Howard Preston’s 2012 UCLA Commencement Address

Howard Preston is president and founder of Preston Cinema Systems, makers of Micro Force, MDR, FI+Z and much more. On Saturday, June 16, Dr. Preston was invited back to his alma mater, UCLA, to give the Commencement Speech to the Astronomy and Physics Class of 2012. It is a wonderful story of becoming a filmmaker, jumping headfirst into the business, and a fabulous journey of discovery and invention. Here is the transcript of Howard’s speech.

2012 UCLA Commencement Address
by Howard Preston

Dean Rudnick, Chair Rosenzweig, Faculty, Parents, and members of the graduating class of 2012. Today is a special day. For many of you it is the fulfillment of long-held dreams and hard-fought accomplishments. Studying Astronomy and Physics, you have taken, in the words of Robert Frost, “the road less traveled.” Electrodynamics, Quantum Mechanics, Astrophysical Dynamics: these are challenges that few students willingly engage, much less embrace. Today we’re here to celebrate your achievements and talk a bit about tomorrow.

As you all know by now, your paths, whatever they may be, will be straight and predictable…that is until you leave this hall and you dive into that river called life.  T.S. Eliot said: “If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” So be prepared to get wet.

I’m here to tell you some stories about what happened to me after I dove into that river 46 years ago. I hope by recounting some of the incidents that guided my career, I can illuminate the interplay of opportunity, risk, passion and reward, and in the end give you some useful advice.

I’ll begin my story in 1965. That was the year when the discovery of the 2.7 degree microwave background, the residue of the Big Bang was published. I learned about it ten years later, the year after I received my PhD, while reading the book: Intelligent Life in the Universe by the Russian astronomer Josif Shklovskii and Carl Sagan.

I thought the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background was one of the most amazing and exciting things I had ever read. The notion that we are and have been surrounded by this invisible microwave fog, the evidence of the birth of the universe itself, was absolutely startling.

Also in 1975, Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man was broadcast here in the US. Jacob Bronowski was, among other things, a mathematician, biologist, and author. In the Ascent of Man, he showed — using art, architecture, music, literature — all the manifestations of culture and how human society evolved through its understanding of the world through science.

For me, physics and astronomy have always had an intrinsic beauty and elegance, and Bronowski’s film was an epiphany. In a moment of complete and utter irrationality and naivety, the die was cast: I would leap into unknown waters, I would make a film, a documentary film about cosmology, called The Universe, Man’s Changing Perceptions.

With hardly enough money to process film, this was clearly going to be a very minimalist piece of work. But armed with boundless optimism, negligible skill, a new-found passion, and a 16mm camera borrowed from my wife’s brother-in-law, (a great stroke of luck if ever there was one!), I began the journey…one I thought I could complete in…six months…or so.

Writing, filming, editing, music, sound, narration; all these things needed to be learned. I was thrilled with the challenges. The six months stretched out… into a year, then two. The scraps of film were finally assembled into a final form, and I submitted it to three film festivals…and won three medals. Apparently film festival juries weren’t being besieged with legions of filmmakers anxious to tell the story of the Cosmic Microwave Background.

Buoyed by success, I started a small business, one employee, me, selling copies of the film to schools and libraries. After a year or two, the film turned a small profit. I had survived Business 101. But I was obviously still a rank beginner and had no clear idea of what to do next. Then the phone rang.

Opportunity was on the line.

In 1977, Star Wars had just been released, and the producer of Invasion of the Body Snatchers thought that adding a space sequence to his film might add to its box office. Since the production budget had already been spent, the call went out to find someone to shoot the sequence…cheap. Of course no one knew what the sequence should look like. “Something with space and creatures…pods flying off some alien planet — use your imagination!” And, “We’ll know it when we see it.”

After the usual suspects turned it down and the friends of the usual suspects did the same, I was left. Director Phil Kaufman had gotten his law degree from Harvard before beginning a distinguished career in both writing and directing. He was certainly no stranger to taking risks: He looked at some tests I shot, gave me the job, and I suspect, kept his fingers crossed.

A few months later, I found myself sitting on the floor of a single engine Cessna, straddling a camera, peering down through a hole cut in the floor of the aircraft at a blanket of solid clouds. I had already finished shooting an alien planetscape, complete with gelatinous blobs, rising into the atmosphere like stellar jellyfish. It was time to film the space invaders as they began their descent through broken clouds, onto the unsuspecting city below.

San Francisco, the city in question, seemed to be hiding under the clouds. I listened as the pilot and co-pilot debated which way they should turn to find downtown. There was some urgency in deciding the question, since our arrival over the city was timed to coincide with the fog just burning off, leaving our new arrivals deposited on the ground appearing as morning dew.

