Conversation with Howard Preston, founder of Preston Cinema Systems (PCS)

By François Reumont and Jacques Delacoux (Transvideo)

par Transvideo La Lettre AFC n°230

[English] [français]

Howard Preston is the founder of the company that bears his name and that manufacturers the world’s most widely used professional focus and lens control systems. Another high-profile manufacturer for the cinema industry, Jacques Delacoux, CEO of Transvideo, took advantage of Howard Preston’s attendance at the 13th Micro Salon to have an animated discussion with him.
Howard Preston sur le stand Loumasystems au Micro Salon 2013
Photo JN Ferragut - AFC

Jacques Delacoux : Preston has become a fabled name in the universe of cinematography. The Preston trademark has become as ubiquitous in the field of focus equipment as Frigidaire is for refrigerators ! How did you achieve that ?

Howard Preston : To tell you the truth, my background is not in the world of the cinema. I studied and trained in the field of physics. Naturally, like many other young men my age, I was interested in other things such as photography and the cinema. It so happens that via my brother-in-law, I was put into contact with a producer. During my studies in physics, I remember that I saw a wonderful documentary on the BBC called The Ascent of Man, which told the story of how innovations in the sciences, technology, and art mutually influenced each other in order to create modern culture. That made me want to write and direct my own documentary on cosmology and the Big Bang theory. I had a tiny budget and had to develop a lot of prototypes and tricks myself in order to achieve my goal !

That little film was screened in a couple of festivals and met with its own little success. But most importantly, it got me noticed by the producer of the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Philip Kaufman. They hired me after the film had been shot to make a little sequence shown before the film itself that took place in space and showed the viewer how the aliens landed on earth. Star Wars had just achieved its tremendous success at the box office and naturally, the producers thought that opening the film with a space sequence would be the key to their success !

They asked me to film a scene that showed the aliens’ point of view from their spacecraft. To do it, I had to film from a high-altitude airplane slowly zooming in on San Francisco. I was using a Cinema Product zoom motor (the only one available at that time) and I wasn’t able to achieve a fluid zoom all the way down with a 20x lens. This was because the motor was neither very precise nor well adjusted. I was so frustrated during the first flight over not being able to shoot it correctly that I decided to make my own system. That is how the Micro Force handle and motor were created.

François Reumont : How do you analyze your invention’s success ?

HP : At the time, electronics weren’t as frequently used as they are today in cameras or equipment. Besides Cinema Product, which had begun developing certain products, there wasn’t really any competition in the field. I remember that I went to visit Otto Nemetz (one of the oldest equipment renters in Hollywood) and demonstrated my Micro Force system prototype to him. He showed me a bin full of Cinema Product controllers that were being repared and said, “if you’re capable of providing me with a system that works and doesn’t break down, I guarantee you that I’ll order twenty straight away !”
And that is what happened, Otto became my first client. This story is just to show you to what extent reliability and precision were the main priorities in the product’s development. Besides, because at the time I was manufacturing and developing the controllers and the motors all by myself, it was very important to limit the amount of after-sales service I would have to do !

FR : Tell us about your subsequent inventions...

HP : I developed the first electronic controller that was able to subordinate the change in camera speed to the variation of the lens aperture. This system was commissioned from me for the filming of another scientific documentary on the speed of light. The box then became the Speed Aperture Computer, and earned me my first Technical Oscar. The other invention that I am particularly proud of, even though it wasn’t a big seller, was the Light Ranger.

FR : What is the Light Ranger ?

HP : It is the first automatic focus laser system to be linked to the lens via motor for cinematographic filming. We worked so hard on that project to be able to create a tool that was precise enough (1cm) while still maintaining a far enough range (150 m). It was a true technical challenge that was recognized as such by grips, but that producers weren’t willing to pay for since a good focus puller doesn’t need a tool like that to do the work for him ! Nonetheless, the motors that we developed for the Light Ranger project allowed us later on to create the remote controlled FIZ system, which was an enormous success as soon as it was launched in the mid 1990s, especially thanks to Mark O Kane who was one of the first to test it on his film Waterworld by Kevin Reynolds.

JD : Your products don’t use the traditional anodizing that most camera accessories use. Can you explain to us why that is ?

HP : Because the Steadicam became one of our main markets, we were forced to come up with ways to make our equipment lighter. One of the consequences of that was to use magnesium in order to build lightweight yet durable equipment. But magnesium’s main problem is that it is very sensitive to corrosion by salt water. Because it cannot be protected by anodizing like normal metals, we had to come up with a special type of coating. I had heard of a German company that had invented a ceramic coating that made magnesium very resistant, so that is why our motors are white in some places. This detail is part of the philosophy I have had since the beginning, which is to build to last and never lose business to a competitor because of a breakdown.
Of course, we mustn’t let the solidity of the carapace distract us from the solidity of the machinery inside... For the motors, for example, enormous technical contingencies must be met, for the couple, the precision (zero tolerance for the interlocking of the pinions), and resistance to wear. For all of these reasons, we use pinions coated in a protective glaze that is almost as hard as a diamond. Someone who invests in our motors is almost sure that he will be able to keep them for the entirety of his professional career without ever having to have the serviced, except for perhaps the internal ball bearings that can wear out after many hours of use.

