Tim Jenison: Renaissance Man in an Age of Specialists

Tim Jenison is a very rare type of inventor who combines an intense knowledge of technology with a childlike curiosity in world of art. In 1985, Jenison founded NewTek in a garage, and invented such video innovations as the Video Toaster and Lightwave 3D, both of which dramatically lowered the cost of television production.

Tim Jenison used optical devices and mirrors to paint Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson”

Jenison not only saw the computer as the integrating medium for his various passions: electronics, music, film and video, but took a deep dive into 17th Century art with his explorations of Johannes Vermeer. This led to the Sony Pictures Classic film, Tim’s Vermeer, a documentary by Penn & Teller, that focuses on Jenison’s quest to duplicate the painting techniques of Vermeer.


Broadcast Beat’s Frank Beacham interviewed Jenison.

Beacham: In modern times, most people separate art from science. Technicians tend to be specialists. You are different. Did that come naturally to you?

Jenison: In the 17th Century, you had these proto scientists — Renaissance people that did both art and science. Go back to Leonardo da Vinci for the most shining example of that. Clearly, he was a technologist but also painted the Mona Lisa. As a kid, I enjoyed art class. My mom made me start taking piano lessons when I was four, which I think gave me a little more manual dexterity than the next guy. It came in handy for this little painting hobby I have. I think art and technology are two sides of the same coin, which is, human creativity.


Beacham: In 1985, you founded NewTek. Your first products were DigiView and DigiPaint, both for the Commodore Amiga computer. Digiview was the first full-color video digitizer. DigiPaint allowed graphic artists to draw with a variety of tools in a full color space. What was it about the Commodore Amiga that allowed you to do this?

Jenison: The Amiga computer was originally designed as a video game. They changed course and decided to make it a desktop computer. But because it started that way, they made it compatible with a television set. The video output scanned at the standard NTSC frequencies. It wasn’t a broadcast quality signal, but the basic frequencies were correct. And it also had these expansion slots. One of the things you could do with the expansion slots was to put in genlock that would actually take control of the timing of the video signal. It would let you synchronize to another video device for half sync. That’s what really clicked with me.


Beacham: Was it that slot that lead you to create the Video Toaster?

Jenison: That’s right. I knew if you could synchronize the computer with external video then you could make a video production device of some type. To me, the Holy Grail was to make a switcher with effects and a character generator. We were able to do that with those expansion slots. The Toaster was created with a sandwich of three boards.

The video signals themselves did not pass through the Amiga. The computers just were too slow to do anything meaningful back then. But the Amiga had this video game circuitry and we tapped that to control the Toaster.


Beacham: So from the Toaster came Lightwave 3D?

Jenison: We decided to bundle everything into one package with the Toaster. So LightWave 3D became part of the original package. At the time, it was not traditional to have a 3D animation system in your control room. We had little applications that we called ‘croutons’ — little pieces of ‘toast.’ One of those croutons was 3D. We helped create a lot of 3D animators just because it came free with the Toaster.


Beacham: Your Toaster technology had a huge impact on lowering the cost of television production.

Jenison: By an order of magnitude. Peter Drucker, the management guru, said to really have a slam dunk, you need to be a factor of 10 better or cheaper or both. We were and so a lot of people that had been doing B-roll or cuts-only editing were suddenly able to have transitions and computer graphics.


Jenison at a diagram of his set

Beacham: You used Lightwave 3D to design that replica set for your Vermeer painting of The Music Lesson in the film, Tim’s Vermeer

Jenison: With LightWave, you can put in a background image. So I put in Vermeer’s painting as a background image. Then you make the assumption that the walls are at 90 degrees to each other, and the ceiling is 90 degrees to the walls and so on. Then just trace. It was a matter of finding the furniture and making models. And at that point, I could do lighting tests and compare my lighting to the original Vermeer.

What’s amazing is Vermeer always got the lighting right and it was not the way human’s see light. It’s the way a video camera sees light, which is very different. We have these filters in our retina that make everything relative to its surroundings. So on a big white wall, you perceive the brightness of each point in relation to the points around it — not in reference to some standard light level. This happens all the time and we are not aware of it.

Most animals see the same way we do. Tests were done on baby chickens where they were perceiving relative lighting. It’s called brightness constancy. From the beginning, painters have been fighting this without realizing it. It’s extremely hard to translate a scene objectively. In other words, if you could, it wouldn’t be hard to paint something to look like a photograph. It is very hard to do, but Vermeer did it.


Beacham: It is really hard to see how a human could do that without some kind of optical system to help.

Jenison: Everybody assumed that Vermeer was using a camera obscura, which is a box with a lens and a screen. This was long before film photography was invented. But the image in a camera obscura was too dark and not sharp enough to paint.

I was in the bathtub one day after looking at some Vermeer paintings. The idea hit me that you could form a comparator, which is a word for a device that compares two quantities. It’s an old word. But you could make a comparator that would accurately match the paint color to the actual scene. That’s what your eye can’t do. So I tried it out and it worked.


Beacham: It took you about 130 days to duplicate Vermeer’s Music Lesson with a comparator. Do you think it took Vermeer that long to do the painting?

Jenison: Vermeer painted very few paintings in his lifetime. He had a roughly a 20 year career as a painter and he probably only painted about 40 pictures. So that’s a picture every six months. It’s slow work. But the result you get is profoundly different from other paintings. It was not a good business model. Fortunately, his mother-in-law was quite wealthy. But toward the end of Vermeer’s life, he lost everything.


