Photo by Pamela Gentile
|May 7, 2013 George Gund III Day
at the SF International Film Festival
Chairman, Board of Directors
This year the San Francisco Film Society will be honoring Ray Dolby with the George Gund Award at the Film Society Awards Night.
Ray Dolby, founder and director emeritus of Dolby Laboratories, was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1933. He worked on various audio and instrumentation projects at Ampex Corporation, where he was mainly responsible for the development of the electronic aspects of the Ampex videotape recording system. After receiving his PhD in physics from Cambridge, Dolby took up a two-year appointment as a United Nations advisor in India, and then returned to England in 1965 to establish Dolby Laboratories in London. In 1976, he moved to San Francisco, where his company established further offices, laboratories and manufacturing facilities. Dolby’s pioneering work in noise reduction and later in surround sound has earned extensive recognition worldwide. He holds more than 50 U.S. patents, and has received many accolades for his work, among them an Academy Award for Scientific or Technical achievement and an Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
In 1978, Variety critic Charles Schreger weighed the decade’s epochal advances in film sound against cinema’s very first audio revolution, the advent of the talkie: “Perhaps we are entering a period in film history that will someday be labeled the Second Coming of Sound.” Although he would likely be the first person to downplay such messianic language, there can be no doubt that Ray Dolby—and the company that bears his name—are the foundational figures of this second sonic era. From the mechanical wail of the Star Destroyer in George Lucas’s original Star Wars to the outlandish arrangements of Ken Russell’s Lisztomania, the name Dolby and its iconic double-D insignia came to be synonymous—justifiably—with a fuller, richer, and more vivid cinematic world.
From the outset, Ray Dolby’s spirit of innovation has been linked to the moving image. It was as a film projectionist at Sequoia High School that the precocious teenager was first recruited by Ampex’s Alexander Poniatoff, who in the 1950s put Dolby to work on the company’s nascent video tape technologies. While co-developing Ampex’s seminal quadruplex video format—the first commercially viable video tape recorder—Dolby began to consider the potential of audio noise reduction in analog tape systems. Long sought after by recording engineers, no viable method had yet been invented to ameliorate the characteristic high-frequency “hiss” of magnetic tape formats. During a post-doctoral U.N. posting as a technical advisor in India, Ray Dolby hit upon the solution—one that would come to be known as Dolby NR. Soon after, he founded Dolby Laboratories to produce and market the first commercial noise reduction systems, largely aimed at recording studios. Products for the home market followed, and a true sound revolution was underway.
As Dolby NR became a nearly ubiquitous feature in the home audio realm—mix-tape aficionados the world over will recall with fondness the Dolby imprimatur on their cassettes and high fidelity decks—the goal of improving cinematic sound gained increasing currency in the film industry. In part, this was a result of Ray Dolby’s own technology—with the explosive growth in television and home audio in the 1960s, theatrical attendance suffered as audiences enjoyed better and better audiovisual quality at home. Panicked studios were desperate to improve the theatrical experience, where lax exhibitor standards resulted in unreliable and shoddy sound reproduction. Enter Ray Dolby. He posed the following question to Ioan Allen, his newly hired lieutenant at Dolby Laboratories in London: “Why are film soundtracks so bad?” Tasked with identifying the pitfalls of decades-old methodologies in film sound, Allen and the Dolby team began a comprehensive overhaul of existing mastering techniques. The result was Dolby Stereo, which for the first time brought noise reduction and multichannel audio to the standard optical soundtrack.
The arrival of Dolby Stereo and its relative ease of distribution through 35mm (and later 70mm) release prints heralded a sea change in sound acquisition and design. The precision, richness and increased dynamic range made possible by the Dolby process gave rise to entirely new soundscapes, taking many different forms—from the multilayered dialogues of Robert Altman’s crowded masterpiece Nashville to Walter Murch’s signature roving helicopter effects in Apocalypse Now. Before long, an entire ecosystem of sonic innovation formed in the environs of Dolby’s San Francisco headquarters, as a vanguard of sound engineers and designers—including Murch, Ben Burtt, Alan Splet and many others—explored the expressive potential of Dolby Stereo. This fusion of art and science was showcased in blockbusters like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, making Dolby exhibition the new standard and forever altering the moviegoing experience. Theatrical sound had officially gone from afterthought to selling point.
More than three decades after this transformation, Ray Dolby and his eponymous company have successfully navigated yet another audio revolution—the transition from analog to digital. Dolby’s prescient entrée into digital audio compression culminated in AC-3 (Dolby Digital), still the premier audio encoding format for both DVD and Blu-Ray discs. With the possible demise of optical film releases—and their attendant printed audio tracks—on the horizon, Dolby Laboratories is poised to deliver the ultimate digital surround sound experience through their latest creation, Dolby Atmos. This immersive technology employs a “hemispherical” speaker array and promises a whole new dimension in cinema sound, offering unprecedented control to filmmakers and sound designers.
