The Simple Grace of Randall Dark

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Tue, 09/10/2019 - 15:45 -- Nick Dager

Randall Dark is a pioneer of making movies in large format digital video.Randall Dark is a pioneer of making movies in large format digital video. Still developing projects today, he was arguably the industry’s most passionate advocate in the effort to convert the television industry to high definition. Since working on the world’s first HDTV production in the ‘80s – the CBC mini-series Chasing Rainbows – he has made countless feature films and documentaries that explore both the wonders of the world around us and the complexities and humanity within all of us. Recently Randall learned that he has Alzheimer’s disease. With his wife Kristen’s support, he is fighting the disease with all the creativity and humor and simple grace that those of us who are blessed to call him friend know so well.

While the disease had had its impact, it has barely slowed Randall down. His latest feature film is When We Last Spoke. The movie has already played in select theatres throughout the country and is due to be released on the Hallmark Channel later this year.

In the very early days hearing Randall speak about HD made it very easy to get caught up in his passion for the subject. Passion is another word that people often use when they speak of Randall. He’s a very charismatic man who has always had the rare ability to combine a genuine geek’s love of technology with the soul of a poet.

Born and raised in Canada, he graduated from the University of Ottawa with a degree in theatre, perhaps his first and most lasting passion. He has written, produced and directed many plays that have been performed around the country. His most successful children’s play, Tale of Sasquatch, has been repurposed as both a children’s book and an E-book.

He has said often that seeing high definition television for the first time changed him in a very powerful way. He once told an interviewer “Because high definition was so real and so vivid – the colors were so perfect and you could see the tiniest details – I believed that if you had a 65-inch TV and you watched a documentary about starving children it would touch your heart in a way that you would have to react. I believed it was a technology that would have an impact on people and touch their hearts. I believed that it would change humanity.”

He has spent his career making movies and programs in HD all with the goal of having an impact on humanity.

Although it took the Federal Communications Commission more than a decade after Chasing Rainbows to approve an HD broadcasting standard for the United States, a handful of pioneers began producing exclusively in the new wide screen format despite the lack of standards.

His play Tale of Sasquatch has been repurposed as an eBook for children.In the ‘80s I was already writing about film and television business and technology and it was impossible not to meet Randall, although I can’t remember where we actually met; he seemed to be at every event promoting HDTV and was producing his fair share of high definition footage, which was then in short supply. The small HD global production community was infused with an us-against-the-world spirit.

One of Randall’s key early competitors was Barry Rebo who ran one of the first HD studios in New York, although Rebo says he always thought of Randall more as a friend than as a competitor.

“I first met Randall when he was living and working in Toronto with John Galt,” Rebo recalls. “They were shooting the Canadian HD mini-series [Chasing Rainbows]. The entire Rebo crew flew up there to see how that was going before we started to shoot our Robbie Benson feature. Must have been in the spring of 1986 or so. When he moved to New York, that’s when I’d guess one could say we became competitors. That was before his Texas venture. When that kicked in we were bidding on much of the same work though Rebo HD Studio was always more long-form centric than HD Vision was, as I recall.”

Once the FCC made its ruling approving a U.S. HD standard, the competition picked up as did the demand for consumer HD televisions, which manufacturers like Sony and Panasonic were heavily promoting. Randall shot more than his fair share of the promotional video for those sales.

Larry Thorpe was a Sony executive in those days, leading that company’s HD effort.

“I first met Randall Dark back in 1987 in his native Canada,” says Thorpe. “He was one of the legendary team who were working with the CBC production team on their historic first mini-series entirely originated in HDTV. I was with Sony and we were eager to hear all of the experiences of the production team who were using the photoconductive pickup tube-based HDC-100 cameras and large one-inch analog HD video recorders.”

Once the Chasing Rainbows shoot concluded, Thorpe remembers that, “Randall and his partners built the first HDTV mobile production truck and became involved in many of the pioneering HDTV telecasts. He did some of the early sports productions in HDTV including HD coverage of a Super Bowl.

