Paramount Pictures Futurist in Residence Ted Schilowitz explores the future of entertainment.
The obvious question to ask a futurist is, just what does a futurist do? It’s something Ted Schilowitz, who fulfils the first-of-its-kind role at Paramount Pictures, gets asked a hundred times a day.
“I define it in different ways depending on the audience,” he says. “The most direct way to describe what I do is that I am a glorified lab rat. I’m experimenting and exploring future media and technology with an open mind, hopefully picking up tell-tale clues as to where it’s all going and then trying to advise, diplomatically, the things that we should pay attention to.
“Another way of looking at it is from the perspective of a really good futurist – and I would add that I am a futurist in training – who studies the past in order to see where the future might be headed.
”You can look at the history of change in entertainment and technology over the last fifty years to define the next fifty.”
A classic case is that of Eadweard Muybridge, the British-born photographer who pioneered the use of multiple cameras to capture motion that the human eye couldn’t see. His experiments in the 1870s had a direct influence on the invention of motion picture cameras and were the first to record the visual effect of ‘bullet time’, later made famous in The Matrix.
This has now come full circle, as we shall see.
A third way to describe Schilowitz’ work is an attempt to embed the culture of a start-up within a vast and profitable movie studio. Before Paramount, he held a similar position at 21st Century Fox.
Department of future
“My team and I come to work every day in what we call the ‘department of future’,’’ he says.
“We try to think and act like a start-up because I believe true innovation tends to happen outside of the big media companies. They tend to be too over burdened by history and legacy, whereas it is the smaller companies, an HP or Apple or Microsoft back when they were starting up, which beaver away at the breakthrough ideas and emerge on the right side of history.”
Schilowitz spends a lot of his time talking with Big Tech and Silicon Valley start-ups alike, experimenting with the latest immersive imaging technology, trying to find the most likely path to guide his bosses at Paramount as to what the content creation and consumption experience will be like fifteen years hence.
If this seems like so much random guess work, there is a consistency in his thought process. This is best summed up as ‘don’t be afraid to take risks.’
“You have to be ready to bet on the wrong side to get it right,” he says. “If you look at early adoption curves of media technology they tend to be super expensive and exotic, but the essence of the idea is often right even if the device itself may not be.”
Schilowitz has form. At camera maker Red he was tasked with convincing Hollywood and leading directors of photography to move to digital away from film at a time when digital cinematography was being dismissed as inferior and Red itself was ranked an outsider.
“Now [digital] is so right that 35mm is more on the wrong side of the curve,” he says. “The emotional and textual reasons for film remain valid, but there is no logical reason why you’d choose film when the raw image output of digital has surpassed that of analogue.”
Similarly, his take on VR and AR is that the essence of the concept is right but that current devices used to experience it “are mostly wrong.”
“VR is exactly where it should be in terms of market adoption based on where the tool sets are. This is an emerging media platform which will change as the friction points to the experience are removed. When I’m speaking with someone who has put a billion dollars into VR and telling them what they are doing is wrong you have to be sensitive. I’m not criticising these companies.
”Tim Cook (Apple), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Eric Schmidt (Google) would all agree they are on a journey and that if they keep chipping away at the problems they will get there, because the essence of the experience is right.”
‘I am a glorified lab rat’
Community of tomorrow
Being a futurist for Schilowitz is about not settling in the present.
It’s a skin he has inhabited since youth, traced back to the moment his family moved from Brooklyn, New York City to Orange County, Florida.
“This was a culture shock. We dropped down into central Florida which at that time was definitely not a forward-thinking place.”
The time was 1970. A year later Disney World opened with plans for a community of tomorrow (later built as Epcot). It was also in the shadow of the Kennedy Space Centre, where his uncle worked on the Apollo project for NASA.
“Suddenly I was thrust into this world of possibility and futuristic concepts. Looking back, I understand that I was also going through a fairly massive personal change [in relocating to Florida as six-year-old] and found myself not just exposed to change but embracing it.”
He adds, “I became as comfortable with change as many people are uncomfortable with it. That culture locked into me.”
Growing up surrounded by children’s entertainment, it was natural that Schilowitz should move into the business. He set up a local production company producing promos, commercials and programming for Disney and Nickelodeon.
