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A Master at Translating Imagination Into Tech

In a few weeks, Larry Thorpe will be receiving the Charles F. Jenkins Lifetime Achievement Award at the 66th Primetime Emmy Engineering Awards during the CES show in Las Vegas on Jan. 8.

It’s a most deserving honor. In 50-plus years working for the BBC, RCA, Sony and now at Canon USA, where he is a senior fellow, Thorpe made important contributions to the development of camera technologies, particularly in the area of high-definition and has long been considered one of the foremost experts on video acquisition. Among journalists and colleagues, the Irishborn engineer is also known for his razorsharp wit and his ability make incredibly complex technologies both understandable and exciting. He recently spoke to B&C contributing editor George Winslow about his stellar career and some big highlights. An edited transcript follows.

Over the years, you’ve worked very closely with a number of famous filmmakers— George Lucas, James Cameron and others—as part of your efforts to develop the market for HD digital cinema cameras. What did you learn from them?

I think one of the reasons why I loved high-definition and cinema cameras was that I’ve always been a movie buff. I always loved the large screen. I always got the look of film vs. video and I used to lament how bad video was even though I was developing video cameras. But we didn’t have capabilities that we have today. Today we can emulate anything that film ever did, which is a marvelous thing.

With Lucas and others, it was fascinating to be there when they were evaluating our primitive early products.…Then you’d have to translate their language—because they have a lingua franca of their own world—into a language our engineers can understand.

That is a dialog I enjoy, trying to translate the creative aspirations into what is possible technically. A lot of papers over the years that I wrote for [the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers] talk about that very issue—the emulation of motion picture film in digital.

And you feel that we are now at a point where we can do digitally everything you can do with film?

Oh absolutely. But the bar keeps rising. As DPs [directors of photography] become more familiar with digital they want more. They’re always saying, ‘How about this? We couldn’t do such and such with film, can you do it with digital?’

This is where higher frame rates have become a huge issue. One of the reasons why film stayed with 24 frames almost forever was because it was too darned expensive to raise that frame rate. But that is not a problem with digital, at least not from a cost point of view.

So we are hearing a lot from those who are schooled in digital about pushing the envelope on digital.…I hope I’m going to be around to see 4K become a mature tool that is widely used. At the same time I hope to see 2K and HD continue to get better and better. I’m really fascinated with this effort to achieve 4K in the 2/3-inch image format. A couple of years ago we would have said that’s nuts, it’s impossible.

Well, suddenly it is not so impossible. We are going to be pushed to make 2/3 lenses better and better while we continue to make 35mm lenses better and better for 4K and 8K.

When you look forward in the development of your Cinema EOS line what are you focusing on?

Our first generation of Cinema EOS very much reflected the needs of DPs who make movies and high-end episodic television series.

Now we are broadening our look and reach. We will continue to develop for those two marketplaces but we want to also get into the independent film market, lower budget television and we want to capitalize on the decline of motion picture film. So anywhere that film is disappearing, we would like to be a player in the digital replacement process—medical, military and government. We have two of our cameras at this very moment up in the space station doing an IMAX film.

In our next generation, reflecting the pleas for high dynamic range and wider color gamut is a big part of our thoughts. And, we’ve gotten a lot of feedback on our first generation and we want the next generation to reflect as much of that as we can.

How did you get into the industry? Was it something you always wanted to do or did it happen a little more accidentally?

It was a bit of both. My initial interest came from my dad who was a radar engineer. I grew up in Dublin in Ireland and he got me interested at an early age in tinkering in things. Then I went to college and graduated as an electronic engineer. During my final year in college I had done some interviewing, including with the BBC and they made a nice offer so I immigrated to London.

So from day 1, I’ve been in broadcast TV and I have never left it. I spent about 5 years with them as a design engineer. I was more or less an intern at that time but I worked with some great engineers who taught me an awful lot about circuit design.

In 1966, RCA came to London recruiting broadcast engineers. They said they couldn’t find them at that time in America because everyone was going into aerospace. They brought me over and inserted me immediately into the camera group. That was my introduction to cameras and I spent the next 16 years with RCA Broadcast in Camden, New Jersey developing cameras.

When RCA started to sag, I left to join the new Sony Broadcast Company. I moved into product management and marketing of broadcast equipment for Sony and they asked me to be the head of product management and marketing for cameras.

At that time they were in portable cameras but I tried to persuade them that the time had come for them to make the bold leap into studio cameras, which they did. Today, they are a phenomenal success in that.

Early in my Sony career they also asked me if I would get involved with this new thing called HDTV. They were leading the charge back in the early 1980s in developing HD production equipment—cameras, recorders, displays.

That was the missionary phase of HD and it lasted quite a few years. I crisscrossed the U.S., demonstrating HD equipment and having evaluations made by broadcast people and by Hollywood people.

I was also immersed in HD standardization activities…from about 1983 to 1996, when Sony moved us to California. I left behind all of the standardization and I refocused back on the business side. For the next six, seven years I was senior VP of content creation for products, which was cameras, recorders, camcorders, switchers for Sony.

In 2004, I retired from Sony and two weeks later I joined Canon for a soft landing, thinking I’d be there for a year or two. But now it’s ten years later and I’m still happily working full time.

Happily, to my surprise, Canon has brought me back to the camera business, which is not something I expected when I joined them in 2004.

What convinced them to make that decision?

They were marching toward that for some time without having a specific plan. The strength of Canon was that they had been developing their own lenses and the optics inside cameras like beam-splitting prisms. They developed their own imaging sensors and their own image processing.

