Most movies and television shows that you watch everyday would not be possible without the work of engineer and inventor, Petro Vlahos. I knew and worked with Petro’s company, Ultimatte Corporation throughout the 80s. He was a gentle soul who was open and sharing of his knowledge. We were the sellers of his Ultimatte IV and later the Ultimatte V technology for Canada during that decade. It was my privilege to visit Petro at his offices in Chatsworth, California many times, mostly for training and customer visits.
Petro invented both the film process and later the television process to create blue screen or green screen composite images. For example, in the feature film Star Trek IV, The Voyage Home, the crew crash lands the Romulan Warbird in the water near San Francisco Bay to release two humpback whales in the future earth. However, the entire scene was shot in the parking lot at Paramount Studios. Director Leonard Nimoy, used the wall of one of the studios to hold the backdrop and the sea and sky were chroma keyed into the scene. The water was just a huge rectangular pond cut into the parking lot and perhaps just 3 feet deep. Giant fans made it turbulent and lighting created the ambience. It was just more Hollywood magic.
Petro worked on the biggest movie blockbusters of the day and with some of the preeminent Directors. The image on the left shows him with Francis Ford Coppola.
My first major interaction with Petro was for a revamp of the CBC news magazine show developed by respected radio producer Mark Starowicz called, The Journal. It followed the CBC National News that aired at 10:00 pm. The National was the day’s hard news show highlighting the “who, what, where, and when”, while The Journal was the soft news show that followed it, telling the story behind the story, exposing the “why” a breaking news story happened. It shared the back story behind the blunt front story. The Journal also did current affairs content. Starowicz had been the creator of the CBC Radio show, “As it Happens“, which I religiously followed while driving, as it was on the car AM radio every workday.
Starowicz wanted some special capabilities to augment the high journalistic integrity of main host Barbara Frum. The show had a secondary host, Mary Lou Finley, as well as a myriad of guest fill-in hosts including, Bill Cameron, Peter Kent, Keith Morrison, Lyn Whitham, and Brian Stewart. As hard as it is to believe today, when this show aired in January 1982, it was the world’s first national network news show hosted by two women. Frum was also on As it Happens, so she was a well known and respected reporter by the Canadian audience.
I pitched several technologies to Starowicz to augment the show in the summer of 1981 and one of them was Petro’s Ultimatte IV blue screen matte generator. This device had the newscaster sit in front of a blue or green screen. The Ultimatte subtracted one of the primary colours – red, blue, or green, out of the image and allowed a seamless insert of a still image or video clip into the background behind the talent. We rarely ever used red as it was too close to the colour of skin, which made for some bizarre subtractions. The talent, Frum and Finley, were keen to wear blue coloured clothing, so we used green subtraction most of the time. The late, great Frum was rarely a problem during the early days of the show, but Finley often came dressed in green clothing, which created some major problems as it made her clothes disappear and be replaced by the keyed background. As much as we tried to tell her, she rarely listened, and did exactly as she pleased, so the poor CBC crew had to react instantly to satisfy the wishes of the ‘talent’.
Petro taught me how to use the technology and how to light the set evenly, so it was optimized for the keying process. I then trained the CBC staff who had far more experience for television production compared to me and excelled to make the illusion of the host reporting from remote locations all while still being in the studio. If not simulating a remote location, then they keyed in amazing backgrounds to bring the stories to life. I learned a lot from the CBC lighting folks and loved this experience. Unfortunately, the CBC had a major 1981 strike during the construction of the show in a studio on Jarvis Street in Toronto. This was years before the CBC moved to its current Toronto monolithic, red striped, block building address on Front Street. The strike was difficult and prolonged and it seriously impacted the build process. However, once it ended, we got things back in order fast and the result was the CBC produced a groundbreaking show that I enjoyed watching for over ten years until it ended production.
After the success of The Journal, the next year in 1983, I worked with Petro to help Jim Henson create a new children’s show called, Fraggle Rock. It was a puppet (Muppet) based show mixed with a few live action characters. It was made in Toronto at VTR Productions in the Yorkville Studio Centre in the city’s elite, upmarket Yorkville district. This is now the site of the new Four Seasons hotel.