He recalls being hired by Disney to pretend to shoot a movie on a virtual studio lot as part of the launch promotion for MGM Studios in 1989. “They needed someone who could handle a Panavision camera and who knew something about directing a crew. It was all staged for the public, there was no film in the camera, it was a lot of fun and it was very meta.”
Theme park cinema
These entertainment environments shaped his youthful take on the world. “I spend a lot of time with kids these days, trying to see the world through their eyes. Their view of the changing landscape of tech as it relates to media and entertainment and socialisation is far more spry than anyone of my generation.”
One particular Disney attraction left an indelible mark. Interactive theme park DisneyQuest launched in 1998 with a cutting edge virtual reality attraction, Aladdin’s Magic Carpet Ride, which only closed in 2016.
“It was what we would now call location-based entertainment, and Disney was the first major entertainment company to attempt it. It was seminally important for a number of people in the industry as a touchpoint for where entertainment would head.”
Following a similar direction, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen recently opened the Holodome in Seattle, a spherical room offering a 360-degree video, sound and haptic experience to small groups of six people at the same time.
Schilowitz himself was the Chief Creative Officer at Barco Escape, an immersive theatrical technology using three projectors to show movies like Star Trek: Into Darkness on three projection screens. However, Barco folded the business earlier this year.
“Clearly, we’re not a stage where theme park cinema can go mainstream. It needs to live in a specialist environment but there is a logic that will make sense at some point. People keep attempting this because there is a belief that the essence of the experience is worthwhile.”
Restless after a decade at his Florida facility, in 2001, Schilowitz joined forces with hardware company AJA on the US West Coast, which had a hardware partnership with Apple building boards and interface devices to transfer video in and out of Apple products. He left to start up his own hard drive company, G-Tech “beginning with cardboard boxes trying to figure out airflow and design” selling the product five years later to Hitachi (which subsequently sold to Western Digital where the G-Tech brand remains one of the most respected of its type).
It was this success in computer engineering that caught the attention of Jim Jannard, billionaire founder of the Oakley sunglasses empire, who invited Schilowitz to help bring his vision of a digital cinema camera to market.
As Red’s first employee and chief product evangelist, Schilowitz attacked his mission with zeal, seeing the RedOne camera launch in 2007 and eventually winning over the most hardened industry sceptics.
“It was a rollercoaster ride and amazing to me that no-one else wanted to take on the giants of the film industry,” he says. “I travelled all over the globe and had an incredible experience helping bring Redto life, finding people willing to take the risk with us on a digital motion picture camera that held the promise of someday replacing 35mm film as the acquisition medium of choice.”
On resigning in 2013 he was quickly snapped up by Fox.
‘If you look at early adoption curves of media technology they tend to be super expensive and exotic, but the essence of the idea is often right even if the device itself may not be’
The Manhattan Project
The most tangible record of his short time at Paramount is an ambitious plan to realise the possibilities of volumetric capture. The film industry is evolving toward the real-time production of live action seamlessly blended with CG animated and performance captured characters, blended into virtual environments. Harking back to Muybridge this is being accomplished using games engine renderers and multiple cameras.
Arguably the most advanced model for this is Intel Studios, a 10,000 sq ft complex, claimed to be the world’s largest stage for volumetric video capture – which opened in Manhattan Beach, California, at the beginning of the year.
Paramount is the first studio to support it.
“We’re asking what it means to build movie entertainment using a camera array, as opposed to filming a single point of view,” explains Schilowitz.
“When you look at advanced entertainment experiences, we are on a trajectory from watching things displayed on flat surfaces to advanced spatial displays that lets us look around and literally walk around the images as we like.
“We can create fairly sophisticated spatial entertainment and motion picture experiences in CGI and now we’re starting to learn how to do it in live action video.”
It’s not that Paramount has any particular project or goal in mind (at least not publicly) but Schilowitz has persuaded executives that you have to at least be in the game in order to understand what’s coming down the track.
“If you put yourself in the position to be an early learner and an early explorer you end up with a better strategy to position yourself for the future.”
What’s more, he has put his own money on the line as investor and co-founder of HypeVR, a San Diego-based outfit working on advanced maths to create a volumetric experience.
“The idea of just static normal 2D video is the past. The idea of dynamic volumetric video that you can move around in, is the future.”