Beacham: In your work in both technology and art, you’ve used computers to try to fool the human eye. Why do so many artists argue with this? Do they think you are using technology to cheat?

Jenison: It’s true if Vermeer was doing this, he wouldn’t necessarily have been as talented as Rembrandt, who lived a few miles away. And Vermeer was hiding his method. There is nothing in writing of how he did his work. So you might call it cheating. You can also call it using the tools that you have, which artists have always done.


Beacham: In modern times, David Hockney, who you have in the film, used iPads to shoot images and electronically paint them. From that he made what is considered very legitimate art. I haven’t heard anybody accuse Hockney of cheating.

Jenison: Hockney stirred up a can of worms when he brought out this book, Secret Knowledge. He wrote that it was commonplace in the late Renaissance for artists to use optics to assist with their work. There was a symposium in New York and Hockney was there. A bunch of art historians and scientists got into a shouting match over this. Susan Sontag told Hockney, it’s like you’re saying that the great lovers in history used Viagra. This is not cheating. It has been going on for a long time.


Beacham: So what happened to you after Tim’s Vermeer came out in 2013?

Jenison: After the film came out, I had absolutely no urge to paint ever again. Painting was just drudgery. It was an incredible amount of work every day to put those little details on a canvas. Two years went by and my daughters were home for Christmas. I asked my youngest daughter, Claire, who was the girl in the Vermeer painting in the film, if she would do a much simpler test involving just a flat mirror and no other optics. Initially she he said ‘No,’ but I talked her into it. The experiment worked great. I told Penn Jillette about it. He said, anything you do with paint, you have to run cameras. So I did.

Then I got a call David Walsh from Tasmania. David is a gazillionaire, an Australian professional gambler and art collector. He had studied mathematics and computer science made his fortune by developing a gambling system used to bet on horse racing and other sports. He also owns the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Tasmania.

David called me and said he had seen Tim’s Vermeer.  He said he’d like to set up an exhibit on his museum floor where we would have painters come in and do paintings like the Vermeer, a combination of experiment and performance art. So we did and he called the exhibit, Hound in the Hunt. The exhibit ran for three years and something like 75 new paintings were made.

The general public could sit down and try out the comparator process. We gave them a pencil and they sat down in front of this mirror and made a copy of a photograph of their choice. We had something like 18,000 scans. We filmed all of it.

I then moved to Delft in the Netherlands, Vermeer’s hometown. I painted a sort of reenactment of one of Vermeer’s most famous paintings called View of Delft. We found the exact spot where he had painted it and got permission from the city to build a two-story building in the city park, where the viewpoint is located. It took me seven months to complete that painting.

View of Delft by Vermeer. Jenison painted this actual location from a temporary building set-up in a park in Delft.

Beacham: What you going to do with all that video?

Jenison: We have a huge amount of material. Something like 2,500 hours of video. It is being catalogued and transcribed. Now there are several editors working on the video. We’re not yet sure what the format is going to be.


Beacham: I understand you are now building a vintage audio studio in San Antonio. What’s that project about?

Jenison: I’ve got this recording equipment — mostly vacuum tube. I learned electronics on vacuum tubes from my dad, who went to engineering school before transistors. And so I’m very comfortable around vacuum tubes. There are certain musicians who have this fetish to do it the way they did it in the old days. We want to get a different sound. The most crucial parts are the old vintage ribbon mics, compressors and equalizers found in early studios. You have to be able to perform live basically in one take. I’m doing this for a few friends to play with. It’s a work in progress.


Beacham: I noticed in that film, that as both an engineer and art enthusiast, you show almost obsessive qualities. You were clearly physically exhausted after doing that painting? Have you always worked so hard.

Jenison: From where I stand, it looks pretty normal. But I guess I do. I did major software and hardware projects at NewTek. Doing a software project is like herding cats? You have to deal with all these programmers. And you never know what’s going to happen. Douglas Hofstadter, the mathematician, had a rule for calculating the length of a software project. He said, ask the engineer how long it’s going to take and then double the number. I’ve found two weeks became four months.


Beacham: When you started all this, did you have a clear view that television distribution — services like YouTube — would become free and open to everyone to use?

Jenison: At the very beginning nobody was really thinking about streaming video. But we knew that the channels for television were multiplying. When I was a kid, there was one network we could pick up in my hometown. Then we had three and then we had cable TV with many more channels. It was clear that the number of choices would continue to increase. So we thought there would be a real market for an everyman’s TV production system.

Beacham: Thank you, Tim Jenison!

Writer at Broadcast Beat
Frank Beacham is a New York-based writer, director and producer who works in print, radio, television, film and theatre.

Beacham has served as a staff reporter and editor for United Press International, the Miami Herald, Gannett Newspapers and Post-Newsweek. His articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, the Village Voice and The Oxford American.

Beacham’s books, Whitewash: A Southern Journey through Music, Mayhem & Murder and The Whole World Was Watching; My Life Under the Media
Microscope are currently in publication. Two of his stories are currently being developed for television.

In 1985, Beacham teamed with Orson Welles over a six month period to develop a one-man television special. Orson Welles Solo was canceled after Mr. Welles died on the day principal photography was to begin.

In 1999, Frank Beacham was executive producer of Tim Robbins’ Touchstone feature film, Cradle Will Rock. His play, Maverick, about video with Orson Welles, was staged off-Broadway in New York City in 2019.
Frank Beacham
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