclined readers.)
Suffice it to say, whether you primarily watch superhero movies or prestige dramas, your eyeballs have witnessed the work that Brady and her peers did on Nuke.
The Academy referred to the software in the Sci-Tech Awards press release as “the backbone of compositing and image processing pipelines across the motion picture industry.”
Brady did not receive one of the iconic Oscar statuettes at the Sci-Tech Awards but rather an Academy Plaque, which, she tells The Daily Beast, is “probably just going on a bookshelf until [she] can rearrange [her] room to have a spot for it.”
While Brady’s work has primarily been on the technical side of the industry, she will be watching the Oscar results in March with great interest.
Like many transgender people, she has been disappointed in the film industry’s long history of casting cisgender, or non-transgender, actors in transgender roles—actors like Eddie Redmayne and Jared Leto who have recently been earning nominations for roles in The Danish Girl and Dallas Buyers Club that could have been played by actual transgender women.
In fact, one of the reasons why the Chilean film A Fantastic Woman attracted such buzz this awards season was because, as Nick Schager noted for The Daily Beast, it could have been the first time a transgender star received an Oscar nod for playing a transgender role.
Ultimately, transgender actress Daniela Vega was not nominated for her performance but the film itself was nominated in the Foreign Language category.
“It is frustrating how slow this has been,” Brady told The Daily Beast. “I’m encouraged by seeing more trans actors in trans roles, but the fact is we’re still seeing cis men cast as trans women in lead roles that could have been someone’s big break.”
Brady is also concerned by the general lack of diversity on the technical side of the filmmaking process. She was singled out by Deadline in their coverage of the Sci-Tech Awards for being one of only two women to win an honor at the ceremony Deadline said that Brady “showed a little more of the wave of the future in this part of the male-dominated motion picture industry.”
“I’ve been working in tech since 2000, and in that time I’ve never had a woman manage me, I’ve never had a woman tech interviewer, and I’ve rarely worked with other women as engineers,” Brady said, adding that “we should be doing better than this in 2018.”
“It was [also] probably the whitest gathering I’ve ever been in,” Brady added, with regards to the Sci-Tech ceremony, “and I go to indie music gigs in England. I’m a white woman from Leicester, so I don’t think I’ve got very much useful to say about why that might be, but I think I can point it out.”
Change will come slowly to the film industry—but Brady is proof that women and LGBT people are already playing a vital role in all areas of the filmmaking process, even on the technical side. That’s something worth celebrating—and celebrate Brady did, as the British are wont to do, with a trip to the pub.