The space aliens’ long fall, through the clouds, and onto the earth below was to be captured by a long zoom, beginning imperceptibly, then, smoothly accelerating until the end.

I watched as the sun began to burn through the clouds revealing the San Francisco skyline. As I started shooting, my feeling of relief was cut short. The state-of-the-art zoom control I was holding in my hand was once again proving its reputation for balkiness. Rather than smooth and imperceptible, the zoom was jumpy and unpredictable. I kept shooting takes until I had gone through the thousand feet of film in the magazine. The clouds had burnt off and there was nothing left to do except return to the airport in San Jose and hope for the best.

I knew that this zoom control was a ridiculous impediment and that I could do better, so I vowed to design a better control when I had some time.

This time I was lucky. There were enough good takes to complete the opening sequence, and much to my amazement, the sequence made it to the first round of selections for the 1979 Academy Award special effects category. That year, Superman, with an effects budget a few hundred times greater than mine, very deservedly flew away with the Academy Award.

After the Body Snatchers film, I got a call from Woody Allen’s production designer, Mel Bourne. Woody was working on a new project and needed some effects work. Would I be interested? Tough decision! The film was Manhattan, and the work consisted of filming a background of Saturn and its rings standing in for a Hayden planetarium diorama and a star-field to stand in for the city’s night sky.

I shot footage of the starfield and sent the print overnight to New York.

Mel calls: “I’m going to be in LA tomorrow, mind if I drop in?”

The morning comes and Mel Bourne is standing in the studio in Hollywood:

“Woody doesn’t like your night sky”.

“Well, what’s wrong with it…I tried to make it very accurate! I showed him my sky map…”

Mel: “Uh, you don’t understand, Woody’s never SEEN the night sky.”

Me: “Oh, gad!…So what do we do?”

Mel walks over to the four by eight foot star-field, takes up a sharpened awl, asks “May I?”, and starts pecking out new constellations like a cosmic woodpecker.

“Don’t feel bad,” as he continued to add more stars by the second, “Every Friday I drive up to the set with a truck full of furniture that I spent all week collecting. I open the gate, Woody looks in, shakes his head, and off I go again, more furniture!”

I stood back from the star-field: the delicate veil of the Milky Way had been transformed into a cloud of fireflies the size of Buicks.

“Masterpiece!” declared Mel. “Now that’s a sky!”

Of course Manhattan was and remains a delicious treat: hypocrisy, lust, deception, and love — the human condition as seen through the eyes of one of films greatest and funniest directors. For me, it was a wonderful privilege to add a bit of starlight to Woody’s piece.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “All life is an experiment. The more experiments the better.” It was time for another experiment.

An astronomer friend from grad school, Don Goldsmith, informed me that Carl Sagan, who had been his undergraduate advisor at Harvard, needed an effects sequence shot for his PBS series Cosmos. Perhaps I was interested?

Carl wanted to demonstrate on film how the view of your surroundings would appear if you were travelling near the speed of light. For this sequence, I was to film the point of view of a boy riding a scooter in Vinci, Italy, Leonardo’s hometown. There, at Carl’s request, the speed of light was reduced from 186,000 miles/second to about 25 mph. Since computer graphic effects were a decade away, most of this transformation would have to be done in the camera using electronics and optics, all of which I would have to design.

This was amazing luck. Not only would I get to work with Sagan, whose book had been partly responsible for setting me off on this path, but I would be able to use some of my science background to do a little inventing.

In order to simulate the scooter changing speed rapidly, I made a device to instead change the speed of the camera, and simultaneously compensate the lens iris to maintain constant exposure.

To simulate the optical aberrations of special relativity, using the very limited resources available, I constructed a special zoom lens. At its longest focal length, its view of the world looked normal. At its shortest focal length, the world appeared compressed and distorted into a small circle, like the fisheye view through a door peephole.

The zoom lens and camera speed were electronically linked so that the apparent speed of the scooter and the view through the lens changed at the same time. Not to be forgotten, the Doppler shift would be added later, blue shifting the central part of the image which showed objects in the direction of motion, and red shifting the receding imagery captured along the circumference of the fisheye image.

I met Carl and the Cosmos crew in the plaza of the small hilltop town of Vinci, sitting on a plywood platform bolted to the front of an aging cargo truck.  Carl looked through the lens, nodded his approval and off we went in a cloud of diesel.

The truck wheezed up and down the Tuscan hills, honking its horn and ignoring the occasional stop signs. Italy was still a country of miracles; not only had we not struck any of the goats that wandered the roads, but everything worked. Cosmos went on to become the most widely watched PBS series in the world.