Randall and his partners built the first HDTV mobile production truck and became involved in many of the pioneering HDTV telecasts. He did some of the early sports productions in HDTV including HD coverage of a Super Bowl.“During those early years I saw quite a bit of Randall as my own evangelizing of HDTV for Sony had me joining him at many HDTV conferences and panels,” Thorpe continues. “I was always greatly impressed by his unwavering enthusiasm and passion for HDTV and his steadfast belief that it had a huge future. Nobody could make a more compelling case for what HDTV would offer to movie production and to international television program origination and exchange. He faced many obstacles not the least being the inordinately high cost of HDTV production equipment, however, Randall never wavered.”

To get a sense of just how prominent Randall was in those days, consider this: in the 1980s Maxell had an advertising campaign to make the case that their audiotape was every bit as good as live sound. In one of the commercials, a very cool-looking guy with long hair, dark glasses and a leather jacket is blown across a room by the sound coming from his stereo speakers. In the ‘90s, Maxell recreated the ad, making Randall the man sitting in the chair next to a stack of HD tapes.

Many of Randall’s documentaries have focused on nature and wildlife and Peter Fannon, then a Panasonic executive, said, “Randall was an absolute fixture at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Festival,” which was founded in 1991. Randall premiered Texas Wild and many of his other documentaries there and was also a frequent speaker.

“His film Texas Wild was one of the first big HD movies,” said Fannon, adding that for years Panasonic and most of its competitors used footage from that documentary to show the advantages of HD to consumers looking to purchase a new television. “Texas Wild was one of the common threads,” of the early days of HDTV, said Fannon.

The Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival has evolved into Jackson Wild, a non-profit group dedicated to preserving the environment.  Another longtime friend of Randall is documentary filmmaker Lisa Samford, now Jackson Wild’s executive director. She says, "Randall is the consummate visionary: an early adapter, an enthusiastic risk taker, and – most of all – a deeply inspired and creative spirit. He has always leaned in to look toward the future, and has encouraged everyone around him to join in on that adventure." 

n the ‘90s, Maxell recreated one of its most famous ad campaigns and made Randall Dark the man sitting in the chair next to a stack of HD tapes.For many of his most recent projects, Randall has served as executive producer or producer, although he has never been a hands-off film executive.

Independent filmmaker Howard Lukk, who has worked with Randall on many projects over the years, most recently the documentary trailer that celebrated the one-hundredth anniversary of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, says that being hands-on is one of the many qualities that sets Randall apart. “The reason why I love Randall so much,” he says, “is that I rarely see a producer get his hands dirty.” Lukk says on set Randall always pitches in when it’s time to move some equipment, or do any of the other countless tedious things that go on behind the scenes.

Lukk, who is also a partner in the Burbank post house Nitrate, is quick to add that he doesn’t mean to suggest that Randall isn’t a strong leader on a production. “Randall always stands his ground, but never in a nasty way,” says Lukk, adding that being a nice guy is another rare quality in a producer.

In 1993, Randall and his partners started HD Vision in Dallas. In 2002, he moved his production business to Los Angeles but finally settled near Austin, Texas in 2007, where he remains today. And although she remains involved in all of Randall’s ventures, Kristen Cox today is the Public Information Officer for the Travis County Sheriff’s Office.

While in Dallas, Randall and Kristen were introduced to a man named Fred Miller through Kristen’s alma mater, Baylor University. Miller was the producer of a program called Texas Entertainment News.

“In 1999 Randall, Kristen and I made an HD video called Significant Journey, a 35-minute fundraiser for Baylor University,” remembers Miller. “It was my first HD experience.”

The film proved to be a success. “With Randall and Kristen’s contacts we were able to showcase the film in concert venues in 14 cities using Texas Instruments projectors,” says Miller. “Texas Instruments built a very large 16x9 ratio screen for us to use and the effort raised over $10 million for Baylor scholarship funds.”

Working with producer Fred Miller, Randall and Kristen made the Christmas movie Angels Sing. Randall bonded with star Willie Nelson. Says Miller, Randall makes everyone feel good.”Miller says that after that, “Randall and I would meet weekly and discuss ideas. One of them was Angels Sing.”

