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Bill Holland: Picturing the Future

Early Work in Special Effects Won Him an Oscar and Launched a Career in Imaging

March 2002

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Bill Holland never planned to get into show business: He was just a kid with a love of electronics when he was approached by a production team looking for a way to motorize their cameras.

Holland was a teenager when he became the first person to automate motion-control photography by wiring a computer to a camera track, helping to pioneer a new type of film special effects.

That work earned him a Motion Picture Academy Scientific and Technical Award in 1988 -- and spawned a passion for imaging technologies he now pursues as a researcher at HP Labs. His current project: developing improved sensors for the Indigo commercial printer.

painstaking process

Holland was working in a Southern California electronics surplus store -- he traded labor for parts and equipment -- when a customer introduced him to special-effects whiz Bob Abel.

Abel and Con Pederson, a special-effects unit director for "2001: A Space Odyssey," had teamed to produce TV commercials. Computer graphics and other computerized special-effects would not be developed for more than a decade, but Abel and Pederson were beginning to get noticed for their use of a process called slit-scanning.

In slit-scanning, the camera operator photographs artwork through a slit in front of the camera lens, then moves the art and the camera as each exposure is made to produce controlled "streaking" and other distortion effects.

Because the team was moving the artwork and camera manually, it was a slow, painstaking process. One day, Abel discovered that four days of work would have to be redone because one frame was out of sync. He decided then that the process had to be automated.

first steps toward automation

"We used to buy all our electronics stuff at a place called Bernie's surplus, which was where all the computer freaks in the (San Bernadino) Valley used to hang out," Abel told author Christopher Finch in the book, Special Effects: Creating Movie Magic. "There was this kid called Bill Holland, who was about fifteen, and he seemed to be the brightest."

Abel asked Holland to build a computer, and he agreed. "I didn't know what it would take," Holland says. "I had a minicomputer at home, and I said I'd do it."

photo of Bill Holland

During his Christmas vacation that year, Holland bought a paper tape reader and wired it together with a pile of logic chips, stepper motor drivers and power supplies. He then hooked up the "computer" (technically, a pile of logic chips) to the camera track.

"I would sit there with the teletype and type commands into the paper tape. The electronics would read the commands off of the tape, the camera and artwork would move and the film would get advanced," Holland recalls of the primitive setup.

programmable motion control system

Holland's schedule in those days ran pretty much like this: School from 6:50 a.m. to 1 p.m., work in the surplus store from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. and then over to Abel's studio in the evening, where he gradually refined the system.

Through high school and college, Holland worked with Abel's team on a series of commercials that included ABC Thursday Night movies, 7-up andWhirlpool.

The turning point came when he was a freshman at Caltech (the California Institute of Technology) and realized that instead of punching numbers into the tape, it would be easier if he could program the whole thing.

He sold Abel his minicomputer and spent the summer between freshman and sophomore years building a new motion-control system around the minicomputer.

"That's what I won the award for," Holland says. It was 1974, and the first time anyone had created a programmable motion control system.

an electronics whiz

Although some of the people he worked with stayed in the film business, Holland had always known he wanted to go into what was then called "electronics." The son of an aerospace engineer, he'd started playing with his Dad's wire strippers at age four. In junior high, he collected discarded television sets and radios and converted his bedroom at home into a repair shop.

He later expanded his collection to include computer parts. Occasionally, these proved surprisingly useful: A bunch of PC boards that had been in Holland's "junk drawer" made it into the Woody Allen film, "Sleeper."

"When Woody pulls open a drawer to look for something to disguise himself as a robot, those PC boards are mine," Holland says.

accidental discovery

In 1977, Holland graduated college and joined HP Labs. His early projects included an optical disk reader (that is, a CD drive), color-projection display and a color scanner.

Work on the scanner led Holland to an accidental discovery in optical-sensing technology. He and other researchers were trying to calibrate the scanner using a sheet of white paper, but the machine wouldn't calibrate properly. On closer inspection with an oscilloscope, Holland noticed that instead of simply reading the color white, the scanner was detecting the texture of the paper.

"It looked like the grass on someone's lawn," he recalls.

That discovery helped improve HP's first color inkjet printer. Knowing that the optical scanner could see the paper's texture, Holland suggested using an optical sensor to track the path of paper in the printer. The result: more accurate paper tracking.

The optical sensing technology was later used in HP's CapShare, the worlds' first handheld appliance for capturing, sharing and storing documents and into an optical mouse that was later released by Microsoft.

A bunch of PC boards that had been in Holland's 'junk drawer' made it into the Woody Allen film, 'Sleeper'

unexpected reward

Deeply involved in research, Holland had long forgotten about his days in the movie industry until one day in the fall of 1988 when an old friend who was on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science's technical committee called and told he'd been nominated for the Oscar.

"I said, 'right, sure,' recalls Holland. "this was 15 years after the original work."

But a few months later, the friend delivered the surprising news that Holland should plan to be on hand at the Beverly Hills Hotel on March 19 to receive his award.

Holland was part of a group lauded for "individual contributions and collective advancements . . . in the field of motion control technology."

by Jamie Beckett


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