From Dostoyevsky to Digital Subsystems

Down the road from Oklahoma is the Texas border, and further down the road from that border is Dallas. From South America to Oklahoma was a major step, which I luckily took with Fyodor Dostoyevsky. From that backwater college in Oklahoma in 1972 to the leading edge of digital technology in 1973 was several more steps, including a piano teacher, the first commercial video recorder, and actors in Texas with very few opportunities.

Teaching English in a small college was one of those dream jobs you soon awaken from. It had looked good from a distance, first from Vietnam and then from Lima, Peru, but small college politics are no fun especially if you are merely on a short-term visit. You have no actual territory to defend in the vicious budget sessions, or any way to assure your place in a diminishing pie. So waking up went this way…

One day a student I knew needed a short play for his director’s class. I brought out some short plays I had written for South American conversation classes, simple English with exceedingly obvious characters and plots and bare stage with a few chairs. The drama instructor at the college snapped them up for use with his director’s classes, and the directors’ group started playing them at county fairs because they were also bare stage with few actors and fewer props. (Later these plays were published as Rehearsals for Armageddon and then were used by the Second City in Chicago, and later became English  conversation classes as Not Quite Shakespeare. Another story…  But this fits.)

Along the way at some party I met an instructor for Redkins hair products, who said he would give a performance cutting hair for anyone who could make movie of it. I had been reading about the new Norelco reel-to-reel tape recorder, and decided to buy one and give that a try. I had him talk while he was cutting the hair, as he would with a live audience of hair stylists. But the video was odd. He had already almost finished the phase he was talking about, and the viewer had to make the connection several seconds into the new area of cutting. It was like you were always feeling left behind. I tried to get him to start his dialog sooner, but he actually used his cutting as cues for his talking, so it was never natural sounding.

It was then that I realized something that was of course one of the bedrocks of early movies, that the sound track was separate from the video track. In movies it was the reason for all the loops of film in the projectors, so that the audio was read from the side of the track in a different place than the video. Film was processed that way, and novice projector operators often got the sound out of sync by not putting in the proper loops into the wheels of the projector. In this case, the separation of video and audio provided a different opportunity.

By moving the sound track off the reel to an audio tape, and then mixing it back in offset by about 6 seconds, it made the instructor start talking about the process just slightly before he started doing it. The narration then fit the video perfectly, and viewers were not confused at all: they saw what was being talked about in the same moment it was being done.

At another party Anita, the piano teacher at the college introduced me to Joe, a male friend of hers who was up from Dallas. Joe was a child prodigy who interned with Texas Instruments in Dallas as a sophomore at Southern Methodist University, became skilled in integrated circuits and went back to teach in the SMU graduate school on loan from TI. There was indeed brainpower in Texas, and a lot of it gravitated to Texas Instruments, which had invented the first transistor radio. When I first heard of them through Joe, TI was leading the world in integrated circuits, which would put thousands of transistors on one small chip.

Joe entranced me with a story of his Texas Instruments development team being given a contract to make an electronic collar for self-destructive children, which would allow parents to zap them if they tried to hurt themselves. It was much like a dog training collar, and this team of engineers realized it could easily be used on bad children, and finally just precocious children. However, these TI engineers realized they could not just refuse to do this project (which came from a child-welfare organization), but they must find some answer that would prevent any other group of engineers from doing what obviously could be done. After some weeks of despairing of a solution, Joe’s engineering team finally refused the project because (they said) any such system could also be activated by lightning.

I told Joe I had done some playwriting and that his solution would make a great play. In fact, that year I wrote that play, The Collar, and it won the Olivet National Playwriting competition. So I sent that play to Joe, and, when I saw him again, told him that I was also working on reel-to-reel video projects. He remembered he had been talking to a friend at TI who was running the Learning Center, which had acquired some old studio videotaping equipment, and may need people like me who would know what to do with it. They had been using surveillance cameras in classrooms to record the classes of engineers on various uses of their integrated circuit products. I went down to Texas Instruments with Joe, my Redkins video and my new book of short plays in hand.

While I was visiting with Jack, the head of the Texas Instruments Learning Center, I offered my thoughts on their current use of video. It was then one step above warehouse surveillance.  I suggested that the two-hour recorded sessions could be done in forty five minutes if they were first scripted with the presenter, graphics were developed to that script, and the blackboard and easel graphics they used popped in and out of the video while the instructor continued talking. These visuals were always getting out of order or falling off the easels or chalk was breaking — or 100 other things that were slowing down the classroom presentation – and putting students to sleep.

(Those who remember early video will have fond memories of the “pop ins” where an original reel and a new reel had to sync to the frame, and often had to be done several times because of rollovers. Sorry to recount this to those of you who were never there and never will be.)

Having to key the presentation to the visuals also made each area more cohesive and visually representative of the subjects. With the first class I reorganized for them they saved time and money on instructors and students and had an altogether better result. I was hired as a contractor for the next summer not only to construct classes in digital electronics, but to create videos on Supervisory Skills. The world’s leading electrical engineers had hired a playwright. The summer went so well that I requested a leave of absence from the college, and got it. Brenda and I packed up our few belongings and our son Liam and, frankly, never looked back.

Technically I was a tech writer. At the time all tech writers wrote entirely in the passive voice (observe : the passive voice was used by all tech writers). There was a sign on the wall in the Tech writers area: We explain what we barely understand because those who understand can barely explain it. I started doing scripts for electronics courses I did not understand, but I did understand the active voice. This immediately made my stuff intelligible to ordinary people and the other tech writers looked bad. “Hey, if batteries not included, who’s not including them?” I offered to the tech writers. This exposed the dirty secret of much of the technical writing of the day, that in having no subject, the sentence had no responsible party. That was the essence of objectivity, to dodge responsibility, or so it appeared.