At the dawn of the Dolby era, director Michael Cimino remarked that “Dolby gives you the ability to create a density of detail of sound—a richness so you can demolish the wall separating the viewer from the film.” Among the many legacies of Ray Dolby is a continual striving for this more visceral kind of cinema, an endeavor carried on by his many collaborators at the company he founded. It is a beautiful thing to behold—and of course, to hear.
— Paul Meyers
|George Gund III was an avid film lover and distinguished philanthropist, and his unwavering support of the San Francisco Film Society spanned more than four decades. He led SFFS and its annual San Francisco International Film Festival into a period of unprecedented growth and success, resulting in a robust year-round cultural organization that now reaches more cinema enthusiasts and supports more filmmakers than any other time in its history. Created in 2011, the George Gund III Award pays homage to Gund for the more than 40 years of service to the organization and will be given periodically to a member of the film community in recognition of their distinguished service to cinema as an art form.|
George Gund – Good to All, True to Himself
© Pamela Gentile
George Gund was everywhere, or on his way to everywhere, with two bags in each hand – to a film festival with a hockey rink nearby, where a restaurant famed for its wines was on a river where the fishing was great.
George seemed a paradox, an inspiration who didn’t talk much. A restless traveler who sat through long East European films, sometimes twice, he played the rough game of hockey and collected delicate works of Japanese art. A wealthy man whose attire ranged between casual and homeless, he lived at 30,000 feet, yet his feet seemed to be on the ground. All kinds of people who didn’t like each other liked him.
The eyebrows defied logic. “I have to admit my first interest was his eyebrows. I just thought they were the coolest thing,” said Iara Lee, George’s wife of the last 20 years, “and I was endeared by his soft spoken and eccentric personality.”
San Francisco attracts eccentrics. “He arrived on a moped with a big orange triangle on the back of his windbreaker,” filmmaker Errol Morris recalled. “My wife thought he was a delivery boy. The eyebrows should have been a giveaway. I have never seen a delivery boy with eyebrows like that.”
© Pamela Gentile
As comfortable on his scooter as he was on his plane or on skates, “he described himself as being like a shark,” said his son, George “Crunchy” Gund IV, “he needed to keep moving. He didn’t so much go to sleep as to shut down briefly – sometimes in a movie theater, sometimes in a business meeting, occasionally in his room in bed.”
“I can remember trying to reach the free soft drinks on the table at the film festival office at the Palace of Fine Arts – I was three feet tall when he started taking me to film festivals,” Crunchy recalled.
In cinemas or on skates, the former Marine was no drill sergeant. “My father taught by example,” Crunchy recalled.
And that was George. If he did something, you knew he believed in it. If he believed in something, he would help the people who made it happen, whether it was cowboy poets or US hockey players. George didn’t make speeches about what he did or where he went. He just went. And he loved company.
“His philanthropy was so tied to what he really cared about that it almost didn’t look like it,” said George’s niece, Catherine.
“George was a force,” said his sister Aggie, who was a year younger. “He was a boy who wanted to do things differently from the way that my father wanted or from the way that it was prescribed.”
A case in point: “He was climbing up the wall of the house of Susan Metzger – Daryl Hannah’s mother – in Shaker Heights, with the aid of a porch or something, and her father came out with a shotgun, and called Dad, and then called the police, and George was sent to jail for supposedly trying to look in on his daughter,” Aggie recalled, assuming that the amiable George might have ended up befriending his jailers. “George just wanted to see her. He always thought that what he wanted to do was what he should do.”
“He was not graceful, but he was sure and right out there,” Aggie explained. “He liked to ride, and if he was riding out in Nevada, he would ride along a stream, so he could just throw his line in and catch a fish while he was meandering along. He was always up in the face of whatever he was doing, whether it was skiing or hockey or hiking.”
Or fishing. Outside Elko, Nevada, Toni Schutte remembers taking George to places in the creek on her parents’ ranch where trout gathered. “I was there, with my worms, a willow for a rod, and a bolt for a sinker, and there he was with his fly rods. He kept trying to teach me, and I would just get the line in the willows. He would untangle it, and show me how it was done. And I would get it stuck back in the willows. He was so patient.”
And determined. “George invariably got what he wanted, and he had enough determination to figure out how to do it,” his brother Gordon said. “And if you had a different view of what was the right thing to do, you’d better find out which way he wanted to go, because if he felt that strongly about something, that was going to drive him.”
