Jim Chabin: Yes, Hollywood Top Brass Think Immersive
In this episode, Justine, VRTL’s Editor-in-Chief, mangles Jim Chabin’s previous role as President of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (the folks responsible for the Emmy Awards), while Jim mixes up a date by two decades. Misspeaks aside, this is an insightful conversation about how Hollywood is approaching new technology with Jim sharing several inspiring anecdotes. Jim is currently President of the Advanced Imaging Society, an organization spearheaded by the top motion picture studios in Los Angeles (among others)
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Justine: Hello. I’m Justine, editor-in-chief of Virtual. And I am super honored today because I have a very special guest, Jim Chabin. And who is Jim Chabin? Well, he is the former president of the, oh gosh, here we go, American Television Arts…
Jim: That’s got to be American Television of Arts & Sciences, better known as the Television Academy.
Justine: That’s easier.
Jim: And the Primetime Emmy is even easier.
Justine: That, I remember, for sure. Who has not made friends with the Emmy’s and Sat at Night with the watching all of the ball galas and the prizes that are awarded?
But now, you switched courses and you’re doing something a lot more future forward.
Jim: Yes. Ten years ago, I got a call. Believe me or not, rarely in my life has anyone called me for a job. I’ve always been out looking for jobs. Anyway, I got a call from Walt Disney Studios and they said, “There is a need. All of the studios are investing in the next generation of how we’re going to tell stories, whether it’s movies or all these other platforms.”
Justine: And what year was this?
Jim: This was ten years ago so it would be 1988.
Justine: See, I can’t remember some words and even numbers. You are my buddy.
Jim: 2008. And just that all of these new technologies coming in, no one’s talking about and it’s going to change the way we tell stories and deliver movies and do television and do website content.
So, we really need a group to be formed to educate everyone about how to do this well, so that it builds an industry that will employ people and have successful companies within it and will build a community around that, that will be prosperous. And we’re interested in doing this and they thought, maybe you would be the guy to do it because that’s what kind of what you’ve done with your career.”
So, I went over and talked to them and out of that, Jeffrey Katzenberg at Dreamworks and Greg Foster at Imax and other came together and said, “Yeah, we think this is a great idea,” and we were born.
Justine: So, you built aconsortium of all these studios.
Jim: So, we’re an alliance of all these studios and out first original group were Dreamworks, Sony, Paramount, Imax, The Walt Disney Company and Barco.
Justine: And the others.
Jim: Yeah, absolutely. And Panasonic and a few others, which is fascinating. And what tells you about where everything is going is that our chairman for next year, 2019, is [2:46 inaudible] from Google. Our vice chairman is Walt Disney Studios. Our other vice chairman is HP and Invidia and Cisqó and Warner Brothers and Sony and Paramount and NBC Entertainment.
Jim: So, in the span of ten years, we’ve gone from an organization of creative people to an organization of creative people who are working with technology companies in order to empower their storytelling using technology.
And if could say ten years ago, in 2019, your leadership will be Cisqó and Dell and HP and Invidia and Google, I said, “What group will I be working for, because clearly, it would be another job.” The fact that it’s the same job, it’s just all these dynamics and these transformations have occurred. It’s mindboggling to me.
Justine: That is mindboggling.
Justine: That really is. There’s something interesting because you mentioned a lot of companies predominantly known for movies, and your background is central in television. And when we talk about cinematic VR, usually then the link is made from 2D movie pictures to VR. And I’m curious if you have any thoughts on people that work in television moving to VR. Are there any differences or any skills that television people have that film doesn’t?
Jim: Justine, what’s interesting to me is, in college, my first entry in broadcasting was in radio, on the air radio. And when I was playing Help! by The Beatles or others, I would notice that these great rock groups used left channel and then right channel.
And so, when we broadcasted on FM radio, there would be movement in your ears right and left. So, the greatest bands of all time were experimenting with moving the sound around your ears when you listen to something on the FM radio. Many people didn’t notice it but we did because we were in the studio playing the music.
The point is if I look back and say what prepares you for VR, I would say, “Well, sound.” If you worked around sound, you know that sound directs your attention. The Beatles knew that. Major, major rock groups knew how to move sound from left channel to right.
VR relies on, in many cases, can be enhanced by spatial placement of audio. Television is something that we learned to do quickly and expensively. You need to do it fast because you had a show that you had to get up next week or tomorrow night, whatever it was, so a live newscast this afternoon, The Oprah Winfrey Show tomorrow afternoon or whatever it was you’re working on a very short timeline. And you wanted to make something look great. You wanted to design something that could be used over and over and over, and you believe in episodic storytelling. And so, you play with all these other devices in order to say, “I want somebody to come back to my show next week. I want someone could be watching the news tomorrow night.”
