Legends Behind the Lens: Larry Thorpe

The technological shepherd of high-definition, UHD, and HDR has redefined image quality in live sports television

The story of American sports television is engrained in the history of this nation, rising on the achievements of countless incredible men and women who never once appeared on our screens. During this pause in live sports, SVG is proud to present a celebration of this great industry. Legends Behind the Lens is a look at how we got here seen through the people who willed it to be. Each weekday, we will share with you the story of a person whose impact on the sports-television industry is indelible.

Legends Behind the Lens is presented in association with the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame and the SVG Sports Broadcasting Fund. In these trying times — with so many video-production professionals out of work — we hope that you will consider (if you are able) donating to the Sports Broadcasting Fund. Do so by visiting sportsbroadcastfund.org.

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When Larry Thorpe was inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame during its inaugural ceremony in 2007 he was already a legend of the industry (after all, you don’t get in with the likes of Roone Arledge without having built up some solid street credibility). And since then he has only continued to add to his resume, most notably with his work at Canon USA as senior fellow where he has guided Canon’s efforts with respect to next-generation formats like UHD and HDR.

A constant innovator, Thorpe has worked his magic across continents, companies, and industries, leaving an indelible trail of success throughout the broadcast world.

Thorpe earned an early reputation for innovation as the project manager on the world’s first automated color studio camera, then revolutionized imaging with the charge-coupled device (CCD) before turning his attention to the HD technology that he made a worldwide, multi-industry phenomenon. His decades of devotion have changed the way the world watches television.

“Larry is one of the most innovative, high-energy, dedicated people you can imagine,” says Charles Steinberg, retired President of Sony Broadcast and Professional Products. “He is full of energy, full of ideas, constantly thinking of new ways to do things.”

“Larry is truly a living legend behind the lens,” says Scott Antaya, VP and GM of Canon’s Imaging Solution Group. “His contributions to the advancement of broadcast, HD and 4K imaging and technology have forever changed the way video content is produced. It is an honor and a privilege to work with Larry. Larry’s professional accolades are only surpassed by his gentle demeanor, good-hearted nature, and great sense of humor. Larry has accomplished so much in his illustrious career and will continue to make contributions for more years to come. Canon U.S.A. and the entire imaging community is grateful for Larry’s expertise and guidance.”

After a run with the BBC, Thorpe began imparting his vision at RCA in the 1960s, where he was the project manager for the TK-47 color camera. Introduced in 1979 as the first automatic color studio camera, the TK-47 used a computer to complete all of the major setup functions, giving back to engineers the hours they once spent tediously tweaking equipment.

With 10 patents already to his name, Thorpe moved in 1982 to Sony, where he persuaded executives to enter the studio-camera business and launched it with the BVP-360. More important to the industry than the camera, however, was the CCD imager inside it.

“CCD allowed more-reliable, more-compact cameras and higher-performance cameras that allow the up-close-and personal sports production that people grew to love,” Steinberg said. “If it weren’t for that charge-coupled technology, you couldn’t build small, light, compact high-performance cameras.”

“He’s been the pioneer, the spearhead, the evangelist for hi-def TV. He was selling people on how it would change the whole reaction that people would have to television.” – former Sony president Charles Steinberg

Of all his accomplishments, Thorpe is most acclaimed for being a major proponent of high-definition television, pioneering HDTV market development, and almost singlehandedly bringing the technology to life.

“He’s been the pioneer, the spearhead, the evangelist for hi-def TV,” Steinberg says. “He was selling people on how it would change the whole reaction that people would have to television. Early on, it was difficult, but he can’t do things on a half-baked basis.”

Says Hugo Gaggioni, Chief Technology Officer of Sony’s Broadcast and Production Systems Division, “He’s a consummate engineer. He tries to impart that vision and charisma to everybody that he works with.”

As early as 1983, Thorpe represented Sony before the ATSC and the SMPTE working group on high-definition. He introduced Sony’s first HD camera, the tube-based HDC- 100, not long after and remains infectiously enthusiastic about HD.

Thorpe was particularly proud of his 1992 introduction of the first CCD high-definition camera. “That just bowled everybody over,” he said in 2004. “I never saw such a reaction. We had all sorts of horrors with tubes in HD, but the CCD put all that to bed.”

Thorpe pushed the technology simultaneously toward mainstream production and digital cinema. Working from a technical and a marketing angle, he promoted HD for production applications, traveling the globe to successfully persuade end users to move to the new technology. After a celebrated career with Sony, the accomplished engineer became the consummate lens expert, moving to Canon, where he is now one of the nation’s authorities on optics and lenses.

Thorpe joined Canon U.S.A., Inc. in 2004 as National Marketing Executive for the Broadcast & Communications Division and has voyaged on to have an even greater impact on the history of sports television, delivering Hall of Fame quality work even following his induction to the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 2007. He was promoted to Senior Fellow in 2012 and has continued to grow into a renowned industry expert in the field of video acquisition.

He is a Life Fellow of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) and, in 2015, he received the Charles F. Jenkins Lifetime Achievement Award, honoring an individual whose ongoing contributions have significantly affected the state of television technology and engineering.

Today is continuing to innovate, now leading the industry in its next dramatic steps in image quality: 4K, high-dynamic range, and even 8K. When a transformative moment has faced the sports television industry, Thorpe has always been there to help lead the way.

“He just doesn’t stop learning, pushing himself to know more,” Gaggioni says. “Again, he has taught himself everything that is to be known, and that’s commendable.”

The video in this profile was originally produced in 2007. For more on the life and career of this industry legend, visit their profile at the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.