The Life and Times of Mark Schubin, EIC (Explainer-In-Chief)
"I have been extremely fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time, however, and to have worked with some of the most brilliant and talented people in the TV industry. I’ve also been doing research long enough to become at least somewhat proficient at it, and I do not refer merely to using Internet search engines. My research sometimes takes me to dusty documents in unusual archives. According to a researcher there, I recently became the first person to read some engineering-committee proceedings that the Library of Congress acquired in 1941".
I asked Mark ten questions the answers to which might help millennial media engineers in the early stages of their careers in Media & Entertainment Production and Distribution (MEPD). As always, Mark was happy to oblige.
Rick Singer: What kind of career did you envision after you graduated with a degree in chemical engineering?
Mark Schubin: Before I graduated, I anticipated a career in chemical engineering. By the time I graduated, however, I was fed up with it. I became editor and publisher of a weekly newspaper. After I ran the newspaper into the ground, I needed a job. Someone suggested Paul Klein, who came up with the concept of video on demand in 1969. So I sought employment with his company, Computer Television, and eventually got it. Before I got there, the company had two employees: a president and an executive vice president. So, as third employee, I became assistant vice president, with the duties of answering the phone and typing letters. Then they got bought by a larger company and needed an engineer. As I knew more engineering than the other two employees, I became director of operations and engineering and figured I’d better learn about television.”
RS: Have you had any mentors? Who were they and how did they help you in your career?
MS: Not as such. I had some inspirations. Paul Klein inspired me about the business of television. Joe Roizen inspired me about the history of television. John Goberman inspired me about television production and distribution.
RS: What attracted you production and transmission of live performances at Lincoln Center?
MS: While I was at Computer Television, John Goberman, Lincoln Center’s director of media development, came to ask about pay-TV (we were the preeminent pay-TV company at the time). Paul Klein sent him to me, and I hypothesized an inexpensive pay-TV system for him. After I left Computer Television, Goberman asked me to build it, and I did, and he liked it. So he asked me, “What do you know about low-light-level television?” I said, “Nothing.” He said, “Oh. Are you willing to learn?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Okay, you’re now our consultant on low-light-level television.” And I learned.
RS: What was the greatest technical challenge you’ve faced and how did you deal with it?
MS: It’s hard to say, because it depends on your definition of “challenge.” At Computer Television, when our high-end pay-TV system wasn’t ready in time, I devised a low-end version. At Lincoln Center, when we needed to distribute stereo sound by satellite, and no one could do it, I acquired the necessary equipment and got Western Union to write a tariff for it. At The News Hour, when I screwed up, I shifted large chunks of television transmission facilities on the east coast so I could fix my error (and I did). At the Metropolitan Opera, the Live in HD cinemacasts have been a continuing challenge, with global transmission to movie theaters with multi-language subtitles.
RS: How did you keep current on developments before the internet? Did you learn from books and technical journals?
MS: Yes. I think I subscribed to every trade publication that existed. I also religiously attended the meetings of AES, IEEE BTS and CES, SBE, SCTE, SID, and SMPTE. I went to NAB, CES, IEEE BTS and CES symposiums, and IBC.
RS: What has been the most fun in broadcast and film production over your career?
MS: The Sesame Street special “Don’t Eat the Pictures,” shot at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the Muppets.
RS: What do you think of film and television “school”, STEM academics compared with internship and apprenticeships?
MS: There’s certain basic knowledge that’s needed. It would depend on the school and the internships/apprenticeships. You’re not going to learn much from a school using tube cameras and videotape these days, nor will you learn much as someone who just gets coffee and sandwiches. I’ve always thought summer relief as a network technician is a good idea.
RS: What suggestions do you have for students dreaming of fame and fortune in media engineer?
MS: Go rob a bank. You get fortune right away, and, when you’re caught or killed, you’ll have some measure of fame. If you want to be a media engineer, that should be because you want to be a media engineer.
RS: How can production and distributions engineers “future” proof their career as AI takes over creative engineering tasking in the decades ahead?
MS: There’s no such thing as future proofing; there’s only adaptation. Be flexible, keep an open mind, and never stop learning from everyone.
The next generation of millennial engineers media & entertainment production and distribution (MEPD) media engineers are entering the workforce in a world we couldn't have imagined when we were their age. They are the first digital natives, the first fully internetworked generation. Boomers and Gen-Xers are digital immigrants. It's hard to know what it's like starting out in life today. The world we experienced at their age are but fading memories and old photos of a primitive media society.
Regarding achieving fame and fortune in MEPD, Mark had this advice, which I hope he didn't learn the hard way.
[If you want to get rich and famous?] Go rob a bank. You get fortune right away, and, when you’re caught or killed, you’ll have some measure of fame. If you want to be a media engineer, that should be because you want to be a media engineer.
Mark's just one of many accomplished media systems engineers who have collected nuggets of wisdom about media production engineers to share with digital natives. In future blog posts, I will ask similar questions of other accomplished media engineers. None of us has all the answers. But collectively the combined macro and micro observations they share covers everything under the sun or lighting instruments. There's a lot that lies within the visual and aural gamut of media engineering work that hasn't changed and never will.
I've spoken with several other accomplished film and television engineers who are willing to dispense relevant advice for millenials. Stay tuned for more articles in thie series.
For the historians among you, here's a slide show of a self-interview written by Mark published in a 1986 issue of Videography Magazine.
You can find Mark Schubin at the Schubin Cafe where he serves as the media and entertainment as the original broadcast engineering barista. The Schubin Cafe is where perceptual neuroscience and art and technology of media engineering is blended to taste and served piping hot.
An introduction to Mark Schubin appears here: "Over The Airia Broadcaster = The Life and Times of Mark Schubin, EIC (Explainer-In-Chief) Part I."