So, you’re constantly saying what can I put in this that will be interesting that I can develop, and people will come back tomorrow to see what happens to my characters. And then, we look at motion pictures and here are people that work on average four years on a motion picture project.
JIM: The people at Pixar, when I ask them, “How long are you working on a movie?” They say, “Minimum four years.” And I said, “What takes so long?” And they say, “We work on just a story for the first two years. We don’t shoot a frame. We don’t do anything. The first two years is we’re trying to get that amazing emotional story correct.” And if you’ve seen Coco or Toy Story 3, if you’ve seen the Pixar movies, you realize they make you laugh. They make you cry. They tug at your heartstrings, and you realize, these are people that were very, very careful at the craft of story. And then, meticulously pick every color, every look, every shade of shadow and the voices in order to create these wonderous work.
So, you say, “What prepares you for VR?” and I would say, “I see things in all of our traditional artforms that one could bring to VR, that would make VR very exciting.”
And that’s why I love to meet people in VR and find out what their backgrounds are because almost all of them have eclectic backgrounds. They do not say, “I’ve made movies for my whole career.” Almost all of them say “I’ve done this. I lived in Paris.”
One of our great directors in VR Céline Tricart, born and raised in Paris, lived between Los Angeles and Paris, and just finished a movie on women fighting the Taliban in Syria called The Sun Ladies. And she’s been out in the war zone filming a VR experience in order to bring the war home to people around the world, so they understand the sadness and the importance of ending war.
So, you need these wonderful people who are doing these amazing things and almost none of them can be pigeonholed into “Well, they did this and therefore they’re a VR person.” They’ve done many things and it all in forms of their art.
JUSTINE: Yes, that’s quite a different ladder. I remember in film it was always you have to get a job for free, being a runner and then you hopefully work your way up. And you’re right, you do get to draw from different backgrounds, which breathes a very diverse and busy, kind of, it’s a cauldron of ideas and talent and making that meet together with new technology. Yeah. So, but sort of something and when you think when you talked about Toy Story, I thought, here is an animation film that typically, because of the good writing, appeals to people across ages. And typically, a new technology is the domain of the young, but you and I are about 40, shall we say. And what’s exciting for you being, you know, seasoned and having seen radio, television, film and VR?
Jim: I have this internal humorous thought, and when I hear it, it makes me smile. But when I started in radio, please endure this podcast.
Justine: We can endure it.
Jim: I hope people will stay me on this because I think it’s important. I started in high school. When I started in high school, everybody listened to AM radio. So, my first job in radio was on AM radio station. We’ve played rock and roll. We’ve played The Beatles. We’ve played, you know, Def Leppard and Cat Stevens and all of the music of that time.
By the time I went to college, FM radio had come along. And so, I remember everyone saying, “No one’s going to listen to FM, because there are no FM radios in people’s cars, and no one has an FM radio at home.” So, FM is dead. It’s never going to happen. Everything’s always going to stay on AM. Well, of course, FM had much better quality and it was a much better experience for the listener. So, FM took charge, and everything went to FM, and then the AM people who are saying “FM will never happen” pretty much AM became something for news talk or sports or something. But it never recovered.
When I went to television, I remember the people in broadcast television saying, “Cable will never survive. It will never happen. It’s just, no one cares about that. Everybody wants to watch Dallas, so they want to watch this show we have or that show Mary Tyler Moore or no one’s going to watch some TV cable channel.”
And of course, cable took off because viewers wanted more than three choices or four choices. And all of a sudden, everybody was happy that we had 100 channels of everything you could conceive of was on TV.
So then, I went to cable television and I was the 30th employed for E Entertainment Television. And I was there the day we threw the switch and became E. And now, anywhere in the world, you see E Entertainment Television. It started the business with 30 employees, and I was one of those 30 employees. And I remember when the internet happened, and websites came along and someone said, “Well, the good news is, no one’s ever going to watch TV on a website. You’re never going watch anything on a website. You’re going to watch it on your flat screen in the comfort of your home, sitting on your couch and no one’s going to stare at a computer or some small screen to watch a TV show. They’re going to want to watch it on a big flat screen TV.” Well, of course now, if you climb on an international flight or a domestic flight or anywhere in the world, everybody is looking at their cellphones and watching their favorite TV or movie.