George wanted a hockey team. Gordon, a venture capitalist, was his partner, first with the Cleveland Barons, then with the Minnesota North Stars and later with the San Jose Sharks. “I kept telling him that it wasn’t a business, and he said, “Well, you should take a part of it anyway. Put a toe in the water,’” Gordon remembered.
“I told him afterward, ‘George, you didn’t tell me there were alligators in that water.’”
Hockey overlapped with films from Eastern Europe, home to great skaters.
Before that, George’s cinephilia was nurtured “at the Toho Rio cinema at Union and Fillmore,” said his ex-wife Theo. “We were the only westerners there in the Japanese crowd on Friday nights, who wondered who we were, and why we were there.”
George supported the Cleveland Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival. Friends credit him with saving the San Francisco Film Festival when funds ran out. “A group of us raised the money to try to keep it going, but George was the one who signed his name to the bank loan,” said Tom Luddy.
“For years, he was the major benefactor of the Pacific Film Archive,” recalled Edith Kramer, the former director. “Thanks to George, we got our first film vault. East European films that George bought on his travels filled that archive. His favorite, George said, was Frantisek Vlacil’s 1967 medieval Slovak epic, Marketa Lazarova, which he’d acquired for US distribution.
George’s taste for directors with unpronounceable names emboldened festival programmers, said Peter Scarlet, former SFIFF program director. “It’s not that George reached into his pocket for every screening. But you knew that if you went out on a limb, there wasn’t going to be flack like, ‘how come it’s not with Julia Roberts’” he recalled.
© Pamela Gentile
Scarlet recalled a flight on George’s plane to the Rimini Film Festival in Italy. “We stopped in Frobisher Bay (Iqaluit). It was like a scene from Nanook of the North, with an igloo and a husky on a chain, barking ferociously. Somehow, the husky got George’s scent – George must have flown in there once every week – and he began wagging his tail, because it was this guy who stepped out of the sky fairly regularly.”
Between Frobisher Bay and Reykjavik, Scarlet recalled, “I got my courage up after a few beers, and asked him why he was so committed to bringing East European and Soviet films to a broader audience.”
“The first four times, I didn’t understand what he was saying. The problem grew more severe, when on the fifth iteration, I understood what he said. Because then, when I understood, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to cry, because what he said was, mumbling apart, ‘because it occurred to me that people there have trouble expressing themselves.’”
“He’d made a connection that I would best describe as poetic. He summed it all up.”
“He had the eye of an artist, as well as the heart of a poet.”
His voice still defied characterization. “I sat next to him at a couple of political events – Democratic events. George was hard to understand,” said the director Philip Kaufman. “You thought your hearing was leaving you. George had that way of mumbling – yet when you interpreted the mumbles, you learned how coherent he actually was, sort of disguised as incoherency. You always had to get closer and closer to George to understand what he was talking about. It was something that needed decoding. I got what I could out of George, but there was a lot that I missed.”
George got used to being unheard and unrecognized. “He was always the most important guy in the room, and nobody ever knew it,” said hockey buddy Tom Bernard of Sony Classics.
© Pamela Gentile
Jeannette Etheredge, owner of Tosca, understood George (George tended bar in a starched white jacket on SFIFF’s closing night before cooking breakfast for the staff), whether he spoke or said nothing. She remembered walking with George as the lights went off after the Sharks’ first season opener — in the Cow Palace, since the San Jose arena wasn’t ready. A security guard stopped them. “He looked at us and yelled, ‘what are you people doing here – you’re not supposed to be here. The arena is closed.’”
“I kept nudging George and saying, ‘tell them who you are.’ He didn’t say anything, he just stood there.” On a table near the guard, Jeannette spotted the evening’s program, with a photo of the team owner. “I said, ‘take a look at that program. Take a look at that photo. You see the eyebrows?’ It took just a second, and they were apologetic. But they were going to arrest us.”
One of the oddest missions that George undertook involved sending Tom Luddy to Bulgaria. “One day he showed up at the Pacific Film Archive. He said, “this is my friend, Christo Drumov. He’s the head of the Bulgarian cinema Association. He’s been visiting me at my ranch in Elko.’”
The guest invited Tom to Bulgaria.
“’But there’s one thing,’ George added. ‘He has a friend who’s in the Ministry of Agriculture. He would like to have some bull sperm from my bulls, and would like you to carry it on the flight to Bulgaria.’”
“Only George Gund would ask you to carry bull sperm to Bulgaria, as a gift. I think this Bulgarian had dreams that if he improved the life of Bulgaria with this bull sperm, that the government might give him a Mercedes,’” Tom said.
