15 February 2013

Blue screen film pioneer and inventor Petro Vlahos

The inventor of the “blue screen” film technique as it is used today, Petro Vlahos, has died at the age of 96. This posting is based on the interesting BBC tribute to him. I am glad to say the article links to Google versions of two of his patents (this is unusual).

A blue screen is used in filming where actors are combined in film editing with action or other backgrounds to give a seamless effect. A not very good version was available when Vlahos was asked to see if he could improve the process. Some objects would appear to glow, and that was clearly annoying and hardly realistic. Vlahos later said that he spent six months thinking about it, much of it looking out at Hollywood Boulevard.

He came up with a technique that involved a matte which is transparent whenever the blue screen is used but is opaque in other sequences in the film. The blue, green and red parts are separated and then combined in a certain order. It seems that rather than the actors being superimposed on a background, which I'd assumed, it’s the other way round, which sounds mysterious to me (I do love the magic of the “movies” after all).

His Composite color photography patent was applied for in 1959 and the technique was first used in Ben Hur.

A more complicated variation was also patented as Composite photography utilizing sodium vapor illumination.

Both patents were assigned to the Motion Picture Research Council but the article states that this second technique was developed for Disney. Actors were filmed against a white background with sodium lamps which made a yellow glow bounce off the background.

The camera filmed two separate images (or “film stock”) simultaneously. A prism on the camera would cause one film stock to split the yellow light from other colours and send it to a black and white film stock to create a matte.

The other film stock would record in normal colour without any yellow glow. This produced a very clean effect, and was typically used when actors were apparently interacting with cartoon characters as in Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

Vlahos later formed a company, Ultimatte, to develop more techniques.

This is a list of Vlahos’ patents

13 December 2012

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings film series in trade marks

The first of the three Hobbit films, An unexpected journey, opens in the UK today on general release to an eager multitude of fans. It will be followed by The desolation of Smaug in 2013 and There and back again in 2014. All the titles of course to be preceded by “The Hobbit”.

The potential in merchandising is huge, and this is reflected by the sheer volume of trade marks taken out on names and words associated with the book, while others are related purely to The Lord of the Rings.

The money is not being made by the heirs of J.R.R. Tolkien. In 1968, Tolkien sold the film, stage and merchandising rights of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to United Artists for just over £100,000 plus royalties. That company sold the rights on to the Saul Zaentz Company in 1976. Saul Zaentz himself is a film producer and Middle-Earth Enterprises handles requests for licensing.

The Wikipedia article on that company lists some licensees for games and collectables, plus the film rights to New Line Cinema. As the first “Ring” film was only released in 2001 the value in what is in effect a complex brand took a long time coming out.  

I can only trace one registered design, applied for in 2006, and shown below. It is European Design 000482070-0001. Its title is “Clothing, jewellery” but in fact designs work so that it can be used across all product areas.

The Lord of the Rings European Design logo

Trade marks are far more prolific. Saul Zaentz has 180 applications or registrations listed in the European trade marks as found on the official database.

These include the titles of the three Hobbit films in French, German, Spanish and Italian as well as in English, and a few wordings in Dutch. Hence for example EL HOBBIT: UN VIAJE INESPERADO for the first film and LE HOBBIT: HISTOIRE D'UN ALLER ET RETOUR for the third film. For some reason the full title of the second film has not been applied for.

This EU-wide system was only used by the company from 2011 onwards, well after the “Ring” films began to come out. There are a number of British registration, the oldest being HOBBITS,  made in 1961 for knitted articles of clothing (and, curiously, originally in the name of Bear Brand Limited, a Liverpool manufacturer).

The EU marks include obvious wordings like GOLLUM, SARUMAN and GANDALF; also some of the dwarves; and numerous place names such as RIVENDELL, MORIA and GONDOR.

Various product areas are listed for them such as, for ONE RING TO RULE THEM ALL, Classes 14 (jewellery), 16 (includes stationery), 20 (place mats), 25 (clothing) and 28 (toys and games). There are 45 classes in the Nice Classification and it is required that applicants both use them and list within them the goods and services for which they intend to use the mark – this can be fascinating reading ! The registration for SAURON for example includes Class 25 where the only use listed is "Costumes" -- interesting, as surely he's never really seen in the books and films ? 

There’s also THE LORD OF THE RINGS: MIDDLE-EARTH DEFENSE which I gather is a game that can be played on an app.

The trade mark show below was, however, withdrawn and not registered. Perhaps because of conflict with their earlier design registration ?

EU trade mark for Lord of the Rings logo

These EU trade marks can be found on the official database by asking for Zaentz as owner.

 Owners of rights often go to considerable lengths to defend what they consider to be their rights. In 2010 Saul Zaentz opposed the US registration of Mithril in Class 30, which includes jewellery, on the grounds that it was a word from the Tolkien books and that they had already registered it for other classes of products. The opposition was successful.

More controversially, the company has also asked a pub in Southampton, England to change their name from The Hobbit, and a website name incorporating the word “shire” was asked to stop doing so in 2004, although shire is a well known English phrase by itself and also occurs in Hampshire, Devonshire, etc.

