Very good video on using virtual cameras in animation.
Jimmy Songer and the Development of Video Assist
by David Waelder
Very good video on using virtual cameras in animation.
While I was at CineGear Expo, I met Michael Frediani at the SOC booth and thanked about about his research into Jerry Lewis and told him I would post his article on video assist. I also included an article from the 695 Quarterly about Jim Songer about his development of thru the lens video assist. There is a lot of debate on the topic of who “invented” video assist. Like most technical innovations there is no one single inventor, but many improvements from each contributor. Here is the earlier post about Jerry and video assist.
Video assist section starts at 1:09:09.
Francis Ford Coppola later developed his own “electronic cinema” previsualization called Image and Sound Control.
As well as being an entertainer, “Jerry Lewis was a major innovator in motion pictures,” stated director Francis Ford Coppola. “His invention of putting a video camera next to the motion picture camera so he could play it back and direct himself, has been used for decades by every director in the movie industry. I watched him on the set of The Ladies Man in 1961 and was amazed by his groundbreaking innovation, the Video Assist.”
Video Village is a standard feature on the modern movie set. Producers, writers, clients and others can view the action clustered around a monitor far enough away from the set to stay out of trouble. Their segregation in the video ghetto allows camera people and others to go about their tasks without the distraction of people jockeying for position at the viewfinder. It also helps makeup and wardrobe personnel to see how their work appears on camera and it has become an essential tool for the director and continuity person. Even the sound crew benefits by having extension monitors to see the frame and position the boom microphone. All this is made possible by a video assist system perfected by Jimmie Songer, a Local 695 technician.The advantages of using a video camera as an aid to directing movies were apparent from the very beginning. Several directors began to set up TV cameras adjacent to the film camera so they could see an approximate frame. This became a common practice particularly on commercials where the placement of the product is crucially important. To match the view and perspective, assistants would carefully adjust the aim and image size to closely approximate the view of the film camera.
Of course, that isn’t really a video assist system. The image is useful for the simplest shots but not much help when the camera moves or the lens is adjusted. Every setup change or lens adjustment necessitates a recalibration of video camera position and exposure settings. To be a fully functional system, both the video and film cameras would have to view the scene through the same lens to avoid parallax errors and exposure sensitivities would have to track together. This presents a series of technical challenges.
It was a cowboy from East Texas with little formal education who took on the challenge and worked out all the engineering obstacles. Jimmie Songer grew up on a ranch in Burleston, south of Fort Worth, with a keen interest in how radio and television worked. He and his friend, Don Zuccaro, would purchase crystal radio kits, assemble them and string the antenna wire along his mother’s clothesline.
As a teenager, he took a road trip that would set up the course of his life. He and his friends traveled north as far as Bloomington, Indiana, when funds began to run out. Looking for a job to replenish assets, he applied to the RCA plant on Rogers Street. Ordinarily, his lack of formal training would have been an impediment but RCA was just then experimenting with designs for color sets and there was no established technology to learn. By diagramming from memory the circuit design of a popular RCA model, he demonstrated familiarity with the major components and was hired on the spot to be a runner for the engineers developing the new color system.
His duties at RCA consisted largely of gathering components requested by the engineers and distributing them. Along the way, he asked questions about the function of each element and how it fit into the overall design. He stayed about a year, not long enough to see the model CTC4 they were developing go on sale. That didn’t happen until a couple of years later in 1955. But, when he did move back to Texas, he had a pretty good understanding of how video, and color video in particular, worked.
Graduating from crystal radio sets, he and his friend, Don Zuccaro, made a mail-order purchase of plans for a black & white television. Components were not readily available at that time but Jimmie and Don were ingenious and purchased a war surplus radar set with A&B scopes and cannibalized it for parts. The task of hand-winding the tuning coil was simplified because Fort Worth had only one TV station so there was no need to tune anything other than Channel 5.
With skills honed from building his own set and working at the RCA plant in Indiana, Jimmie Songer quickly found work with appliance shops in the Fort Worth area that were beginning to sell television sets but had no one to set them up, connect antennas and service them when needed. This led to an offer, in 1953, to work setting up KMID, Channel 2, in the Midland Odessa area. After a few years with KMID, he worked awhile in the Odessa area and then returned to Fort Worth but he stayed only a year before setting out for Los Angeles in April 1963.
