High definition visionary

Randall Dark filming penguins in 3D

“Because high definition was so real and so vivid, I believed that if you watched a documentary about starving children, it would touch your heart in a way that you would have to react.”

— Randall P. Dark

By Mike Foster

Randall P. Dark (BA ʼ79, Honours), one of the pioneers of high definition television, says he embraced the technology because he believed sharper images had the power to change the world. But it wasn't easy convincing film industry bigwigs of the merits of HD.

"I was laughed at many, many times," says Dark. "After one demonstration of HD to some of the top cinematographers, directors and producers in New York City, I was viciously attacked. They were saying it looked like video, it was horrible, it was never going to happen. I remember one of my staff asking me, 'Randall, how do you feel? They tore you apart.' But I was elated. I said, 'Did you see how passionately vicious they were, how much they hated it? If it touched them that much, we're on to something.'"

Today, Dark is a producer, director, cinematographer, writer and media consultant who has shot some of the most famous personalities in high definition, including Julie Andrews, Willie Nelson, Harry Connick Jr., Lyle Lovett, Sting, Bill Clinton, Leonard Nimoy and Stephen Hawking. He is considered by the television industry to be a visionary guru who has played a key role in advancing the HD medium.

Dark compares the moment he first saw HD in Toronto in 1986 to someone seeing a Model T Ford during the days of horses and carriages.

"My brain fired and I thought this was going to be the future of so many things. I wanted to help bring it to the world and I was blessed enough to be involved in so much of the roll-out," says Dark.

"Because high definition was so real and so vivid — the coluors were perfect, you could see the tiniest detail — I believed that if you had a 65-inch TV in your home and you watched a documentary about starving children, it would touch your heart in a way that you would have to react," says Dark. "I believed it was a technology that would have an impact on people and change their hearts. I honestly believed it would change humanity."

In the mid-1980s, he worked on the CBC's Chasing Rainbows, the first television mini-series to be recorded in HD. From there, he moved to New York City, working out of the Ed Sullivan Theatre, which was sometimes used in those days as a high definition sound stage for MTV's Unplugged series. He got to work with bands like Aerosmith and Crosby, Stills and Nash.

In 1992, he founded HD Vision Inc., an HD production and post-production company in New York and Dallas, Texas.

"I was one of the first in the world to build multi-camera, high-definition production trucks. I got to shoot Victor-Victoria on Broadway with Julie Andrews. I got to shoot Super Bowl XXX. We got to shoot the NBA All-Star game. I was the first to broadcast in high definition a live sporting event to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. where members of the (U.S.) Congress and the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) analyzed the images to determine if high definition was a viable new TV standard for the United States. I ended up doing a lot of the very first events because I was one of the only people in the world to own HD trucks," says Dark.

He later co-founded HD Vision Studios in 2002 in Los Angeles and, in 2007, Randall Dark Productions LP. Over the years, he has been involved in around 2,000 feature films, documentaries, music videos, commercials and corporate presentations.

"My life is so amazing"

One of his latest projects is the film Angels Sing. Released in 2013, it features Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Harry Connick Jr., Connie Britten and Lyle Lovett. As one of the executive producers, he got to watch Nelson and Connick Jr. create a new song, which plays during the film's credits.

"I got to watch these two geniuses at work. My life is so amazing," says Dark. "I have never been star-struck working with celebrities because people are just people. I think what happens is so many big name stars get worshipped and people go 'I'm a big fan' and it gets tiring after a while. I think, because I am an expert in my field I can sit down and say, 'Hey, I know nothing about what you do but do you want to know about high definition?'"

Dark is also known for taking an experimental approach and mixing a variety of digital technologies. In his documentary Seadrift vs The Big Guy (2012), which follows contestants in the 260-mile Texas Water Safari canoe race, he used everything from an Apple iPhone to a 4K camera, which yields a resolution four times higher than standard HD.

"I used 20 different types of camera technology to do that documentary, everything from cutting-edge 4K to high-definition sunglasses to shoot it. I think I used a total of 40 cameras," says Dark.

Another recent project he is especially proud of is Makarios: A Rising Tide (2011), a high definition 30-minute documentary about a pre-school in Tamarindo, an impoverished remote village in the Dominican Republic. The film, which was broadcast twice in April on PBS KLRU in Austin, Texas, follows the efforts of founders of the school to help children break the cycle of poverty through education. Dark directed the film and provided about half the funding through in-kind services and equipment. The idea for the project began when his wife, Kristen Cox, met the school's founder, Sharla Megilligan.

Clearly there is never a dull moment in Dark's life. By way of example, a children's play that he wrote 20 years ago, Tale of Sasquatch, which was published by the Playwrights Guild of Canada, is about to be made into an animated app. In 2009, he co-founded the Macao China International Digital Camera Festival and is currently its artistic director. Meanwhile, he also offers advice to companies and non-profit organizations on how to use technology to grow their businesses as a consultant with J.L. Powers and Associates Ltd.

Randall Dark looks through camera viewfinder.

Randall Dark looks through camera viewfinder as executive producer on set of Closing Escrow (2007), a comedy about real estate.

"I need new challenges"

"Some people work to live and some people live to work. I have never worked a day in my life. I get bored very, very easily. I need new challenges," says Dark.

As for whether his success stems from nature or nurture, Dark believes it is a bit of both. Born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, he moved to Trenton, Ontario and then Germany, where his dad was in the Air Force, stationed at the Ramstein Air Base. One of his three brothers, Shayne Dark, is one of Canada's top sculptors and visual artists.

"I think our genetic pool was such that we were given gifts at birth, but the nurture part is growing up in Europe from the ages of five to nine, and being in environments like the University of Ottawa, where they encourage creativity. I think it makes it easy for someone like me to take huge risks," says Dark.

In the uOttawa theatre program, he had the opportunity to write, direct, design sets and produce, and he says this taught him how to multi-task. While he was at the University, he also worked nights at the Roberts/Smart Centre for troubled adolescents. The experience served as the inspiration for his 60-minute play Crander Mind, a psycho-drama about abused children, which received rave reviews from the Ottawa Citizen, the Ottawa Journal and The Fulcrum while he was in his fourth year at uOttawa.

When he graduated, he maxed out his credit cards and got a bank loan to kick off his own theatre company, Ariel Productions. His play Starboy was a success. Dark credits the launch of his creative career to uOttawa professors James Flannery and James Dugan, both of whom spotted his talent and gave him the space to develop.

Then again, he suggests fate may have played a role in his career path: "With a name like Randall Paris Dark, I couldn't become a football player — I had to go into the arts."

Main photo:
Randall Dark using a 3D camera to film penguins for the film 3 Cities in 3D, which featured images from Gatlinburg, Sevierville and Pigeon Forge, all in Tennessee.

Randall Dark on the job.

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