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He Led the HD Charge

It's said that pioneers are the ones with arrows in their backs. If that's the case and you're wondering which pioneer is Larry Thorpe, he's the one with enough arrows to fill a six-pack of quivers.

That's because of HDTV. Thorpe retired from Sony last year but not before he became one of high-definition TV's earliest believers and evangelists.

"HD was very painful at times," he says. "When I was involved with HD demonstrations and the big committee [that created the standards for HDTV], I got chopped up because there were a lot of strong views. In that situation, you have to be prepared to just weather it and hang in there. And if you have strong views yourself, you'll prevail, one way or the other."

Born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1940, the eldest of five siblings, Thorpe picked up an interest in electronics from his father, a radio officer in the British Merchant Marine and an air-traffic controller at Dublin Airport. He received a degree in electrical engineering from the College of Technology in Dublin.

Thorpe started his career at the BBC in London, where he had a chance to work on some of the earliest color-TV studio equipment. What a technological leap. It was 1961, and he had seen his first TV only three years earlier, but the career that would help change the medium was under way.

In 1966, having migrated to the U.S., Thorpe joined RCA, then the industry's leading equipment manufacturer. He became heavily involved in early camera design and, 13 years later, served as project leader on the TK-47 color camera.

"It was unique for me because it the first major project I managed and ran," he says. "And it was daring because we were mobilizing the early microprocessor to make a fully automatic camera system. It wasn't the most beautiful camera in the world because it was big and klutzy, but we sure sold a lot of them."

In 1982, he resigned after the company pulled the budget out from under one of his projects.

He also left because he was interested in this thing called high-definition television. RCA, he says, was not.

Sony was, and Thorpe heeded the call.

Yet he didn't work on high-def immediately. "I was Sony's director of product management for the camera group, and my first crusade was to go to Japan and get them to enter the studio-camera business." At the time, Sony was developing only portable cameras. Thorpe made the case that the technology required for studio cameras was already in-house and, more important, Sony made its own plumbicon tubes (used for imaging). Sony bought the argument, and Thorpe helped develop the BVP-360. That got Sony into the studio-camera business, and it has never looked back.

Thorpe also played a role in the acceptance of Betacam as a broadly deployed electronic-newsgathering format. He went before the Society of Motion Picture Television Engineers to present Betacam for standardization, a format that would revolutionize the industry by getting news on the air more quickly and much more cheaply.

He became an active part of the drive to HD in 1983, formally assigned by Sony to represent the company at a meeting of the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC). The newly formed group was charged with hammering out the HDTV standards and formats. The shooting of arrows began.

"Market development in HD took much longer than I would have expected," he says, laughing. But, 20 years later, the HD stars are aligning.

He recalls that Masahiko Morizono, Sony's now-retired chief adviser on technology, said "it would take us 10 years to make products that were affordable but there was no short-circuiting the steps." But Morizono also believed, Thorpe says, that "we simply have to march through however many generations of equipment it takes for two reasons: to perfect the technology and get it into the hands of credible users who will help us shape the next generation. As painful and as horrendously expensive as it was," he adds, "it worked."

Thorpe has battled for HDTV around the globe. The Hollywood community, for example, was ripe for new technology to replace film, but any new format would have to acquire images at 24 frames per second, the same rate used by film. Thorpe went to Japan to press Sony to create a 24-frame, 1080-line progressive (or 24p) format. Sony backed him up.

Since then, George Lucas shot all of the most recent Star Wars
movies using digital 24p cameras from Sony. And director James Cameron is also a big believer in the technology. The savings in working with video instead of film—whether lower development and media costs or just faster shoots—are propelling the industry to a digital future.

The floodgates will truly open when projection houses begin installing digital cinema projectors industry-wide. Instead of distributing thousands of film prints, studios would play out their movies from a video server.

Thorpe also sees an opportunity for local broadcasters to get involved with digital cinema. Conceivably, broadcasters, which have satellite and bandwidth capabilities, could help theaters more easily get content from the studios. In fact, on March 29, Prince broadcast a live concert to more than 40 digitally equipped cinemas around the country.

"Theaters are dark most of the time," says Thorpe. "If there's a pipe that can bring in games or events, there's a whole new business there."

Thorpe left Sony at the end of last year, accepting an early-retirement package offered to executives over 50. His retirement didn't last long, and he now works on the other end of the camera for lens manufacturer Canon. He's still involved with digital cinema: Canon is attempting to take on Panavision, the leading lens provider for Hollywood.

Through it all, Thorpe has learned how to enjoy a good argument, roll with the punches, and take a few arrows for Sony. "I became silver-bearded by just hanging in there."