In Los Angeles, he worked at first for a TV repair shop in Burbank while he tinkered with his own experimental projects. Hearing that Dr. Richard Goldberg, the chief scientist at Technicolor, was looking for people with experience with color, he sought him out and secured a job calibrating the color printers. Dr. Goldberg was also developing a two-perforation pull-down camera for widescreen use. Songer became fascinated by the possibility of using that design at 48 fps to make alternate images, one atop the other, which might be used for 3D and built some experimental rigs to test the idea.
This work with Dr. Goldberg in the early ’60s brought him to the attention of Gordon Sawyer at Samuel Goldwyn Studios. Sawyer wanted him to help with an ongoing project for Stan Freberg involving simultaneous video and film recording. Freberg was using side-by-side cameras to create video records of film commercials. The side-byside positioning produced parallax errors but his commercials were mostly static. Generally, the results were good enough for timing and performance checks. But issues of accurately tracking motion would arise whenever the camera did move and Stan Freberg wanted a better system.
Under general supervision from Gordon Sawyer, the team first addressed the issue by adjusting the position of the video camera. They attached a small Panasonic camera to the mount for an Obie light. This put the video lens exactly in line with the film camera lens and only a couple of inches above it. Left-right parallax was effectively eliminated and the vertical alignment could be adjusted to match the film camera with only minimal keystone effect. By affixing a mirror just above the lens mount at a 45-degree angle and mounting the video camera vertically to shoot into the mirror, they reduced vertical parallax to almost nothing. Jimmie Songer addressed the keystone problem by devising a circuit that slightly adjusted the horizontal scan, applying an opposite keystone effect to neutralize the optical effect that was a consequence of slightly tilting the video camera to match the film camera image. Most of the time, this system worked well but there were still limitations. The video system needed to be recalibrated with every lens change. Even with careful adjustment, use of a separate lens for the video meant that depth of field would be different so the video image would only approximate the film image. Blake Edwards knew Gordon Sawyer and approached the team to design a system suitable for movies with moving cameras and frequent lens changes.
The limitations could only be resolved if the video camera used the very same lens used by the film camera. Accomplishing that would require exact positioning of the video lens and adjusting sensitivity of the system both to obtain sufficient light for exposure and to track with the film exposure. Jimmie Songer set about developing a system that could be built into a Panavision Silent Reflex camera (PSR) that used a pellicle mirror to reflect the image to the viewfinder. They left the image path from the lens to the film completely untouched but introduced a second pellicle mirror to reflect the image from the ground glass to a video camera they built into the camera door. This one design change eliminated many of the limitations of previous systems in one stroke. Since the video used the film camera lens and picked up the exact image seen by the film and the camera operator, issues of parallax and matching depth of field were completely eliminated. There was no need to recalibrate the system with every lens change and the video camera was configured to use the same battery supply as the camera. The introduction of a second pellicle mirror did flip the image but Songer corrected this easily by reversing the wires on the deflection coil. But the issue of having sufficient light for the video image still remained.
In one way, a pellicle reflex system is ideal for video use. Unlike a mirror shutter, the pellicle system delivers an uninterrupted image to the viewfinder so there is no need to coordinate the 30-frame video system with a 24-frame film camera. While there would be more frames in a single second of video, the running times would match and that was all that was important. Furthermore, the video image would be free of the flicker seen in the viewfinder of a mirror shutter camera. However, the pellicle mirror used in the reflex path deflected only about one-third of the light to the viewfinder. That was no problem when filming outside in daylight but there was insufficient light when working interiors.
Jimmie Songer needed to make three refinements to the system to address the exposure issue. First, he replaced the vidicon tube that was normally fitted to the camera with a newly available saticon tube that was more sensitive and also provided 1,600 lines of resolution. That helped but wasn’t enough. He then adjusted the optics so that the image, rather than being spread over the full sensitive area of the tube, was delivered only to the center portion. By concentrating on the image, he obtained more exposure and adjusting the horizontal and vertical gain allowed him to spread out the smaller image to fill the monitor. But, there are limits to how much can be gained by this approach. Even with a high-resolution saticon tube, the image will begin to degrade if magnified too far. There was still not enough light for an exposure but the video system had been pushed to its limits so Songer turned his attention to the film camera.