14 November 2012

Britain invented colour movies

Britain’s National Media Museum announced a couple of months ago that it has found footage of the world’s first colour film / movie in its collection, which is now on display at the museum.

It used a process invented by Edward Turner. The use of red, green and blue filters in filming produced frames which were then superimposed on each other. The process was known, but any footage was thought to be lost, and it was assumed that it was a failure. Dating from about 1901 or 1902, the footage was in a collection formed by Charles Urban, an American businessman who had settled in London and who had taken over financing Turner’s work when the original backer, Frederick Lee, pulled out.

The collection was donated to the Science Museum in 1937 and was transferred to the National Media Museum a few years ago. The museum’s head of collections, Paul Goodman, is quoted as saying "We believe this will literally rewrite film history. I don't think it is an overstatement. These are the world's first colour moving images."

It had previously been thought that Kinemacolor in about 1909 was the first workable colour film process. This was by another Englishman, George Albert Smith of Brighton, who was also backed by Urban. The patent was numbered GB26671/1906. Smith described himself in it as an “animated picture maker”.

An article in The Guardian tells more about the exciting find. The Turner patent is GB6202/1899, Means for taking and exhibiting cinematographic pictures, and is in the names of both Turner and Lee, since the patent system at the time credited the applicants rather than the inventors (hence a financial backer named in the patent might appear to be an inventor). Below are its main drawings.

Turner and Lee colour film patent drawings

The patent gives Turner’s Hounslow, Middlesex address and describes him as a “gentleman”. The two men also secured an American patent for the invention, US645477. Tragically, Turner died in 1903, when he was only 29 years old. There’s also a short video below giving more information and some footage.


These are just two examples of the many patents in the early history of cinematography.

14 June 2012

Ying EDS and their enhanced depth solution technology

Yesterday's Evening Standard had an article called A TV revolution made in London ? about Ying EDS, a company that offers an "enhanced depth solution" (EDS) to TV and film to increase the viewer's enjoyment.

The immersive feeling is only slightly inferior to 3D systems requiring the use of special glasses, and is a post-production technique rather than requiring special cameras and other equipment when filming. It costs £21,000 per hour for television footage, while 3D for television is more like £70,000 per hour.

The article includes clips of footage to see what it's like. EDS uses conventional 2D video frames and alters them, and -- says the article -- "works on the brain - persuading viewers that they are seeing a deeper picture than they are - rather than creating an optical illusion, circumventing another complaint made about conventional 3D: that it can give viewers a headache."

The article also says "the patented technology they have been developing in London for over a decade could now change the face of TV worldwide."

A patent ? Gosh, that would mean lots of technical details. I had a look, and could not find a published patent application by Ying EDS, which means that unless they used another name that the technology is not in fact published, yet alone patented.

What I did find -- and which can be found by doing a Google search for Ying EDS plus the word "patent", where for me at least the relevant entry was sixth in the hit list -- is the fact that on the 9 May 2012 Ying EDS filed for a British patent for "Improvements in motion pictures", with the reference GB1205141.3.

I wonder how many people finding that entry would understand that this means that the patent application will be published 18 months from that date, with a granted patent to follow if it is thought to be new. Protection in other countries is potentially available by filing abroad within 12 months of the 9 May, who also publish at 18 months from the 9 May.

It is rare for journalists to cite the actual patent when discussing a patented technology. Film and book critics, I notice, do mention the names of the films and books that they review to assist the reader who wants to know more. In this case, of course, an incorrect statement was made.

10 April 2012

Patent for Battleship game

There has been publicity over the new film Battleship, based on the game of that name. Back in 1933 Louis Coffin applied for a patent for the game.

It's the classic game where opponents try to “hit” enemy ships which are marked by pegs on each side of the same vertical board. A simpler way, that is thought to predate the patent, is using pen and paper -- according to a Wikipedia article on the Battleship game, Milton Bradley published a pad and pencil version in 1931, "Broadsides, the Game of Naval Strategy". Coffin in his Game board patent suggested calling it Battleships. Below is reproduced its page of drawings.

Battleship game patent image

09 September 2011

Out of this world: "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" patents

Gus Lopez' Toy design patents site links to 51 US design patents for toys related to the "Star Wars" films. for the look. Design patents is the American term for what the British call registered designs, where look rather than function is what is new.

The applicants seem to have been Lucasfilm (with George Lucas mentioned as inventor) or 20th Century Fox.

One in fact is a utility patent, Multi-track multi-vehicle roller coaster with special effects, from 2005, a ride based on the films.

Another enthusiast has listed Star Trek design patents, which are all, I think, by Paramount Pictures. An example is "Toy spaceship", shown in miniature below.

Toy spaceship 

All this shows the marketing effort that was made to merchandise the vehciles, costumes, etc. shown in the films. Typically a manufacturer would be licensed to pay royalties to the film company for each unit sold of the toy.

The British Library currently has a free exhibition on science fiction, Out of this world: science fiction but not as you know it. It closes on the 25 September, and is a must for all fans of sci-fi.

