Toast to Larry Thorpe

It was during the Thanksgiving holiday that Larry Thorpe, one of the major figures in modern television technology, decided at age 63 to leave Sony. He was not ready to retire, but when the financially troubled manufacturer offered an attractive early retirement deal to its longtime employees, Thorpe concluded it was time to end "a marvelous, wild ride."

The end of Larry Thorpe's tenure at Sony should not be treated as a retirement, but as a milestone in an extraordinary career. He will be back soon in another role-perhaps as CEO of a technology company, consultant or author. "There's a big desire in me to write a book," he admits. No one, publishers should note, is in a better position to pen a tome on the behind-the-scenes story of digital television.

(click thumbnail)Larry Thorpe and filmmaker George Lucas discuss shooting "Star Wars: Episode II" during NAB2001 (©NAB)
Thorpe's career began in 1961, when after graduating from the College of Technology in Dublin and the Institute of Electrical Engineers in London, the young engineer went to work at the BBC as a kinescope recordist. Soon, he found himself in the BBC's design department, creating such devices as video DAs, routing switchers and standards converters.

In 1966, Thorpe moved to America, joining RCA, then the premier American broadcast technology company. As a designer, his first project was the short-lived RCA TK-44 camera, soon to be replaced by the popular Plumbicon-based TK-44A. "I did the pre-amplifier and video amplifier on the TK-44A," Thorpe recalls. "We swept the three-plumb market with that model, even beating Philips."

Thorpe's biggest claim to fame at RCA, however, was the legendary TK-47 color camera, introduced in 1979. Project leader on the TK-47 design team, Thorpe and company built the broadcast industry's first automatic color studio camera. For the first time, a computer did all the major setup functions, freeing engineers from hours of tedious tweaking before color broadcasts. In 1981, Thorpe was awarded the David Sarnoff Award for his groundbreaking work on the TK-47.

In 1982, with 10 patents under his belt from his tenure at the then faltering RCA, Thorpe joined Sony, the rising star in video technology. It was an extraordinary time in video and Thorpe hit the ground running. Among his first tasks at Sony was to propose the brand new Betacam format to SMPTE for standardization. The first deliveries of the revolutionary new one-piece camcorder would begin later that year.

Behind the scenes, Thorpe spent significant time in Japan trying to convince Sony executives to enter the studio camera business. "They wanted to stay with portable cameras and leave studio cameras to RCA and Philips. I said 'you guys have just unbelievable technology, you could be king of the world in studio cameras.' After six months they finally said 'OK, let's see what happens.'"


What happened was Sony's first studio camera, the BVP-360, introduced in 1984. "That was my baby. Very much my baby," Thorpe recalls with pride.

However, another innovation on Thorpe's plate at the time would lead to the quick demise of the Plumbicon tube-the imager of the BVP-360. It was the charge-coupled device, or CCD imager. RCA, in a last gasp in the broadcast business, would introduce the first CCD broadcast camera at NAB 1984. Within five years, tube cameras were history. Larry Thorpe's job during this period was to turn Sony into a leader among CCD camera manufacturers.

At the same time, Thorpe was dealing with high definition television, another emerging technology. In 1983, he was asked to represent Sony before the newly established ATSC and the SMPTE working group on high definition. A short time later he would shepherd the introduction of Sony's first HD camera, the tube-based HDC-100.

From day one, Thorpe was intensely enthusiastic about HD. Sometimes that enthusiasm got him in trouble. In the mid-80s, Thorpe and Joe Flaherty, the CBS senior VP of technology, got so carried away as to predict that HD would result in the death of film. They chose to utter such a controversial comment at an odd place-the American Film Institute in the heart of Hollywood! Eyes rolled in an audience dedicated to the preserving the film image.

Thorpe learned his lesson. The message changed. HD would coexist with film. It was simply an alternate imaging technology. This time, it worked. It may very well be that within the next decade digital cinema made with HD video cameras will replace film. In any case, 20 years has passed and Thorpe is leaving Sony with a pioneer's success.

"It took 20 years for us to make HD a viable reality in terms of size, weight, power and cost," he notes, admitting that the journey to success "was long... longer than I thought" it would be.

"The thing that I would not have anticipated back in the mid '80s was that the computer and telecom industries, the Department of Defense, and academia-all those entities-would climb so vigorously into the standardization process. Previously, it had always been relegated to the television industry to do its own standards. But there was a lot of new muscle and thinking that forced us television people to think about progressive scanning, square pixels, etc. etc. I would not have anticipated that."


As he looks back, Thorpe cites several highlights in his years at Sony: introductions of the original Betacam and later, Digital Betacam; development of the first studio camera ("It took six or seven years for Sony to become a major force in studio cameras."); introduction in 1992 of the first CCD high definition camera ("It just bowled everybody over. I never saw such a reaction. We had all sorts of horrors with tubes in HD. But man, the CCD put all that to bed."); and, finally, the industry acceptance of 24P imaging technology.

Thorpe's final days at Sony have been dedicated to pushing high definition technology in two directions: one toward mainstream production and the other toward digital cinema. "It's my recommendation that we try to steer the industry toward all-HD production gear," says Thorpe. "Today, at the higher end, about 70 percent of cameras and camcorders are HD. That seems to be a marketplace trend and I think people are becoming more and more accepting of super-sampling for standard definition. You get a better standard definition image."

For digital cinema, Thorpe recently returned from Japan where he "opened the kimono" to show Sony's latest technology to a representative of the Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI), a consortium of the seven major Hollywood studios set up to develop a mutually agreeable set of technical and business standards for digital cinema.

"We have fallen in lockstep with the standard being developed by DCI and we wanted to convince them that we are paying attention to that," Thorpe said.

It's been a hell of a ride for a man who insists he's "not hanging up the spurs." So let's take him at his word, raise our glasses to toast his extraordinary string of accomplishments, and keep a close eye on where he turns up next.

All the best, Larry!

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.