“This was 1973 or 1974. As I was leaving, they handed me a big lead container with dry ice – it felt like I was carrying some uranium. There weren’t anything like the security measures of today at the airports. But somebody took me aside and said, ‘what is this?’”
“I said what it was, and they said, ‘you’re not allowed to take an agricultural treasure from America to a communist country.’ They seized it from me, but I had no way to communicate that to Bulgaria. I got on the plane, and I was greeted in Bulgaria. But when he realized that I didn’t have it with me, he got rather cold and turned me over to another person. I was a second-class citizen in Bulgaria.”
George Gund achieved many things in his life. But he never became Bulgaria’s Louis Pasteur.
George did get attention in Moscow, where he was permitted to land his plane – a rare privilege in Soviet times. Did a lot of North Stars jerseys go to the kids of officials?
Philip Kaufman was in Moscow with George when The Unbearable Lightness of Being showed in a program devoted to Sex in Cinema that drew huge crowds.
© Pamela Gentile
“George was there for the film, and partly, I think, to smuggle some hockey players out in the trunk of his car — put them on an airplane, cover them over with blankets — for whichever team he owned at the time. I remember riding through the streets of Moscow with George driving, kind of maniacally. He always seemed to be turning back to me in the back seat. He didn’t hit anybody, but he whipped through the streets.”
There’s no proof that George ever smuggled hockey players out of Russia, but Tom Luddy remembers being taken aside by an official with a heavy accent.
“I am just curious,” the official continued, “we greet him at airport, and Mr. Gund brought with him more than twenty suitcases.’”
“Apparently, almost all suitcases contain only issues of National Geographic Magazine.”
I said, “Well, George has difficulty sleeping, and he doesn’t sleep much, and he likes to flip through his old National Geographic Magazines – it’s kind of a security thing for him.”
“’Very unusual, very interesting,” the official said.,
“They didn’t know how to deal with an eccentric wealthy man who might do something as strange as that,” Tom said.
In the same plane, George flew the Sun Valley Suns to Minneapolis when the North Stars played, and flew them back to Idaho the same night. He also rolled craps with players in Las Vegas casinos, and never seemed to lose. “He’d always come back with money that he won for everybody,” said Tom Bernard, who played in the annual Bad Boys tournament.
“At Jerry Bruckheimer’s tournament in Las Vegas one year, there was a guy named Billy Huard. He was a tough fighter who had retired, and he was working for Oakley, and he had all these weird sunglasses on. He was trying to get all the players to wear them. He gave a pair to George, and George put them on. He said to George, “If you don’t have those sunglasses on at dinner tonight, I’m gonna cut off one of your eyebrows.” George showed up with the glasses on,” Bernard recalled. There were things that generous George would not give away.
George was determined, but also stoic – an unusual trait in a man who loved to feed people, and loved to eat, said Gordon: “He didn’t really feel pain. He didn’t feel cold, or even heat. He was impervious to it, or he mentally overcame it.”
George accepted Iara’s travel on the 2010 Gaza flotilla, where eight people died when the Israelis raided it. “GG’s approach is the zen style. If someone hits him on the right cheek, he would give you the left cheek and not have any of that affect his equanimity. His approach was ‘make no harm, love all and don’t hate anyone, not even wrongdoers,’” Iara wrote from Cairo.
Over decades, George collected zen art. He owned master Hakuin’s painting of one hand clapping.
“George was a sensory person. He was not an expressive person,” said the art dealer Leighton Longhi. “He was very shy. He was the one who felt things. It was visceral. He loved what a brush could do to a piece of paper.”
“Most things he did he could feel, but to put it into words was an issue with him, depending on whom he was with,” Longhi said. “If you ask me, George was a zen koan.”
“People saw him as someone indecipherable, but he was the easiest person to understand,” Longhi explained. “He led life as he felt it.”
© Pamela Gentile
Cinema was part of that harmony, in the best and darkest of times. “When we were kids, we would go to the movies. We would see the same movie twice in a row,” Crunchy Gund recalled. “Sometimes he would go there to rest. Sometimes he would go to escape. The night he was diagnosed with cancer, we saw Colombiana, just to clear our minds a little bit. That was in Rochester, Minnesota – he was at the Mayo Clinic when we found out.”
George’s voice, saying “howdy,” is still on his answering machine. “Who couldn’t love him?” asked Aggie Gund.
Looking back, Tom Luddy said what many felt: “
“George was a unique guy, like Dostoyevsky’s Prince Mishkin. Pure and innocent, I sometimes thought he was too good for this world.”
— David D’Arcy