22 February 2011

Product placement inventions

The UK is about to introduce product placement on its television programmes. The concept is about trade marked products being prominently seen in many programmes in return for payment.

It will be permitted from the 28 February as explained in a notice from Ofcom, the official regulator, which explains the restrictions on it. Here is the logo that will be displayed for three seconds at the start and end of programmes and after advertising breaks.

Product Placement Logo 
When product placement was proposed by the previous government it was pointed out that the UK and Denmark were the only EU countries where it was not permitted, or about to be permitted. The idea is to support television companies with revenue, though it has been suggested that it will only amount to about £150 million, or 5% of television advertising revenue.

The move is controversial to say the least. Simon Hoggart of the Guardian described it as "a form of corruption by which elements of our favourite shows are covertly sold off to the highest bidder without our being told". Here, though, I am looking at some published patent applications with deliciously cynical titles.

There's for example Product placement for the masses, by Accenture, and Implicit product placement leveraging identified user ambitions, by Microsoft.

There's also Philips with its Automatic generation of trailers containing product placements, which says that television is a great way to promote products but that "many people see the commercials as a break for making sandwiches or going to the bathroom". It is to do with trailers being forced on people watching TV programmes on computers.

Many inventions are for ensuring that the user's interests are reflected in the content, as watched on media other than a television set. A computer can monitor what sort of interests a viewer has, such as sports, so that sports-oriented merchandise appears as product placement.

This is a list of some inventions on the subject.

18 February 2011

Batman and design patents

There are six American design patents (registered designs) by DC Comics relating to the Batman movies, applied for between 1989 and 1995. I was interested to see that some are by Anton Furst of London, UK. DC Comics of course created the original character.

Here they are, with the front page shown from Google Patents, and links to the documents. Many do not realise what a rich source of data on toys the designs can be, though admittedly the titles rarely give away what they are based on.

USD311882, "Car or similar vehicle".

Car or similar vehicle design patent 

USD321732, "Aerial toy".

Aerial toy design patent 
USD329321, "Head dress".

Head dress design patent 
USD370884, "Boat".

 Boat design patent

USD375704, "Vehicle".

Vehicle design patent 
USD389111, "Set of rear fins for a vehicle".

Set of rear fins for a vehicle design patent 

There is of course the original Batmobile used in the Batman television series that premiered in 1966. The actual car was the subject of USD205998, by George Barris. He was asked to make a car for the series and bought a 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car from Ford for one dollar. He then spent $30,000, and three weeks with his crew of mechanics, creating the car seen on television. Now that's nostalgia.

Batmobile design patent drawing 

20 April 2009

Pixar's patents for animating hair and fur

I was watching a programme about the hundred best children's movies when it was stated that Monsters, Inc., which dates from 2001, was the first animation which showed hair and fur realistically. It's the one where monsters are frightened by a little girl named Boo.

That movie was by Pixar. Out of curiosity I had a look and found that they have lots of patents for algorithms to manipulate computer-generated imagery (CGI) to produce useful and interesting effects in animation.

A relatively quick look did not show any patents before 2001, but from 2003 Pixar was filing patents for just that. Anyone interested in the technical details of how CGI works will find them a goldmine.

The first to be published was Hair rendering method and apparatus which has this as its main drawing:

Hair rendering patent 

Its initial page discusses the problems of creating realistic effects and then goes on to explain the invention with language such as "The computer program product is on a tangible media that includes code that directs the processor to determine a grid including a plurality of voxels and a plurality of vertices, wherein at least a subset of the voxels bound at least a subset of the hair objects, code that directs the processor to determine a hair density value associated with each of at least a first set of vertices, and code that directs the processor to filter the hair density value associated with each vertex from at least the first set of vertices with a filter to form filtered density values". Whew.

Pixar also has its later Volumetric hair rendering patent, which says "Manually animating each individual hair is typically too time-consuming to be practical. As a result, the motion of hair is often derived from a physics-based simulation. Hair simulations typically represent each hair as a set of masses and spring forces" -- such as gravity or wind. Yet that can look false, as hair does not move in a single mass. There is also the problem of appropriate lighting. The trick is to get them to move realistically in a "collective" fashion without an expensive amount of computing time.

The patent's solution was "volumetric representation [which] determines hair responses to hair to hair collisions and illumination".

The Google Advanced Patent Search database can be used to find more, such as "rendering" as a title word (where patents on creating shadows can be found, for example). Ask for Pixar as the assignee.

27 March 2009

"Flash of genius" film

The other day I noticed an advertisement on TV for a new film, Flash of genius. I thought there was a fleeting glimpse of patent drawings.

It's about Robert Kearns, who in 1964 filed for a patent for the first (at least, successful) Windshield wiper system with intermittent operation -- windshield of course being what the British call a windscreen. It involved a cheap timer. Previously, the wiper moved all the time. He tried to interest the Big Three car makers and they said no, yet began to install them in their cars from 1969.

So he sued.

Wikipedia has an article about his life with more on the litigation. He ended up living opposite the Detroit courthouse.

I've already posted about earlier films/ movies which are about real inventors.