My Adventures with Damon Rarey
In thinking about what to say today, I am reminded of one of Damon's favorite lines when the subject of writing or speaking came up: "Some people just have a way with words...and others no have way."
I first met Damon Rarey in the mid '70s, when he was working at KQED in San Francisco as an art director for the PBS series "Over Easy", a daily 1/2-hour show for seniors with Hugh Downs. The program needed graphics and animations for many of their pieces, including numerous medical and health-related topics.
The show's producers had heard that we were experimenting with some new computer graphics for video at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), and they and Damon came to visit us. This was in the days when few people had used a computer or even personally seen one. Artists were typically more than skeptical of the few crude attempts that had been made to use a computer for artistic purposes. In fact, hostile and fearful would be a better description.
With some trepidation, I demonstrated what our primitive painting and animation system could do. To my surprise, Damon immediately said, "Hey, can I try that?"
We hit it off immediately. Damon was not only talented, but open and curious, eager to try something new, friendly and warm even in the unfamiliar environment of a Silicon Valley laboratory. Over the next few months, he produced dozens of illustrations and animations for "Over Easy" that were seen nationwide on PBS. Some were even judged to be a little too good, such as the close-up animation of diverticulitis, shown in some cities at the dinner hour.
Thus I think Damon deserves to be remembered in the history books as the first graphic artist to use computer graphics on a regular basis in television. I felt that if I had invented a bicycle, it was nothing unless someone could learn to ride it. And even then it really wasn't of much use unless that rider needed transportation from point A to point B -- a real-world application. Damon was an excellent rider, and a hell of a nice guy besides.
If it were not for Damon, the SuperPaint system would probably never have been seen outside the laboratory, and the several nice awards that I received later for this work would never have come to pass.
At that same time, NASA was about to launch a very interesting spacecraft to the planet Venus. Recall that the US space program had already peaked by this time, and the public had actually become somewhat bored with live video from the Moon and numerous pictures from the surface of Mars, etc. NASA public relations was therefore somewhat panic-stricken when they learned that the very expensive scientifically-loaded Pioneer Venus spacecraft had no room for an imaging camera!
NASA public relations people somehow learned about "Over Easy" and the goings-on at PARC, and they asked if we could help illustrate the Pioneer Venus mission and portray the valuable scientific knowledge that was being acquired by the project to the public. To make a long story short, Damon and I jumped at the chance, and got Xerox's permission to move SuperPaint to NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field during the encounter with Venus in October 1978. There we set up shop just down the hall from Pioneer Mission Control and provided a live video feed to the NASA television network and numerous video trucks parked just outside. Damon created many graphics and animations both before and during the planetary encounter that were seen on newscasts around the world. We were interviewed many times, and at one point he even did a live interview and demonstration on Italian television from our location. A year later, we also repeated this collaboration with NASA on the Pioneer Saturn mission. Great fun!
Meanwhile, back at Xerox PARC, we were rapidly becoming persona non-grata, perceived as working on Saturday morning cartooning, and definitely not contributing to the noble Office Of The Future effort for which PARC was becoming famous. In fact, they were trying to fire me on a regular basis, and in late 1979, Damon and I observed that the television world seemed to have a need for this even if Xerox didn't, and I resigned.
Damon and I founded Aurora Systems together in 1980, joined by our colleague Tom Hahn and with invaluable assistance of our good friend Joe Roizen. We were a sort of Odd Couple, and billed ourselves as the marriage of art and technology. We knew we were terribly naive about business matters, but agreed to give it our best shot, to do it with passion, and to put up with each other's foibles, etc. My job was definitely the easier one in this latter regard, I assure you.
And we had adventures! We went places and took the message of videographics everywhere we could. We hawked our wares at trade shows in numerous cities, demonstrated everywhere, and installed systems in Paris, Tokyo, Edmonton, CNN in Atlanta, etc. Many great stories of trips and demo experiences were accumulated, though actual revenue was meager. While systems were being built, Damon ran a graphic services business using the systems at our location in China Basin in San Francisco.
Aurora was never a big success as a business, but for what success we had, Damon had significant responsibility. He was the primary selling factor in the early years, doing all the demos, and then training and nuturing the artists on installed systems. He also contributed significantly to the design and operation of the evolving system, especially the user interface. Never the stereotypical finicky temperamental artist, he was always eager to help design and explore the next new feature.
Damon became a master of the demo, an unflappable presenter in any situation, handling everything from system bugs and crashes to hecklers and cultural barriers. He stepped deftly around known and unknown system bugs and shortcomings. He demonstrated systems with features that weren't entirely finished, and to which he had been introduced only moments before, and systems that had been damaged in shipping, were cabled up wrongly, etc. I've even seen Damon mesmerize a potiential client with vivid descriptions of what will appear on the screen -- just as soon as the power comes back on.
Damon was at his best in one-on-one demos. He could tune in on exactly what each person understood and wanted, from the soon-to-be-blown-away newcomer to the arrogant and genetically unimpressible network executive. When someone else was demonstrating at a trade show, he cultivated the subtle art of strolling in front of the public display monitor whenever something wasn't going well.
For many years, Damon trained everyone who bought an Aurora system, and his influence now extends directly or indirectly to hundreds if not thousands of graphic artists. In addition to the standard training, it may not be widely appreciated that he was also a genuine mentor to many of those younger artists. He helped them be successful in their current situations, took an interest in their career paths and goals, and remained friends with many.
Damon Rarey was creative and talented, open and forward looking, gentle and generous, both deep and light -- and funny. He was one of the best people I've had the privilege to know and work with, and I am hardly the only person I have heard say this about him. In my opinion, Damon's was a life well-lived. It was just a little shorter than any of us had expected.
I will always cherish the memories of those times we had together. We shared a passion and we had adventures!
Dick ShoupJanuary 18, 2003
Additional Note on SuperPaint: The system has been written about several times, see my web pages including Damon's graphics at http://www.rgshoup.com/prof/SuperPaint/ and various links therein. SuperPaint and all of Damon's graphics now reside in the permanent collection of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.