JD : I am also always very impressed by the quality of the cables and plugs that you supply...

HP : Cable quality was an issue from the very beginnings of the Micro Force handle. When I visited equipment renters, I quickly realized that most breakdowns occurred because of the cables or plugs. That is why we decided to develop and manufacture our own products. For the sheath, we use polyurethane, which is very hard to cut and does a good job of protecting the cables inside. For the cables themselves, everything is produced in very thin copper, which allows for flexibility in spite of the number of conductors. To tell the truth, we make a special cable for each Preston product.

JD : Can you tell us the reason why your remote controlled systems are so excellent, especially in terms of their invulnerability to interference ?

HP : As far as I know, we are the only manufacturer to have developed our own transceivers not based on third-party or mass market technologies, like WiFi. This is why we have been able to master the frequencies we work with and encode the signal transmitted to each channel. In this way, we have eliminated almost any risk of interference at the level of the transmission band. Be aware that transmitting a data signal for FIZ motors requires very little bandwidth on each channel, which is exactly the opposite of WiFi, which requires an extremely and uselessly wide bandwidth.

JD : You rarely attend international trade shows… Why did you choose to attend the Micro Salon and visit France this year ?

HP : I have always had a special place in my heart for French cinema. From my beginnings in the late 1960s, I adored great directors such as Jean-Luc Godard or Marcel Carné. But beyond the purely cinephile aspect, I have noticed that the Micro Salon is a truly unique event because of its intimate aspect reserved for the profession. It is easy to meet cinematographers and discuss openly with them, which isn’t easy in other trade shows where I meet few cinematographers but a lot of manufacturers or picture technicians. This is a real opportunity and pleasure for me to be able to meet these cinematographers and listen to their advice or requests…

FR : Panavision recently announced the launch of a new generation digital camera equipped with a 70 mm sensor and a range of lenses possessing their own internal motors… Have you ever considered going in that direction ?

HP : We have been approached by two lens manufacturers about a collaboration on a similar project. The limitation is the weight and encumbrance that can be added to each lens and still maintain a sufficiently precise and rapid mechanism. And for the moment, I can tell you that this problem has not yet been completely resolved… Of course, I am waiting to see the future motorized lenses announced by Panavision, but it seems obvious to me that in addition to the increase in the size of the sensor (and therefore a drastic reduction in the depth of field) the accuracy and rapidity of the focus on a slider will be even more predominant !
In my opinion, although some might be won over by internally motorized lenses for certain uses, many people will remain faithful to the traditional and modular method of external motorization. Another issue is that of the definition race that digital camera manufacturers have embarked upon, and which will end up causing cinematographers to wonder what they ought to do with such extraordinary image precision ? While it is true that for wide angle shots, high definition is often welcome, what about close ups on the actors ? The market will decide definitively how this situation ought to be managed, what lenses should be used, and which accessories to transform and master the image ?

JD : The economic situation and relations with renters has changed considerably over the last ten years. In France, people are becoming more hesitant to invest in equipment. What does this situation look like from a Hollywood perspective ?

HP : I see the situation as a sort of confrontation between the “old guard” and the “newcomers”. Indeed, renters used to traditional film equipment have a hard time keeping up with the frenzied rhythm of new product releases imposed by the manufacturers of new digital cameras. And because each client is always looking for the best possible, or at least most recent, technology, of course the person who is chosen is the one who proposes the cameras or accessories that no one else has. Whether in the United States or in Europe, this phenomenon can be observed between those who are having a hard time modernizing their product offerings and the newcomers who are beginning from scratch and can offer a range of brand new lenses and cameras.
I believe that there are still going to be a few years of uncertainty and equipment changes, a few years during which the traditional renters will have to hold on faced with competitors who can invest massively and generate huge profits. Another example : in Hollywood, one of our biggest clients is a renter who only has remote controlled heads and remote FIZ systems. It’s just to give you an idea of how sometimes specialization can become a valid business strategy. Similarly, some assistants have massively invested in a dozen FIZ units and rent them out themselves in parallel to their personal use. The mindset are very different from here where technicians have a hard time renting their own equipment...

FR : Is there an invention in the history of cinema that you wish you had invented yourself ?

HP : I can’t say that I am jealous of Garret Brown, since he’s the one who brought me most of my clients ! But still ! I remember watching him walk down the red carpet with his tuxedo and his Steadicam arm that was poking out of the harness…It was really cool ! I must say that I would really liked to have been in his shoes !

(Interview conducted by François Reumont – DoP and journalist – and Jacques Delacoux – CEO of Transvideo – in Paris on 24 February 2013 – Translated from French by Alex Raiffe)