So they were working on multiple fronts in photography back in the days of film and with the broadcast and cine lenses they developed. And that gave them all the ingredients.

In 2008, they brought out the 5D Mark II, the DSLR with HD video. That was developed specifically for AP and Reuters, who wanted a high-end still imaging camera and the ability to shoot video for the Web.

The camera caught the attention of the whole industry. People went nuts because of its full-frame image sensor. Cinematographers went wild about it. The broadcasters started to play with it. For $3,000 you had quite a tool, something no one had seen before.

We were having countless meetings with cinematographers, DPs, directors who were saying, ‘OK, you done good with this. You have invented something great. It is amazing but you’ve got to do this and that to improve it.’

Basically what they were saying was that they wanted a real professional product. So we spent a year meeting with high-end directors, producers, DPs and we wrote up a very detailed spec for a cinematography camera and lens. And that became the Canon Cinema EOS system we introduced in 2011, which has been very successful. We continue to roll out new lenses and new cameras. We are in it for the long term.

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the development of cameras and lenses?

The changes have really been staggering in HD. The first camera we developed at Sony for sale had pickup tubes and cost $350,000. Then to record the output, we had an analog HD recorder—this is 1984 or so—that cost $350,000. So, just a camera and recorder was $700,000. And there were actually a few people worldwide who invested in that equipment.

Then things moved to digital. Around 1989, Sony produced a digital recorder and in 1992, they blazed a trail with the first CCD high-definition camera. And that really transformed HDTV. The pick-up tubes never really cut it. They couldn’t quite get the resolution and you had all the aberrations of pick-up tubes, lag and thing like that. But with the CCD, suddenly everyone sat up and said, ‘Oh my goodness. These HD pictures are stunning.’

Then around 1997, we had the first HD camcorder and all digital CCD 2/3-inch camera. That blazed a trail because suddenly you had something for under a $100,000 for the camera and recorder.

And that started to get some serious interest in Hollywood. Initially they didn’t want to touch HDTV but when they saw this camcorder, George Lucas became very interested. I worked with him. I worked with James Cameron. I worked with Francis Ford Coppola.

They were all examining it. The one who took the plunge initially was Lucas with Star Wars that used a high-definition camcorder.

Shortly after that James Cameron got interested. He wanted to do 3D with an HD camcorder, which he did with Avatar.

So you saw costs come down, you saw things digitize and you saw things go solid state. But the most important change was really the fact that costs were plummeting. By 2004 or 2005, the cost premium on HD production equipment was only 10% higher than standard definition and everyone started to buy high-definition.

What technologies have been helping you get better 4K and then 8K lenses?

First of all, it is super computers. Powerful computing and powerful software is the name of the game in lens design, particularly when you are pushing the limits in terms of resolution and operational things like focal lengths. Being able to simulate with great accuracy before you expend money to build some of these expensive prototypes has been really important.

Then, its experience. The optic manufacturers have decades of experience behind them with multiple generations of broadcast, of cine and of high-end photography lenses. Those skills hone the capabilities of the R&D department of Canon.

And you have a continuous evolution in new glass materials. Today, a high-end lens might have two or three dozen elements in it and they may be constituted from 20 different glass materials, with each one having a role to play in managing those light rays.

Another element is the optic coatings you must put on each and every surface of each lens element to elevate the transmission of light through the lens and to control the reflections that cause contamination in your dark areas.

Then the final ingredient to achieve 4K, 8K or really good HD lenses is precision in manufacturing. You have to get tolerance to an extremely low degree.

As we move into 4K, there has also been a lot of discussion about high dynamic range (HDR), wider color gamut and high frame rates (HFR). Some people say getting wider color gamut or HDR into HD images would have a bigger impact than going to 4K. How do you see that debate?

It is a very interesting debate. I do see HD and 2K continue to march forward with wider color gamut and higher frame rate and wider dynamic range.

But even that is going to be difficult because it demands more data—your recording systems, data management, your post production all become more challenging.

In 4K, adding in wider color gamut is not a big deal. But higher frame rates, higher dynamic range, or if you want to use greater bit depth to capitalize on that, [you have an issue] again with data rates.

The post-production people have been fiercely debating this over the last 12 months and saying, ‘We need to move sensibly in this direction and not race into it because we can’t afford it.’

So that’s going to be a debate for the next year. But I don’t see how you can stop it. Once these things are born, someone is going to find ways to make it more cost effective. So I think it is inevitable and we’ll see it all.

…I think the bigger debate at the moment isn’t higher dynamic range but a higher brightness issue that is being talked up by Dolby with Dolby Vision. They are talking about brightness on screen in the living room way beyond anything we ever envisioned. Just a few weeks ago it was a big discussion at the ITU in Geneva.

When you look back over your career, what are the things that you are most proud of accomplishing?

I can’t look back at the BBC and say I accomplished anything significant [laughs]. I was really just an intern. But my last project at RCA got a lot of notoriety. I was the project leader on the TK47 studio camera, which was the first automated camera. In those days, with pickup tubes it was very complex to set up the camera, so we automated that and the camera became a big hit. We got an Emmy for that camera and those of us who were leading the teams we each got a David Sarnoff Gold metal, so that was my RCA highlight.

At Sony it was probably two things. While I wasn’t a leader, I was one of those who were evangelizing HDTV for a long period of time and helped promote and develop the marketplace.

Then in the latter half of my career at Sony, the highlight there was helping give birth to digital cinematography and getting Hollywood interested. Sony developed a 24-frame system in HD and I spent a lot of effort in my final years at Sony working on that.

And, of course, I’m very much enjoying life at Canon being a part of the effort that is leading us into the serious end of digital cinematography.