Howard’s Speech

Howard Preston received the Lifetime Achievement Award at Cine Gear 2011. Watch the Vimeo video of his speech and Jon Fauer’s introduction, shot with Canon 5D Mk II by Mirko Kovacevic, a long-time member of Preston Cinema Systems, and co-recipient of their 2007 Motion Picture Academy Sci-Tech Award. Full text transcripts follow. 

Here’s the video on Youtube:

Read on for the full text of intro and speech:

Jon Fauer’s Intro

Once upon a time, smooth zooms and remote focus were not easy. Remember the early zoom control systems?  It was often a 2 person job, using 2 piece contraptions that looked like a San Francisco cable car lever and a box with a small steering wheel. Never mind smooth zooms. Handheld and remote follow focus was equally primitive.

The man who changed the way we work with lenses is being honored tonight. Howard Preston, president and founder of Preston Cinema Systems. The inventor of the Microforce, FIZ, Light Ranger, Speed Aperture Computer and many more.

I first met Howard Preston around 1980. He had just come out with his Microforce Zoom control. I wanted one, and he personally delivered one of the first units to my apartment in New York. I’m sure he watched in horror as Jon Ercole and I immediately took it apart. We’ve stayed friends ever since.

You know a product is important when it becomes part of our vocabulary –the generic name for the entire category, as in “call Otto and order a dozen Microforces,” or “what do you mean all of Denny’s waterproof FIZes are out?”

Howard Preston was born in New Jersey, moved to California, and went to UCLA. As an undergrad, he designed and built instrumentation for the Nuclear Physics group. Howard went on to get a PhD in theoretical physics. So it’s Dr. Preston, I presume.

Sometimes on difficult camera setups we joke that “it isn’t rocket science.” With Howard, we happen to have a real rocket scientist. But, what he really wanted to do was get into film. In 1978, he made a documentary on Cosmology. That led to work filming the opening sequence on Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In 1979, he did plate photography for the Hayden Planetarium sequence in Woody Allen’s film Manhattan. The next year, Howard produced and shot a sequence in Italy for Carl Sagan’s Cosmos showing how Relativity would change our view of the world if the speed of light were slowed down to 18 mph and you were riding on a Vespa. In addition to the Vespa camera rig, he built a device to interlock the camera frame rate and lens aperture to maintain constant exposure. This was going to become the Preston Speed Aperture Computer a year later. It received a Technical Achievement Award from the Motion Picture Academy, and was the basis for most speed-aperture-ramping controls that would follow.

Howard started Preston Cinema Systems in 1980 with his first product, the Micro Force zoom control. It was unique because it…well…it worked. You could finally do smooth zooms, one person, not only with one hand, but with one finger of one hand. It was an instant success.

Building on his earlier work in the physics lab, Preston developed the Light Ranger laser autofocus device in 1980. Its feature debut was in Mike Meyer’s Wayne’s World 2, pulling focus on a long lens for cinematographer Francis Kenny, ASC. Conrad Hall made extensive use of the Light Ranger on Without Limits (1998). Many other projects followed, including Hard Rain, The Patriot, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Since its introduction in 1994, the FI+Z system has become a standard of the industry. Its performance and reliability has made wireless lens and camera control the rule on the set rather than the exception. In recognition, Preston and his longtime collaborator, Mirko Kovacevic received the Scientific and Engineering award from the Motion Picture Academy in 2007. In that same year, Preston also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Operating Cameramen.

In recognition of the significant contributions he has made to advancing the art and craft of filmmaking, it is my honor announce that the Cine Gear Expo 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award goes to Dr. Howard Preston.

Howard Preston’s Speech

Thank you Karl and Juliane for this award and Jon for your generous introduction. And yes, Jon, you are forgiven for taking apart my first Microforce!

This award was a wonderful surprise and I appreciate it deeply…and  it’s given me the opportunity to reflect on the pleasure I’ve had working with and befriending so many members of the cinema community, many of whom are standing here now.

Of course many of the products my company has pursued have come about either from my own experience working in film, or from listening to crew members and rental house gurus;  after all, their problems become our opportunities for designing better and more capable equipment.

Some customers however have given me a unique and surprising perspective on equipment design. One incident that comes to mind was the time I handed one of the first Microforce controls to a camera assistant standing in the narrow entrance of Otto Nemenz’s rental house on Sunset Blvd. He went through the contortions Jon described, swinging the control in a series of wide circles, a sort of athletic prayer to the god of smooth zooms, reminding me of a baseball player winding up for a pitch. How, I thought, am I supposed to design for that?

Conflicting advice and requirements I learned would become the rule rather than the exception. Make the focus knob bigger…no, make it smaller, no, no: make it both.  Make it all programmable, no keep it simple! Build it into the camera…No! Keep it modular! And of course everyone is right. But how to decide?

To avoid being paralyzed by all these conflicting voices, I’ve followed the teachings of a great American philosopher, a man who when he wasn’t hitting baseballs was enlightening us with thoughts like:

  • You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.
  • You should always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise, they won’t come to yours.

These quotes belong to Yogi Berra. To make a decision in a conflicting situation Mr. Berra advises that:

  • When you come to a fork in the road, take it.

And when you’re designing a new product keep in mind that:

  • You’ve got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going because you might not get there.

And finally, there’s no point in worrying about the future, go at it with all you got, because in the words of Yogi,

  • The future ain’t what it used to be.

Thank you.



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