The Fraggle’s where small creatures that lived in a cave. The series mainly follows the adventures of five Fraggles with five personalities: pragmatic Gobo, artistic Mokey, indecisive Wembley, superstitious Boober, and adventurous Red. I must admit that Red was my favourite character and the episode where she fell ass-first into a pie still makes me smile. The outtakes where hilarious as the muppeteers always remained steadfastly in character even when off-camera and Red and the others continued to act normally even if the person controlling her was upset and swearing in frustration for messing up a line or debating the reaction to a scene with the director. Some of the character’s names are film industry inside jokes. For example, Uncle Travelling Matt is a reference to the travelling matte technique used with blue screen to give the impression a character is somewhere they are not; Gobo is named after a shaped metal grill placed over a theatre light to produce interesting shadows (window shapes, leaves etc.) and Red is a reference to a “redhead”, another name for an 800w film light.
The cave set had a floor that was about five feet up on a tabletop to permit the muppeteers to be seated under the cave floor so their hands could come up through the floor into the muppets’ bodies so they could be operated them. The TV cameras where huge and on pedestal mounts so the extended table height was ideal for a straight-in shot angle. The top half of the cave was matted into place by the Ultimatte IV. The studio lights needed to illuminate the cave set, so nothing physical could be blocking these lights. Half of the cave was magically superimposed by the Ultimatte green screen keying process. These were fun times to work with Henson and his team including sometimes set visitor, Frank Oz of Star Wars Yoda voice fame. Henson and Oz were also the voices of Sesame Streets’ famous Ernie and Bert characters, so it was stunning to hear them in conversation and discussing the show, but you hear Ernie and Bert’s voices discussing the next scene or overarching storytelling threads.
Another interesting shoot that Petro guided me through the production process was for CTV. They were doing a lot of ice skating shows in the mid 80s called, Stars on Ice. In the skating TV special that I worked on with the Ultimatte, it was downtown at the City Hall ice pad and not in the studio. It included Dorothy Hamill skating a high energy performance. They coated the ice in blue and chroma keyed it out. It was replaced with clouds and dry ice smoke to create a wild and eerie set. Watching the US National and Olympic Gold medalist skate her routine was mesmerizing. As a Canadian who does not even know how to skate, I found her to be absolutely amazing and later when I saw the surreal composite for the show, it was incredible to have even a small part in this special. I must admit that I was her secret fan and was rather smitten by her so many years ago. She was stunning and amazing to watch.
Petro taught me well. I would never had enjoyed these experiences without his training and trust. While the creative side of television was not my thing in life, I gravitated towards the technical side where I excelled beyond my dreams. I went on to provide his technology to many other shows, but rarely got involved in the productions after the early years of the deployments when the technology was mythical and unknown. Once it got widely disbursed into the field, more and more craftspeople learned it, and there was no need for me to operate it. My creative adventures ended, but I was fine with that outcome as it was not in me to spend hours upon hours waiting for the short bursts of production. TV looks fun and interesting, but for someone with a very short attention span, it is a painfully slow process to create shows. But, I am delighted that I had the chance to learn about it and watch how the masters created our favourite form of entertainment.
Petro was one of those unique people who could bridge several worlds, from the creative (right brain) to the engineering (left brain). While I have had some success operating on both sides of the brain, it is not really my skill set. So to watch Petro navigate all parties with equal aplomb was wonderful to observe.
A member of the Academy’s original Motion Picture Research Council, he was honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences many times, starting with a Scientific and Technical Award in 1960 for a camera flicker indicating device.
The industry at large greatly respected Petro. He won his first Oscar in 1964 for the “conception and perfection of techniques for color traveling matte composite cinematography.”
In 1978, Petro won an Emmy Award for Ultimatte Compositing Technology.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave him a Medal of Commendation in 1992. In 1993 he was the recipient of the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, his second Oscar.
In 1995 he shared a third Oscar (Academy Scientific and Technical Award) with his son, Paul, for the blue-screen advances made by Ultimatte Corporation.
In his film days, Petro worked on some of Hollywood’s grandest epic films, including Ben Hur, Mary Poppins, and The Thief of Bagdad. These all used the film process for keying which he also had a hand in the creation. So, just to know him was a treat and a privilege.
Sadly, Petro Vlahos passed away February 10, 2013 at the age of 96. I would say that he lived his life well and now his very capable and equally talented son, Paul Vlahos follows in his father’s footsteps.
About the Author:
Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless, and digital communications technologies.
He is a business and technology consultant. Over the past 15 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX).
Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V).
He has served as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology.
He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now OntarioTech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario. For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section.
He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has three undergraduate diplomas and five certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology. He has earned 15 badges in next generation MOOC continuous education in IoT, Cloud, AI and Cognitive systems, Blockchain, Agile, Big Data, Design Thinking, Security, and more.