Larry Thorpe with one of Canon’s Cinema EOS cameras
Photo courtesy of Canon

Last week Larry Thorpe, a Senior Fellow in the Imaging Technologies & Communications Group at Canon USA, retired following a 60-year career in the broadcast industry. In an interview with DPReview he talks about some of the technology changes he’s seen during that time and how those changes impact the market for still and motion picture cameras today.

Larry began his career with the BBC in London in 1961. In 1966 he emigrated from the UK to the United States to work for RCA, where he developed cameras and other studio equipment, followed by a 22-year stint at Sony, where he worked on cameras and camcorders and became an early proponent for HDTV standards and production systems. In 2004 he joined Canon, where he helped lead the company’s efforts to create Cinema EOS.

Larry is a Life Fellow in the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, was inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame as part of its inaugural class of 2007, and received a Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for contributions to television technology and engineering.

This interview has been edited for clarity and flow.


You’ve had a chance to observe the evolution of camera technology over a career spanning 60 years. What have been the most significant changes during that time?

When I first started in camera design, it was all pick-up tubes, but the big jump was the arrival of the CCD in the early 1980s. That just transformed the camera. Then, of course, we had to wait a decade before we could get a high definition CCD, but we did, in 1992, I believe. At that time, recording was moving from analog to digital – it was still tape – then we went through all the various formats we saw in high definition recording through the 80s and 90s.

When I first started in camera design it was all pick-up tubes, but the big jump was the arrival of the CCD in the early 1980s.

And then came solid state, where we are today. That’s just been a giant leap away from tape, and into the various solid-state offerings we have today. The incredible capacities that we have for recording 4K, or motion at high frame rates, and reasonably priced media with great storage capacity – it’s just been astonishing. The equipment just gets smaller and smaller and more compact.

According to Thorpe, the switch from tape-based media to solid state technology has been one of the most significant changes during his time in the industry.
Photos: iStock

You were an early proponent of high-definition TV. Now we have 4K and beyond. How important is it to keep pushing video resolution?

It’s a great discussion. Myself, I’ve been a little skeptical about 8K in the living room because you’ve got to have a screen that grows proportionally. The average viewing distance in the home today is about 10 feet, and to get 8K that does full justice to the capability of the human visual system, you’re going to need a screen with about a 300-inch diagonal, and I don’t think you’re going to see that in the home. 4K is equally questionable.

To get full exploitation of 4K, you need a very large screen. So, it is a big question. That’s why our broadcasters have more or less slowed up in the race to 4K. They’re using 1080p, but with high dynamic range and wide color gamut. They think that’s a bigger bang for the buck. Then, they will upscale as happened in major sporting events. But that said, it’s inevitable. There’s just no stopping 4K, and ultimately, there’s no stopping 8K. It’s happening, and it’s only a question of time.

If not resolution, what technologies should the industry focus on to give consumers a better experience?

It’s HDR and wide color gamut, and some people will argue for high frame rates. HDR and wide color gamut, because you can see that across the living room on the smallest screen. It pops, whereas resolution diminishes rapidly as you move away from the screen. So, the compromise is certainly the 10-foot viewing distance for 4K. I’d like to see the sets get up to 100 inches and larger to get the full wow factor of 4K, and of course, you add in the HDR and wide color gamut, and you’ve got a home cinema viewing experience – a true cinema viewing experience.

Larry received a Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for contributions to television technology and engineering.
Photo courtesy of Canon

When you started your career, photography and video were very different industries. What’s the biggest benefit of the convergence we’ve seen over the past couple of decades?

Putting video into the still camera forced the camera people to really think through the technologies they needed to do justice to both, and that’s been advancing image sensor technology, and equally important, the processing technologies. The little processing chips inside these cameras are astounding in their capabilities. What they did is extend the imaging capabilities to everybody.

Putting video into the still camera forced the camera people to really think through the technologies they needed to do justice to both.

Those in still photography are still getting terrific advances in still photography, but in that little box are video capabilities that allow them to play a little or do further business by doing video creation. These cameras are good enough today, with very powerful video, that you can produce very serious motion imaging. I think that’s the real thing, just extending people’s flexibilities, creativity, and business opportunities.

Has convergence impacted the way a company like Canon designs products? Did it learn things from making cinema products that benefit still camera users and vice versa?

I think the answer to that is yes. Not terribly long ago, like most manufacturers, we had our silos. We had folks developing the still lenses, our famous EF lenses, and all the variants. We had the broadcast group in a completely different environment, developing all sorts of lenses for broadcast television. Then, along came cinema. We plunged into cinema around 2011, and the broadcast group started to develop Super35 zoom lenses and prime lenses.

We brought out the C70 – a cinema camera with a Super35 sensor – but with an RF mount that we borrowed from our colleagues in the mirrorless world.

They were still separate, but as things progressed and the marketplace started to dictate that there would be a lot of folks producing serious programming with DSLRs, and now mirrorless, things started to converge inside Canon. Today, as we continue our advancement in optics for motion imaging, we’re doing all that we’re doing in the new RF mount. In the most recent example, we brought out the C70 – a cinema camera with a Super35 sensor – but with an RF mount that we borrowed from our colleagues in the mirrorless world.

So you’re seeing this convergence, and it’s driven by advantages that are offered. The RF mount brought something to the cinema camera, a little more flexibility in lens design. We’ve just started, and it’ll be interesting to see what Canon does in the ensuing years. It’s the convergence of the dynamics in the marketplace, and that’s driving convergence in multiple technologies.

The EOS C70 illustrates the convergence between Canon’s cinema and photography products: the Super35 Cinema EOS camera uses the RF lens mount developed for Canon’s mirrorless cameras.

How has the motion picture business changed Canon?

It’s changed quite a bit. If you look at the structure of the company here in the United States, we created a whole division, the Imaging Solutions Business, and of course, cinema and broadcast are a part of that. And of course, it’s changed in Japan, the product designs of cameras and optics. So it’s a pretty profound change.

We waited until we felt we had the requisite technologies in-house… to do the optics… the image sensor… and the processors ourselves.

We were one of the later entries into cinematography. We waited until we felt we had the requisite technologies in-house that we could do the optics, that we could do the image sensor ourselves, that we could do the processors ourselves. We also learned so much from the world of DSLRs on ergonomics. We’re very good at mechanical ergonomics on all forms of cameras. So, it was just a magic combination in 2011. We burst on the scene with our cinema and haven’t stopped since.

What trends and technologies do you expect to be most transformative in the coming decades? What would you like to see the next generation of innovators create for consumers?

I think you’re going to see that resolution is going to continue. You’re going to see 8K for making movies and for any material that goes on large screens, digital signage, large screens in stadiums. In the home, it’s still a question, but I think it’s still inevitable that 8K will creep in. So, resolution will continue. I think you’ll see enhancements to dynamic range, color, and higher frame rates. So, all the dimensions of imaging are moving and will continue to move.

Then, after that, is exploiting technology to drive costs down. They go down faster in cameras because they’re digital, and we have the prowess of chips. Glass doesn’t go down that fast. But, as we escalate the demands on lenses, like 8K resolution, it gets very difficult to design and to manufacture. That does tend to keep the costs rather high, but we have still done pretty good, I think.

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