When Microsoft's Paul Allen Spoke, I Listened. Right Before I Fell Asleep
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because boring sometimes comes from the most interesting places.
By George Seminara
Many years ago I made a series of promotional and educational films for a little company called Micro-Soft. I was paid in cash and stock. It was a long day of shooting the Micro-Soft team as they outlined the programs that they had and those they were still developing.
Micro-Soft was in the process of purchasing Lotus, a software company in Massachusetts, and the video presentation was the cornerstone of its big push to corporations interested in computers. Around hour 16, a very nervous Paul Allen walked in front of my camera. He had been pacing around our offices all day trying to verbalize the programming that went into the accounting program that would eventually become Microsoft Excel.
Allen had prepared a script so long and unmanageable and made so many changes that we couldn’t enter it into the teleprompter. It was decided that he would read from his notes. First, though, he wanted to rehearse it. Twenty-eight minutes. Frame of reference? The average speech lasted around seven minutes.
This was an industrial commercial, not a music video. Translation: There were no energy-supplying drugs here.
We asked if he could cut parts of the speech. He agreed that some of it was a little slow, which was an aggressive understatement. We went through it again and made various suggestions for cuts. In the end, after several rehearsals and rounds of editing suggestions, it was decided that Allen would revert to the original speech.
It was now hour 18. Everyone was tired and it had all become an effort. This was an industrial commercial, not a music video. Translation: There were no energy-supplying drugs here. But it was time to shoot.
My camera was mounted on an ancient television dolly. I had a zoom control in my right hand and pan and tilt in my left. I was on the headset to give set direction and listen to the control room.
After a few false starts, we finally began. Allen had found his groove. Well, not so much a groove as a plodding through the applications of the new program. He so wanted to get everything he valued in the program into the film. I felt for him. I did. But I had been working for more than 20 hours.
Soon the chatter from the control room vanished. Not long after, Paul Allen’s words lost their meaning in my ears.
Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah … “The lights! The lights!” I snapped to, quickly tilted from the lighting grid and framed Paul up in a medium shot. The producer came out of the booth like a bat out of hell.
“OK, we’re going to take a quick break.”
To Allen: “It’s great! Really great! Don’t forget your place.”
We went to the kitchen, where the producer forced me to drink two cups of black coffee and eat five Excedrin.
For five minutes the producer lectured me on the necessity of not shooting the lights with an Ikegami camera, how the sensor could burn out or be permanently scarred. All things I had originally taught him.
We returned to the set, and I apologized for nodding off. In the 36 years since, it has never happened again. Everyone laughed, and Allen admitted his speech had been a bit dry.
The rest of the shoot was completed in an hour, after which we all went home. Though I’ve worked for Microsoft many times since, that was the last time I saw Paul Allen. Until, that is, 20-plus years later, when I was on my way to Seattle from New York City. I had somehow gotten into the first-class club and was drinking free soda and eating snacks when I noticed a guy staring at me.
He came over and said he wasn’t sure whether he knew me or not. I have to confess that I did not look like the same person from years ago for various reasons: hair, gut, whiskers and so on. But I recognized him from the depths of my memory and said, “I’m the cameraman who fell asleep while shooting you.”
Allen thought about that and smiled. “That was a very long time ago.”
We chatted, but we were both a little uncomfortable as people who have met but don’t know each other typically are. They called our flight. He took his seat in first class. I took mine in coach.
Then, on Oct. 15. last year, I read that he had died.
Rest in peace, Paul Allen. You helped change the world.
- George Seminara, OZY Author Contact George Seminara