Then Jack said they had a client who wanted to make little video sketches to demonstrate supervisory skills. Though I scripted them so that no one could possibly fail, these male electrical engineers and various female employees were all uniformly lifeless in the roles we tried at first. I knew there must be local actors starving out there. It was a difficult sell to Texas Instruments management, especially when the outside actors could not be paid for an afternoon’s work on a net 90 payment aging schedule. What I did was total the amount of hours it would take for these dramatic novices to be pulled off their high-yield electronics manufacturing jobs. Then I calculated the hourly rate that TI was paying. Then I compared it to the local SAG-AFTRA scale for actors. Furthermore, I said, the actors were pros and could finish the shooting in half the time. My numbers won, except there was another problem: when the TI managers told me I could use actors, they expected me to find them.

I started going down the list of talent agencies in Dallas. Most of the talent was in these gorgeous photo books where they all gaze off with their cheeks on their hands. It turned out that most of them were pretty faces and had never had a speaking role. But they certainly wanted them, because these roles paid more and looked better on the resume which was their road to stardom, right here in Dallas, Texas. There was really no precedent for the talent agents to turn pretty faces into actors. I sat through a couple of meetings with possible actors and everyone was fawning and trying to guess what I was looking for in these supervisor roles. And frankly, I wouldn’t know who I wanted until I saw them try a role.

Whatever seems like a good straightforward idea is almost always in fact a potential labyrinth of ugly logistics and impossible timing. Theoretically, nothing should ever get done. The talent agents were protective, the wannabe voice actors saw this as their way out of Dallas, and – as you can imagine – the Texas Instruments management was suspicious of all this glitz when their background, up to transistor radios and the current 4-function calculators, had always been selling the electronics for Harpoon missiles to the Defense Department.

So I asked the talent agents if their people could audition on tape for us. Uh Oh! That meant the SAG-AFTRA union had to approve these aspirants being put on TI tape without being paid. But our taping studios were onsite. So I asked SAG-AFTRA: if the tape audition place was in a neutral setting, could we skip those fees and give copies of the tapes to the actors as payment? That finally passed after my bear dance to the union bosses, promising their share of the electronics revolution to come. But where was a place that was neutral enough? No self-respecting talent agent would allow his or her people to audition at the offices of another agent (– agents bandit away talent all day long anyway.)

Finally it turned out that one of the actors had a cousin who managed one of the big downtown theaters, and got that cousin to let us use the massive lobby on one Thursday morning when there were no movies showing. Texas Instruments had to be talked into renting portable taping equipment and lights audio, etc. that they could use in other situations that week. The unions slipped me a free audio guy just so its actors would sound OK. (So far I had no budget whatsoever.)

It was almost cruel, this march of the wanna-be actors through the taped auditions, with cue cards giving them sentences which would come from little supervisory skills dramas. Probably the only crueler thing would have been the Dallas auditions for the local production of the musical Annie, with hundreds of little girls from tiny Texas towns hundreds of miles away, bellowing and tap-dancing with their stage mothers hovering too far away to whisper, but mouthing encouragement non-stop. Mine was not that bad, but Texas Instruments had an international clientele, and many a dream died when a clipped set of words (gotta hep us out ta do binez hair) or a too-nasal Texas twang failed to match the pretty face on tape.

The supervisory skills tapes were a hit, got some national awards in training (also good for actors resumes)  and led to my getting professional narrators to do the electronics courses in which they explained what they could never understand with golden throated credibility. Pretty soon other divisions, such as sales, were requesting tapes, and my pallet got so full I had to find other producers to take scripts I’d written and produce the little shows. It was an empire, to be sure…except for one thing. I had to use the tech writers — who hated every bone in my active voice body –as producers! I was about to have a raft of failures when Jane walked in. Jane Sallis was high class and somewhat exotic for Dallas, and totally out of place and more totally unappreciated at Texas Instruments. None of that mattered for either of us. What mattered was that Jane saw exactly what was needed and came back to me with ten zinger questions that made me fall in love — almost. Jane had been a debutante in Dallas best society, and a fine arts major at Tulane, and with the first production I gave her (insisting to the Texas Instrument brass that we could bring in a producer as well as actors and let the other tech writers continue with the really important user’s manuals for digital subsystems), she offered a professional job on time under budget that looked great. The actors loved her, the crew loved her – she made their stuff look so good!  I still don’t know exactly how Jane stumbled into my life, but Jane was great at Texas Instruments and later in producing video and art for my CPR system and eight years later when I had my own company in Seattle, we produced a bunch of training videodiscs for GTE Directories in – guess where – Dallas.

There are several joys in the hassle of professional life, but maybe none more rewarding than being remembered in an enthusiastically favorable way by people whom you had treated decently, but thought were lost in the past. When Jane put out the word that Hon was back and needed actors for a production, there were no weeks of negotiating and meandering through talent agencies, no bear-dancing for union bosses, none of that. They remembered we’d gotten starving actors paid the very week they worked, they’d elevated some of the talent I used through taped resumes to approach national accounts, keeping large Dallas ad agencies from having to go to the coasts for talent. The whole Dallas creative community was there for us. One week we walked into town and the next week Jane had the production going for GTE, a big one, and one the first training productions ever using interactive videodisc. Whatever goes around… does come around.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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