Recognizing that the ground glass itself absorbed a considerable amount of light, Songer contacted Panavision and asked them to fabricate a replacement imaging glass using fiber optic material. Although the potential of using optical fibers for light transmission had been recognized since the 19th century, the availability of sheets of tightly bundled fiber suitable for optics was a recent development in the 1960s. The fiber optic ground “glass” was the trick that made the system work, allowing the video camera function with the light diverted to the viewfinder.
Jimmie Songer and his assistant used the system, first called “instant replay” but now renamed “video assist” to avoid confusion with sports replay systems, on The Party in 1968 and then Darling Lili in 1970. It worked flawlessly, delivering the exact image of the main camera so Blake Edwards, the Director, could follow the action as it happened. It never held up production; to the contrary, Edwards said that it streamlined production because the certain knowledge of how the take looked freed him from making protection takes.
After Darling Lili, the key figures behind the project formed a company, Video West, to further develop the system. They met with rep representatives of the ASC to draw up a series of specifications for video assist systems. Don Howard was brought in to interface the camera with the playback system and operate it in the field. Harry Flagle, the inventor of Quad-Split viewing technology and one of the Ampex engineers who worked on the development of the Model VR-660 portable two-inch recorder, joined the team soon after.
They next used the system on Soldier Blue, directed by Ralph Nelson, and then Wild Rovers, again with Blake Edwards. It proved so popular with producers that Songer and Don Howard, his assistant who was primarily responsible for operating and cuing the video recorder, scheduled projects months in advance and went from film to film. The work was so tightly booked that they sometimes had to ship the camera directly from one project to the next without a return to the shop.
Jimmie Songer joined Local 695, sponsored by Gordon Sawyer, shortly after Darling Lili and continued as a member until his membership was transferred to Local 776 in 1997. In the course of his career, he obtained seventeen US patents for a variety of innovations in high-definition TV and 3D video imaging.
In 2002, he received a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy for his work developing video assist. He lives today on a ranch near Fort Worth but continues to refine the video engineering work that has been his life.
Glossary for highlighted words
Deflection coil – In a CRT (cathode ray tube), the beam of electrons is aimed by magnetic fields generated by coils of wire surrounding the tube. Adjusting the electrical energy sent to different coils directs the electron stream.
Obie light – A diffuse light mounted very near the camera lens, typically just above the matte box, to provide soft fill on faces in close-ups. Lucien Ballard, ASC developed the light to photograph Merle Oberon after her face was scarred in an auto accident.
Pellicle mirror – A semi-transparent mirror used in optical devices. A pellicle reflects a certain percentage of light and allows the remainder to pass through. In the Panavision PSR camera, a pellicle mirror deflected approximately 30% of light to the viewfinder and passed about 70% to the film plane.
Saticon tube – A saticon tube is a refinement of the vidicon tube design that adds particular chemicals to the photosensitive surface to stabilize the signal.
Vidicon tube – A vidicon is one of the early image capture devices made for television cameras. An image focused on a photoconductive surface produces a charge-density pattern that may be scanned and read by an electron beam.
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I went to CineGear this year. It was great, was able to catch up and reconnect with some old friends and make new ones.
He was also a photographer as well as a director and did many projects at Disney including Body Wars.
He talked about working with Woody Allen on his new film for Amazon Studios, Cafe Society.
This is Woody’s first digital feature and Vittorio used the Sony F65;
“I had seen that the Sony F65 was capable of recording beautiful images in 4K and 16 bit-colour depth in 1:2, which is my favorite composition,” Storaro said. “So when Woody called me this year asking me to be the cinematographer of his new film with the working title ‘WASP 2015,’ my decision was already made. I convinced him to record the film in digital, so we can begin our journey together in the digital world. It’s time now for the Sony F65!”
He spoke of the Technicolor IB process, light, shadows and color and said that digital makes it too easy.