So, I always think of people. And I think if someone’s telling me this will never fly or this is never going to happen, I know it’s going to. So right now, there’s that moment of this VR thing no one cares about VR. The customer doesn’t want the VR. Kids don’t want the VR. This is never going to happen, that tells me it’s going to happen, right? Because every single platform you can think of that rolls out, generally speaking, will have its ups and its downs. But if you look back 10 years, it has continued to roll, and there is a huge group of people. out of the 7 billion people on the planet, there are hundreds of millions who love it. They’ve learned how to use it and they know what they love to watch on it. And companies make enormous amount of money being involved in it and people learn it and kids coming out of college want this. That’s what they want to do. They don’t want to make movies, they want to make VR experiences.
So, the one thing I do know is if you look back and say, “Well, name the things that have failed, that they said would fail, and they really did fail, you know, not many.” And it’s interesting, if I’m in the car here coming from the Brussels airport, the car radio is on, just listening to World Cup, just listening to football.
So, no matter where you go, almost all of these technologies, they didn’t go away, they just found their place, and something new is constantly coming into it. So, I think that’s where we are with VR.
JUSTINE: That’s true because I remember when cable television first came around, it was just really doing a lot of different movies, right? And then, the HBO would put on a movie. And then, another movie after that and another movie and there’s programming for movies. And then, it morphed into this what I would call a predecessor for Netflix…
JUSTINE: …where it did, you know, its own episodic television.
JUSTINE: And so, it morphed too. You’re right. So, just as the different mediums, they change as well.
JIM: So, the people who said I’ll never watch a TV show that streamed online didn’t anticipate that Netflix would happen, and Netflix became such a phenomenon. Now, Disney has announced that they’re launching their own streaming service. Warner Brothers has announced they’re launching their streaming service. And so, we’ll see what happens. Will satellite television go away? Will SKY go away? I don’t think so. Will it change? Will fewer people subscribe more? Yeah, probably. But I think in 10 years from now, SKY will still be around, so will the BBC. Right?
JUSTINE: Well, that’s good to know.
JIM: I think so.
JUSTINE: Last question. So, immersive, you have a fine career going there, but do you imagine merging the two and do you foresee ever directing and producing let’s say the Emmy Awards for immersive as its own standalone?
JIM: I will tell you that our 10th annual awards will be at Warner Brothers on January 30th in Hollywood. And our board, which is Disney, very much wants several awards at every award show are for emerging technologies. These are the Walt Disney people saying this, right?
So, it is an evening that 10 years ago, most of our awards were 3D movies, and 3D television and 3D trailers and 3D commercials and movie theaters. Now, our evenings awards include two or three fabulous awards maybe for Mary Poppins or Black Panther or some great movies. Two or three for documentaries. We will have at least three to five awards for virtual reality. We will have two or three awards for high dynamic range, the new format that doubles and triples the amount of color that you see in your TV show and motion pictures, so it looks exactly the way Steven Spielberg photographed it on set. We will have two or three awards for that. We’ll have awards for 4k, which is that dazzling new crystal-clear picture that allows you to read the label on the side of a football during a Manchester United Football game on the BBC. The picture will be so clear. So, our awards on January 30th, more than half of them will be for things that didn’t exist 10 years ago.
JUSTINE: That’s wonderful.
JIM: Isn’t it remarkable?
JUSTINE: That is wonderful news. It’s so great. Well, I really appreciate this conversation.
JIM: Justine, it’s been a pleasure.
JUSTINE: Well, thanks and come back.
JIM: Well, I have to say, I love Belgium. I love Europe. And during the holidays, I would be so sad if I weren’t able to be here to support our colleagues and Stereopsia, and our advanced imaging society organization here in the EU.
And for those of you who are still listening at this point in this conversation and aspire to create, know that you will succeed if you determine that that’s what you want to do. And don’t let anyone or any situation tell you that you cannot do it because I always say, there’s always a baseline of negativity. There’s always a baseline of skepticism. There’s always a baseline telling you, “You can’t do this, you can’t get this job, you should stop trying to go pursue this dream of yours. This movie will never be successful. This TV show is terrible.” I promise you that no matter where you are in your career, you’ll wake up in the morning a little fearful that your dream is not achievable.
And what I’m telling you is my entire life has been listening to that kind of baseline of skepticism and tuning it out and staying focused on my goal, because if I did that, I ended up with a career filled with things that I’m enormously proud of, and they would never happen had I heard someone say, “No one’s ever going to listen to FM radio.”
JUSTINE: Oh bravo! Thank you so much.
JIM: Thank you, Justine.