While shooting effects sequences had been a lot of fun, I wasn’t certain that I wanted to build a business to continue doing effects work. The success of Star Wars led to an enormous demand for film effects, mostly centered around motion control animation. Large – industrial scale — effects studios were already springing up in vacated aircraft assembly buildings around LA, but I had little interest in joining what I saw as a largely mechanical enterprise.

I felt a special satisfaction in having imagined and constructed the devices for the Cosmos project. I began to consider the possibility of making commercial products based on some the devices I had developed. Having some time on my hands and remembering the vow I made after shooting Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, I designed a zoom control based on an impressively stable force sensor used in military aircraft and called it the Micro Force.

Prototype in hand, I conducted my first product demo. An hour later, I was in the technology business. I exhibited the Micro Force at trade shows in LA and New York, knocked on doors, placed ads in the trade magazines and in a few years the Micro Force became an industry standard piece of equipment.

Although I had never intended to run a business, I also realized it would be foolish to not take advantage of the opportunity that was squarely in front of me, and so I set about addressing some of the many other issues confronting the cinema industry with new product designs.

Out of the Cosmos sequence came the Speed-Aperture Computer, the device which controlled the camera and lens for the Cosmos sequence. It was subsequently given a Technical Achievement Award by the Motion Picture Academy.

Following that came a steady stream of new products: control systems for both cameras and lenses, a gyro-stabilized camera system for helicopters, and the Light Ranger, the world’s first autofocus system based on laser ranging.

I had finally found an arena where I could indulge both my creative instinct and technical skills. My timing was also serendipitous. The control systems I was busy designing were soon to fill a critical need: remotely controlling the Steadicam.

With the invention of the Steadicam in 1976, cameras became mobile, bringing the audience into the midst of the action. But now the cameras could no longer be tethered to controls through cables, they needed to be free to move about the set. They needed to be controlled through wireless links.

The wireless controls in use during that time used simple modules made for model airplanes and cars. They were cheap, readily available, frequently malfunctioned, and were beset with interference problems. Many a film set was paralyzed while a neighborhood was searched for a rogue model car, airplane, or even an aberrant garage door opener.

In 1994, we showed our first digital but non-wireless control system for cameras and lenses at the LA Convention Center…mostly to yawns. It looked like it was going to be a very slow show.

I felt a tap on my shoulder and looked up. There, peering down at me was cinematographer Mark O’Kane , one of Hollywood’s muscular Steadicam gladiators.

He explained that he had just been hired for the upcoming Waterworld film. He was to film from the pontoons of actor Kevin Costner’s trimaran wearing 80 pounds of Steadicam and camera gear, as the boat sliced through the waters off the Hawaiian coast. The camera was to be focused by his assistant riding in an adjacent boat, bobbing in the waves.

Waterworld was slated to be the most expensive film ever made. Equipment failure would not be looked upon kindly. Mark slapped our shiny new non-wireless control in his hand. “What’s the price for a wireless version?” He asked.

“We don’t have a wireless version.”

Can you make me one?”

“Well, of course it is possible…”

His large heavy hand fell on my shoulder,

“I’ll call you Monday…”

I didn’t have to wait for his call; I decided to make the leap.

Our first wireless camera and lens control made it to the Waterworld set, worked non-stop, and made its reputation. Today, our wireless controls are used on sets throughout the world. In recognition of this, the Motion Picture Academy awarded a Scientific and Engineering award for our work in 2007.

So that’s enough about me! What about you?

Your studies in physics, math and astronomy have prepared you to tackle difficult problems both inside and outside your disciplines. Your studies outside your majors, in the arts and humanities, open up vast, new possibilities of engagement.

Today, physicists and astronomers are solving problems in cancer research, energy, economics, entertainment, artificial intelligence, climate studies, transportation, public policy…well, the list is endless.

Did I mention Wall Street, bank meltdowns, credit default swaps, too big to fail?  Maybe some of you could tackle a few of those problems too! I would be really grateful.

Here are three suggestions:

  1. Explore the world, knock on doors. Take interviews. Learn the problems. Seek out those who engage your passions.
  2. Take risks. You have no other choice. You are young, you are bright, and you will learn.
  3. Don’t be afraid to fail. It’s certainly not fun, but it’s how you will grow.

On occasions like this, two words are often quoted: “Carpe Diem,” seize the day. The words are those of Horace, the Roman poet of 23 BC. However, his full meaning is revealed when you see the rest of the line which reads “quam minimum credula postero”, which translates as “Trusting as little as possible in the Future”.

I must take issue with Horace: I’m here because I had faith in the future, and you are here because you are the future.

As you set off for the next leg of your journey, I wish you great happiness, luck, joy, and satisfaction in all you undertake, great passion with which to guide your way, and courage to stay the course.

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