He stated that a trend that has emerged with the use of digital cameras is that “people want to work faster or show that they can use less light, but they don’t look for the proper light the scenes needs. That isn’t cinematography, that’s recording an image. … I was never happy in any set to just see available light,” said Storaro, who has won Oscars for Apocalypse Now, Reds and The Last Emperor. “Even in very important films that take Academy Awards, you can record an image without location lighting. But that’s not necessarily the right light for the character. We have to always move a story forward, not step back.”
He elaborated on his work with Coppola and that he hasn’t used anamorphic lenses for many years. Sorry Mr. Tarantino.
The best and most important part though, was when he got even more philosophical. He mentioned Mozart, the Lumiere brothers, Newton, Caravaggio, architecture, and Plato and the Cave. From his website:
Ever since Plato’s “Myth of the Cave” we are used to seeing Images in a specific space. In Plato’s myth, prisoners are kept in a cave facing an interior wall, while behind them, at the entrance to the cave, there is a lighted fire, with some people with statues and flags passing in front of the fire. At the same time, their shadows are projected onto the interior wall of the cave by fire’s light. The prisoners are looking at the moving shadows in that specific area of the wall. They are watching images as a simulation, a “simulacre” of reality, not reality itself. The myth of Plato is a metaphor for the Cinema.
He believes that film is a collaboration as opposed to the auteur theory and emphasized the importance of story.
“You need to find the balance of technology and art,” continued Storaro, who was inspiring and thought-provoking in his speech, also raising an argument against the use of the term ‘director of photography’ to define the role of the cinematographer. “That’s a major mistake. There cannot be two directors. … Let’s respect the director,” he asserted, saying that ‘cinematographer’ is the appropriate word, and adding that it’s not interchangeable with photographer. “Cinematography is motion, we need a journey and to arrive at another point. We don’t create a beautiful frame, but a beautiful film. That’s why I say ‘writing with light.'”
The science of color in film has brought us many innovative systems over the past 120 years. Here’s an expert’s guide to 10 of the best.
Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson ASC digs into the technical nitty-gritty of the large-format anamorphic film process that hasn't been used in nearly 50 years.
Lytro Immerge seems to be the world's first commercial professional Lightfield solution for cinematic VR, which will capture 'video' from many points of view at once and thereby provide a more lifelike presence for live action VR through six degrees of freedom.
This is from their site and they own it. It is posted here under fair use and for comment and educational use only.
The Dawn of Technicolor 1915-1935
Authors James Layton and David Pierce discuss how Herbert Kalmus, Walt Disney and Ray Rennahan, ASC, all contributed to Technicolor’s success.
by Jason Apuzzo
Over the course of its storied first century, Technicolor came to represent more than a motion-picture technology company. Marked by a vividness of color and an exuberant style, Technicolor became synonymous with an entire era of Hollywood filmmaking, the golden age of studio production from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. This era did not emerge overnight, however, and a new book by James Layton and David Pierce, The Dawn of Technicolor 1915-1935, published by George Eastman House to coincide with Technicolor’s 100th anniversary, documents the company’s earlier, groundbreaking “two-color” era.
It was during this formative period that Technicolor based its technology on the innovative use of red and green filters and dyes — colors chosen to prioritize accurate skin tone and foliage hues. Two-color Technicolor was achieved by way of a beam-splitting prism behind the camera lens that sent light through red and green filters, creating two separate red and green color records on a single strip of black-and-white film. Separate prints of these two color records (with their silver removed) were later cemented together in the final printing process, with red and green dyes then added; this was a complex and error-prone process that later gave way to a two-color “dye-transfer” printing process, in which the color dyes were pressed onto a single piece of film, one color at a time.
As Layton and Pierce’s book reveals, this early two-color system, which was unable to properly reproduce blues, purples or yellows, was eventually superseded by Technicolor’s more famous, three-color process. Yet surviving motion pictures from Technicolor’s two-color period, such as Douglas Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate (1926) and the color sequences in Ben-Hur (1925), reveal a subtlety and understated elegance unique to the technology.
Lavishly illustrated and meticulously researched, and featuring an extensive filmography co-authored by Crystal Kui, The Dawn of Technicolor includes more than 400 illustrations, over half of which were made directly from negatives and original nitrate prints.
