In 2016 the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) will celebrate its centennial. This anniversary represents one momentous milestone for industry as, over the past century, the Society has been responsible for developing the standards, recommended practices, and engineering guidelines that have shaped today’s worldwide image, sound, and metadata ecosystem.
As part of its centennial celebration, SMPTE is producing a documentary on the history of motion-imaging technology. The documentary is titled “Moving Images” and the Society will be screening a “first-look” preview in 4K as part of the NAB Show’s Technology Summit on Cinema (TSC), produced in partnership with SMPTE. (TSC registration is open online at www.smpte.org/technology-summit-on-cinema.)
As the director, I’m working alongside producer Randall Dark, cinematographer Travis LaBella, editor Bobby Hewitt, and associate producers Aimée Ricca and Richard Welsh to create fresh, fast-paced look at some of the remarkable images and extraordinary interviews already gathered for the full-length film. Following the screening at the TSC, I will join the rest of the filmmakers to participate in a brief Q&A session.
With this early glimpse at the film, TSC attendees will gain a clear sense of the entertaining content that the SMPTE documentary will use to showcase the engineers and artists behind the scenes — the craftspeople who have made the difference in the way we consume media today. The technical ingenuity of the people behind the camera has been just as creative and inspiring as the on-screen artistry that’s so evident to viewers. The film will show that engineering is art, and it will look at how creativity and innovation in engineering have brought us landmark movies ranging from the technically innovative films — “Birth of a Nation” — of D.W. Griffith in the early 1900s, for instance, to more recent examples such as “Titanic,” and “Gravity.”
It has been more than 100 years since Thomas Edison, William Kennedy Dixon, and the Lumière brothers raced to make early motion pictures, and since C. Francis Jenkins, the “father” of SMPTE, created one of the first commercially viable film projectors and held the first showing of a reeled film with electric light before an audience. (Hand-colored, it also was the first motion picture with color.) Along with innovators such as John Logie Baird, and later Vladimir K. Zworykin and Philo T. Farnsworth, Jenkins also pioneered early television technology.
By the time Jenkins founded SMPE (the “T” was added later for television) in 1916, he already had been widely recognized for scientific achievement, and he ultimately was issued more than 400 patents. The SMPTE documentary slated for release in 2016 explores how this irrepressible spirit of innovation has influenced the art and science of motion pictures and television over the past century. Using historical footage, still images, and animated graphics along with fresh interviews with top filmmakers, historians, entrepreneurs, and technologists, the documentary will investigate the influence of art and science on one another. You may be surprised at who you’ll see on-camera and what they have to say.
As the documentary examines an array of industry-first technical achievements, it will expose key contributors and important technical advances that have remained largely unknown or unrecognized. The film will do some myth-busting along the way, as well. (Which film truly was the first to incorporate sound? Perhaps not the one you think!) In offering a historical overview, the film pursues another worthy goal: Illustrating how media technology reached its current state and, in the process, learning lessons from our history.
The evolution of the motion picture and television industries is often a case of history repeating itself, particularly with respect to “format wars.” Even in the early 1900s, leading into World War I, different film formats competed within the same market, and there are parallels and similar patterns today in the work being done on digital cinema.
The Society’s work has been vital in bringing together technologists and experts to develop standards that enable interoperability and thus push the industry, as a whole, forward. In the same spirit, “Moving Images” will give viewers an engaging look at the people who drove development of motion-imaging technology from the turn of the 20th century through today. The documentary will also delve into future possibilities for innovation, and which further technical advances may take place.
SMPTE hosts and produces several of the industry’s most important technical conferences and exhibitions each year, and these events draw innovators together to discuss the very latest in motion imaging, audio, and information technology developments and their potential implementation. “Moving Images” likewise will provide a unique glimpse into future realms of media consumption, engaging these same experts to probe the exciting possibilities offered by ultra high definition (UHD) television, immersive cinema sound, virtual and augmented reality, and other emerging technologies.
Diving into the history of the industry and learning about the people involved, I have come upon fascinating stories about the people, personalities, and situations that spurred innovation, from behind the scenes, to make what you see on-screen possible. We have found such compelling material to incorporate into this film that I’m confident a wide audience will be excited to see how it all comes together in the feature.