ASCII by Jason Scott

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An Interesting Mentor Linkage —

OK, so I’ve talked about him before, but Pete Chvany, who was one of my great mentors in my formally-educated years, has had an enormous about of influence on me and a lot of how I look at life and recording it. I was so enamored of him as a teacher that I actually took a course of his twice, completely confusing the registrar, and as I expected the second time around was just as fulfilling and enjoyable and educational as the first time.

The screenshots from above are from a currently-unfinished-but-any-month-now student project I did in college, where Pete played a parody of a film professor. I thought it was great, and I love these shots. This is circa 1992.

It may seem almost laughable now, but there was a specific attitude related to shooting a film project on video. Instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars shooting on 16mm or 35mm film stock, I chose to do my (not approved by the college) final project on 1/2″ U-Matic tape, which produced a perfectly fine image, even if it might seem pretty simple now. We lit it like film and I think the shots that Scott Rosann and I set up together as as pretty as anything I’ve done.

Pete, like I said, had an enormous influence on me. His way of looking at life transcended specific mediums for film transfer or video usage; as my college moved away from sprockets-and-tape filmmaking to online video editing and digital media, he shifted painlessly. He still works at the college as one of the techs and managers of the video editing environment. Whereas another teacher might put up their nose and move onto pure theory and writing, eschewing this dreaded use of electronics in lieu of the organic frame, Pete gets his hands dirty doing what it takes to help real projects come alive. I am sure there are hundreds of video projects improved by his proximity to students desperately trying to finish their vision.

Pete didn’t talk about his own history in a very overarching sense – he mentioned he’d worked professionally doing films, but primarily in doing what he called “industrial films”, films purchased by companies to show products or promote ideas, that they would generally show either internally or to very specific audiences. At some point he brought in a film he had shot years previously showing the sorting mechanism of a copier – he said it was covered by an NDA, and discussed some of the issues he had getting a functioning camera that close to a massive piece of hardware. It was quite entertaining. But generally, this was not work you were going to see on the IMDB anytime soon.

One of the co-founders of the interactive fiction compay Infocom was a man named JCR Licklider, who was a faculty member of MIT and who did absolutely groundbreaking work the areas of programming, networks and general computing. He was a board member and co-owner, and while he didn’t do a whole lot on the coding side, he was definitely in the mix in the early days of the company. Looking for footage of him, I happened upon a documentary in my own collection, which I’d picked up when it zipped around online a while ago:

It’s called “Computer Networks – The Heralds of Resource Sharing” and it’s directed by by old mentor, Pete Chvany. Created towards the early part of his career, this documentary covers a lot of the reasoning behind wanting to use networks between computers – the saved resources, the speed, the use of routing to ensure the best connection to what you need at any given time. It appears to be shot in 16 millimeter, and has a variety of outside, inside, hand-held and illustrated shots.

The subjects themselves put the word “dry” out to pasture, replacing it with “vacuum”. But this is the vacuum of getting unbelievably brilliant people, people whose work we all depend on now, to discuss as best they can the motivation of their work. These aren’t website CEOs proudly mentioning how they can serve ads to a greater audience than anyone else and jump-starting “community” out of a javascript abortion – these guys are the real deal.

It’s a lot of fun for me, personally, to watch this film. The subject (computers) ranges with what I do documentaries on. The problems that Pete and crew must have dealt with must have been enormous – sound, lighting, all done completely differently than how I deal with them (lights for me weight less than a couple pounds – that couldn’t have been the case in 1972). I hit the tail end of actual sprockets-and-glue film and Pete definitely taught the processes we would have had to deal with, should I have continued along that line.

But more than that, there’s a hundred little details in how the shots are set up, the many angles, the combination of “show me” and “tell me”. What must have been days and days of arranging the rooms, the locations, and accessing all manner of machinery. It’s great to watch him in action, 16 years before I knew of him, and when I was 2 years old.

I guess that’s the best part of being involved in media – I can call up a moment 35 years in the past as if it just happened, and enjoy a view I’d never have been granted before.

Categorised as: computer history

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  1. fuzz says:

    It still blows me away that from the networks that they’re creating in that video, I can now watch the very same video sat in my bed a thousand miles away, over a packet switched network that would be conceptually familiar to a network engineer from this time, but the practical execution would have been almost incomprehendable.

  2. Andrew Mudd says:

    I hate being a pedant, I really do. But since I’m currently involved in copying a shit-ton of up to 30 year old U-Matic tapes to DVCAM tapes, I can tell you this: They’re 3/4″, not 1/2″. All variants of Beta and VHS are 1/2″.

    I feel like such a dweeby spaz now.

  3. Pete Chvany Jr. says:

    Great link. I’m going to have to watch the rest of the video later. It’s pretty awesome that I can stream it to my desktop at work … considering I’m the son of the guy who filmed it and I’m not certain I ever saw the final product. I know I was “production crew” on some of his later films for the computing industry but this one isn’t familiar.

    By the way, if you’re on the East coast in early June, Emerson is having some kid of retirement bash for my Dad. I’ve included my email address in your form so hit me up if you want to know the details. You know my Dad: he would rather die than have them make a fuss over him, but I guess they must have twisted his arm. My brothers (both Emerson grads) are planning to fly back for the event as well. (Me, I’m still here in Boston.)

    Needless to say, thanks for the tribute to my Dad. He took his teaching and mentoring really seriously and I could probably embarrass the hell out of him by sending him this link.

    Pete Jr.