Rich in technical detail, the book also offers a fascinating glimpse into the early career of Ray Rennahan, ASC, arguably the most important of Technicolor’s early cinematographers. After cutting his teeth on early Technicolor efforts like the two-color scenes in Cecil DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923), Rennahan photographed the first three-color Technicolor feature, Becky Sharp (1935), and won two Academy Awards for Color Cinematography, for Gone with the Wind (1939) and Blood and Sand (1941).
Layton and Pierce sat down with AC to discuss their new book at the recent TCM Classic Film Festival, where they presented two-color Technicolor rarities to a packed house at the Egyptian Theatre.
American Cinematographer: So much attention has been paid to the introduction of sound in cinema, and comparatively less attention has been paid to color. Why do you think it has taken so long for a book as comprehensive as yours to be published?
James Layton: There have been books on Technicolor, but they tend to focus on the complete history, from the beginning to the present. As a result, they’ve been a bit more generalized. Our interest has always been in silent and early sound cinema, and in color and motion-picture technology in particular, so it was natural for us to gravitate to that period.
David Pierce: I think that we’re probably at the start of an examination of color and its effect upon audiences. So many of the films that included color, or tinting and toning, were preserved in black-and-white, so those [color processes] were kind of invisible to audiences …. Also, if you dupe a nitrate print of a two-color film, it doesn’t look great. But for various technical reasons, if you do a digital copy, you can actually create a very accurate representation of two-color. So I think the time is right to look at how directors and cinematographers used those tools.
Technicolor was invented by talented MIT researchers who applied their scientific knowledge of color and optics to motion-picture technology. How did the fact that these researchers came out of Boston’s hothouse academic environment, and not from Hollywood, shape their efforts?
Layton: They had a very practical and regimented approach. They knew what the end goal was that they wanted, and they just worked in steps. In the book, we talk about a ‘step development’ process. They didn’t try to achieve their goal overnight. It took a lot of money, a lot of research and development. They would just experiment, and keep experimenting, and if something worked, they’d proceed with that. Technicolor had the R&D team from the start. But another reason they were successful was that [Technicolor co-founder] Herbert Kalmus found the investment and secured the money for 15 years before the first year of profit. Most other companies would’ve shut down way before that.
So patience was a key factor in Technicolor’s success during this two-color era.
Pierce: Patient capital. The other firms ran out of capital, ran out of funding, before they ran out of technical problems to solve.
From the outset, Technicolor had its own proprietary film prints, cameras, lab processes, makeup requirements and shooting style, all of which required specially trained personnel who often worked outside the studio system. What kind of challenges did this create in terms of getting the industry to fully embrace color?
Layton: The reason they had all that in place was to maintain high quality, high standards, because if they’d just given it to the studios, the studios wouldn’t have known how to use it properly. The creators of other color processes did that. With Multicolor, for instance, you could adapt any camera, you could buy the stock, and you could shoot it with your own cameraman. And you got a cheaper product for it. Technicolor always wanted to maintain the best quality.
Yet there was reportedly some tension between the Hollywood crews and the Technicolor crews on set.
Layton: There was a certain mindset in the 1920s — you know, the black-and-white cameramen were ‘artists,’ sculpting with light, et cetera. The Technicolor cameramen were seen more as ‘technicians.’ They used their exposure meters when exposure meters weren’t common, because they had to get a certain amount of light. Also, color was initially seen as a gimmick, some flashy thing that studios were using to sell the film and excite audiences. It wasn’t perceived as artistic or creative.
Technicolor had to overcome many challenges during the 1920s and early 1930s, including print quality, competition, the Depression, and even audience ambivalence toward color itself. Technicolor also had to produce its own films in order to convince Hollywood that the technology was viable. It seems that the company’s success owes a great deal to sheer persistence.
Pierce: They had a master salesman in Herbert Kalmus, and Kalmus, who was a Ph.D. engineer, quite consciously developed himself into a very accomplished businessman, an excellent communicator. He knew how to cultivate mentors who helped him acquire captains of industry for the Technicolor board of directors, and he was able to communicate about the technology to non-technical people. So the industry saw him as the technical expert, the ‘genius,’ and the engineers saw him as the business leader. He was not the inventor of Technicolor; he was the one who marshaled the resources the engineers needed in order to deliver, and he got them enough time. In that way, he was very much like Steve Jobs. He didn’t write the code, but he hired the right people, he set the goals, and he was able to ensure that what they delivered had an impact on the industry and was what people wanted.
