Hollywood Remembers Technology Trailblazer Bob Lambert

Friends and colleagues, including DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, pay tribute to Lambert, who died Sept. 7 at 55.

Bob Lambert, a technical strategist at Disney for 25 years and a guiding force in the industry’s sweeping transiton from film to digital cinema who founded Digital Cinema Initiatives, died suddenly of unnamed causes Sept. 7 at his home in Glendale. He was 55.

Here, colleagues and friends remember the innovative thinking and good will of the influential executive.

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Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO, DreamWorks Animation:

“Bob Lambert was a rare blend of genius and gentility. He had an extraordinary breadth and depth of knowledge and understanding, especially in the vast and ever-changing area of new technology. Yet he was always humble about his expertise and graciously patient when explaining complex matters to those less knowledgeable (i.e., just about everyone). He saw the possibilities of the technological future and guided the rest of us toward it. It is now sad indeed that so many who relied on Bob’s insights must face a future without him.”

Producer Don Hahn, whose films include The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and the upcoming Frankenweenie and High Ground:

“Bob had the talent of being smart and intuitive about what tomorrow was going to be with digital cinema and animation, but he was able to do that as a people person. You get a lot of people in technology who are introverted or talk over someone’s head. Bob had a macro view of the future that he was able to get across on a human level. When he first started talking about digital cinema, it was at a time when it seemed like a pipe dream. But he had the belief that it was do-able and do-able in short order. Plus he had the people skills where he could explain digital to both executives and to filmmakers and what this would mean to them.  He was able to use his charm and huge capacity for putting a number of moving parts together to affect the future of the business. He wasn’t all talk; he was all action. When I think of him, I think of a big-hearted guy who did it for all the right reasons. It wasn’t for personal advancement or financial reward; he did it because he loved movies. He wanted to help the artists tell their stories at a high quality. When you look back at the history of movies, it’s a pretty short list of people who’ve made the kind of impression on the industry Bob did in such a human and technical way.”

David Monk, former European vp, DLP products, TI Europe and current CEO, European Digital Cinema Forum:

"In the mid ’90s, Texas Instruments had released a new generation of (DLP-based) projectors that were revolutionizing large venue conference displays. TI engineers took units to Hollywood to discuss the possibility of using this technology for movie projection.

First impressions were very positive and encouraging but the filmmaking community made many demands for further improvements so that the new projection systems could truly rival the best film images. This required major investments from Texas Instruments with no real guarantees of ultimate success.

It was therefore critical that the objectives were shared by senior executives in the movie industry.

Bob Lambert was one of the earliest supporters of the development work and committed to help the industry to form both a common requirements specification (ultimately Digital Cinema Initiatives) and mechanism that could enable the new equipment to be funded (ultimately Virtual Print Fees). These were two huge challenges amidst an industry with massive sensitivity to anti-competitive actions. Bob recognized that if these issues could be solved, both the cinema industry and cinema patrons would both become the beneficiaries through cost reductions of movies and major improvements in image quality.

Once the technology was proven in the labs and studios it was essential that it could perform in the field in one of the most demanding imaging applications

Bob, together with [Disney] colleague Phil Barlow, helped to find exhibitors that would put the first prototypes into test. They held the view that they would need to find forward-looking exhibitors who would deploy the projectors in the highest profile locations with the biggest screens. That way there would be no 'ah buts' at the end of the trials.

[In Europe,] Bob and Phil selected the first sites in London, Paris, Brussels, Barcelona and Cologne. They chose Toy Story 2 as the opening movie. The rest is D-Cinema history.

Phil could be the fiery character that was never afraid to stand up and explain why they had so much expectation from the new technology. People will recall the stand-up heated debates between Kodak execs and Phil at CineExpo conferences in Amsterdam. Bob on the other hand was always able to show that while they had a passionate belief, they were also listening and learning about the issues and potential problems. His was the voice of calm and diplomacy in a powerful partnership of evangelical enthusiasm. It didn't all happen as quickly as Phil and Bob wanted but 12 years on the transition to digital is nearly complete.  

Bob Lambert knew that if the new technology was to take off it needed to prove itself in the toughest of venues and receive support from the international markets as well as in the US. The informal partnership between Disney and Texas Instruments was unquestionably the engine that proved hugely influential in creating Digital Cinema.  

I think the vision was pretty good and it is a small consolation to me that Bob did see that come of age even if he had so much more to contribute as a relatively young man with the power to bring people together to create change for better cinematic entertainment.”

Wendy Alysworth, senior vp technology at Warner Bros. Technical Operations; executive vp, Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers:

"I met Bob in 1990 when I was working at (Disney’s) Imagineering and Bob was working in the (Disney) Animation division that launched CAPS (Computer Animation Production System).

Through the years we have been in various groups together: ETC, the MPAA tech committee, Digital Cinema Initiatives. Bob was always so calm and collected, and a good person to brainstorm with and work through things—that’s probably what I admired the most about him.

Disney was one of the first companies to try digital in any form, (including) the digital cinema system that had the early TI (Texas Instruments) chip. That really helped when the studios said ‘the level of technology is there that we can do much better for the consumer. … and come up with something that will carry the industry forward for the next 100 years.’ I think Bob and the Disney team brought a lot of information to the table.

I always think of Bob as sunshine. …. He was always giving off this good, sunny aura. He was a calm, methodical moderator in a room. If there were disparate opinions, he would get everyone to come together."

Jim Whittlesey, director of technology at Digital Cinema Initiatives (2004-2005) and current senior vp, operations and technology, Deluxe Digital Cinema:

"Bob was the driving force behind digital cinema. At Disney he got funding to install the original 30 digital cinema prototype (projection systems) in theaters around the world. These installations proved to the world that the core technology necessary for a digital cinema rollout was ready for prime time. Bob was instrumental in creating Digital Cinema Initiatives (the Hollywood studio consortium that created the digital cinema technical guidelines, or specification, that became standard) and understood the value in having studio agreement on a digital cinema specification in moving digital cinema rollout forward.

An the DCI Tech meetings, it was sometimes like herding cats, many strong and often opposing view points. Bob was a true consensus builder. Bob was well respected by everyone in the tech committee. He had a special skill to move the group to a common solution while allowing those with opposing view feeling like they were listened to.

The industry has lost a true visionary, an icon. For those of us who were so very fortunate to have worked with Bob, we lost a true friend and a mentor. We will miss him very much.”