The film stars Harry Connick Jr., Connie Britton, Lyle Lovett, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson. It tells the story of Michael Walker who, as a child wished every day could be Christmas. That is, until a tragic accident crushed his holiday spirit. Thirty years later, Michael still can't muster any joy for the holidays, despite encouragement from his playful wife and well-intentioned parents. But when his young son faces a tragedy, Michael needs to make amends with his past. A mysterious man named Nick gives Michael a gift and instills in him the courage to find the joy that he lost. The film has become a holiday favorite on the Hallmark Channel and plays every Christmas season.

Miller says, “Randall secured 50 percent of the budget from his friends. He was the best executive producer and also did outstanding behind the scenes work. All of his behind-the-scenes work is on YouTube under the heading Angels Sing interviews. He and Willie Nelson bonded on the film. Randall makes everyone feel good.”

That success led to the production of their latest film, When Last We Spoke, which stars Corbin Bernsen, Melissa Gilbert, Chandler Head, Darby Camp and Oscar winner Cloris Leachman. Once again Randall shot all the behind-the-scenes footage for the film.

The film follows the Cranbourne family through many generations as they have their fair share of hard times and good. It is essentially a film about family, friends, and forgiveness. The movie has played in select theatres throughout the country and is due to be released on the Hallmark Channel later this year.

That the fictional stories Randall chooses to bring to life focus on families and friendship comes as no surprise to those who know him best.

Barry Clark, who is a longtime writer-producer of natural history programs and, with Wolfgang Bayer, was co-founder of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival says, “Randall is, and has been for the nearly 30 years that I’ve known him, one of the rare, and special persons who live primarily in the future, spending only the minimal necessary amount of time in the present. He is, in that sense, a futurist. And a polymath, with his talents divided between those of the innovative technologist and the passionate creative. He is fond of asserting that he is a descendent of Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc)—hence his surname, Dark.”

Randall Dark and Kristen Cox on location for a nature documentary.Clark goes on to say that whether that link can be proven isn’t the issue. “Whatever the truth of that story – and it has always been hard to tell when Randall has been indulging his legendary wit or attempting to be serious, which has been basic to his charm, his charisma – the connection to Joan of Arc makes sense to me.

“For Randall, like Joan of Arc, has always been quixotic, in the best sense of the word meaning bold, inquisitive, adventurous; and charmingly foolhardy,” he continues. “He invested heavily in high-definition gear long before the standards for the gear were formalized, and he has always been the first to jump into the treacherous world of new technologies, where the ice is always moving underfoot. Like Barry Rebo, he pioneered both HD content origination and post, and, by rights, he should have reaped generous rewards of his bold initiatives. But history does not always deal kindly with innovators. Powerful, well-funded entities swiftly overtook Barry and Randall and the handful of others who had risked everything for the heady thrill of playing on the front lines. And play they did. Randall, like so many persons of exceptional creativity, has—in my experience—always been a child. Einstein said, ‘Do not grow old, no matter how long you live. Never cease to stand like curious children before the Great Mystery into which we were born’. Like Einstein, Randall will never grow old.”

Over the years Randall and I spoke frequently and eventually became good friends. In the ‘90s I was the editor of the trade magazine AV Video and Multimedia Producer and we did a cover story about him and his ongoing crusade for HDTV. After I launched Digital Cinema Report we did a few digital cinema events together and I often saw him and Kristen at trade shows.

Although we live far apart, the advent of social media has enabled us to stay in touch and we speak frequently. In June while I was traveling for business, it was past midnight and I was not in a very good mood. Then I got a text from Randall asking what I was doing. I told him I was trying to get home to New York after attending the opening of a new movie theatre in Houston, adding, “Stuck in the Detroit airport for the night. We got diverted by bad weather. And you?”

He answered, “Living with my best friend who is my wife … loving our new dog Ziggity … Sadly I have recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s …”

Amazing how hearing someone else’s problems can put your own in perspective. I knew I would be home in the morning. Randall had real issues to confront. Devastated, I texted what I hoped were the right things to say. He thanked me for my support and again, with the simple grace that those of us blessed to know him have always come to expect, he urged me to help Kristen. “I think it is harder on her than me,” he wrote. “So any support you give her will be greatly appreciated.”