Another factor in Technicolor’s success seems to have been that it was championed by people like Douglas Fairbanks, Cecil B. DeMille, Jack Warner and Walt Disney, who really understood color’s potential. Among Technicolor’s patrons, who do you think was the most crucial?
Pierce: I think Disney was in many ways the most important, because the test film Flowers and Trees , where they didn’t know if they were going to release it in color or black-and-white, got such an enormous response that Disney decided to release it in color even though United Artists said, ‘We’ve already sold these pictures at a flat rate! We’re going to make less money by releasing this in color!’ Disney, as always, was thinking ahead. This really pulled the entire animation industry into color, and that built up the three-color printing and really helped Technicolor work out the bugs for three-color before there was much live action [in the format].
Do you consider Ray Rennahan the greatest of the Technicolor cameramen?
Pierce: Technicolor did. He started as an assistant and lab guy, and he had an instinctive understanding of all the skills of black-and-white and how to create effective color. And the quality of his work continued to improve as he grew into that role. Of the other people that Technicolor recruited, including some first-class cameramen, none was really able to work at Rennahan’s caliber. The black-and-white cameramen tended to look down on Technicolor because it didn’t require you to set up your three-point lighting to make the person stand out from the background — color does that for you. So [Technicolor] wasn’t seen as sophisticated in terms of the lighting you used and the knowledge you had to have. But it was much more sophisticated in some ways. For example, you had to understand how to use color balance to draw the viewer’s eye to the right things within the frame.
Filmmaking technology is in a constant state of evolution, and the story of Technicolor’s first 20 years seems to offer a world of lessons to modern innovators. What would you say those lessons are?
Pierce: I think investors are far less forgiving now than they were back then. Today there’s the need to deliver something that can go commercial faster. Technicolor was not a licensing company; it was a ‘we do it for you’ company. If you were doing something comparable now, you’d probably say, for instance, ‘We’ve come up with a camera phone. Do we build it ourselves so that we’re the only cell phone that has a camera, or do we decide to become a patents company and license it out to everybody?’ Given the technical hurdles, I think engineers coming up with Technicolor today would probably develop the components and then offer it out so that everyone else could become a color company.
Do you plan to follow this book with one that looks at the next era of Technicolor?
Layton: We’ve kind of joked about it. We’ve already found a lot of research material that was related to the later period. We’ve joked that we could do one that just covers the next five years, up to Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz . There are a lot of stories!
Click here to watch a short video produced by George Eastman House about the two-color process.
Founded in 1915, the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation transformed cinema forever with its revolutionary color processes. George Eastman House marks this important centennial with the exhibition In Glorious Technicolor, on view January 24 through April 26, 2015 in the special exhibition galleries.
The exhibition celebrates Technicolor’s vivid history, from the company’s early years through the making of such classics of the Hollywood studio era as The Wizard of Oz (1939), Gone With the Wind (1939), and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Technicolor’s wide-ranging impact on the form and content of cinema is explored through original artifacts from the Technicolor Corporate Archive, projected video clips, and a range of stunning visual displays.
Highlights include the company’s evolving camera technology, from its early two-color camera from the 1920s to the massive Technirama widescreen system of the 1950s. Original costumes, production designs, posters, and photographs document how color was used creatively and presented to the public, while the vibrant dyes used to create Technicolor’s incomparable “look” shed light on the science behind the process. Rare tests from Douglas Fairbanks’s The Black Pirate (1926), behind-the-scenes stills from the Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and home movies from the set of The African Queen (1951) reveal the stars and filmmakers most associated with color. Additionally, the exhibition honors the achievements of Academy Award–winning cinematographers Ray Rennahan and Jack Cardiff, as well as Technicolor’s often overlooked engineers, whose work remained largely out of the limelight.
To complement the gallery exhibition, the Dryden Theatre is presenting a four-month series of Technicolor films, including some original Technicolor prints.
Article in International Photographer, the forerunner of International Cinematographer Magazine.
In a 1969 interview, cast and crew remember working with the mad genius Orson Welles on his groundbreaking first film.
Republished from the DGA’s Action magazine (May-June, 1969)