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Joel Silver and the Science of Images

A conversation with the winner of CEDIA’s 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award.

Joel Silver is nothing if not humble when it comes to his backstory. The man who shepherded the concept of proper calibration in the home — making your TV set or your projector and screen combo look as good as possible in its environment — says simply: “I’m a hobbyist in video who decided to start a company.”

That company, the Imaging Science Foundation, “began in 1994 with the hopes of getting professional calibration practices that were common in the studios into the best of the custom installers in home theater applications,” says Silver.

Silver worked from the premise that audio setups were subjective when it came to an end user’s impressions, but video calibrations much less so.

“Most of us might have an opinion about what a TV is supposed to look like,” says Silver. “At the Imaging Science Foundation, we have no opinions. We have facts. We have rules. We have standards.”

The Genesis of ISF
Silver had been writing for audio magazines on a freelance basis while holding down a day job back in the early ’90s. When he got the notion to strike out on his own — to take the idea of providing reference-quality pictures to the public that could rival the quality of audio then available to the discerning consumer — he got a lot of pushback.

His accountant thought he was nuts, even after Silver gave the man an in-home demo. After sorting through the accountant’s confusion as to why his set “didn’t come this way” out of the box, after explaining that televisions are set up for storage and sales in a shop, competing with dozens of other displays and lighting that can often best be described as, well, less-than-optimum, Silver had to confront the accountant’s fundamental concern with his business model.

“This is too hard a concept,” said the accountant. “Hard to explain. Hard to write about. If you see it, you get it. But until that point, it’s rough. I think you’re gonna fail.”

So Silver set about evangelizing for video calibration in the residential universe. He held a press conference and bought lunch for his old pals in the magazine biz. The stories were hard to write, it was true, but slowly, one by one, Silver made converts.

“One deal at a time, we struggled, found the top dealers, the guys who came to the class for one simple reason, and that reason is the essence of what CEDIA represents,” says Silver.

The definition of that essence? “Those dealers spent money with me. They spent time with me for the simple intent of trying to do something really cool for their clients. And to this day, when we go into someone’s house, we do what we need to do to make it better, and the look on their faces says it all.

“’Cause our job is to go someplace and leave it better than we found it.”

Related: The 2018 CEDIA Awards

ISF On the Menu
Silver travelled the world (and still does), training others, and helping integrators achieve those stunning, reference-quality results. But there was another arena that would offer ISF a win: manufacturers.

“Finding the right people in the first TV set manufacturer we worked with was difficult,” Silver recalls. “The initial response from many people was, ‘You’re changing our TV. We like our TV. What you are doing is wrong. What we do is right.’ And rather than argue with those people, I just tried to find the engineers building the TV sets who knew what we were doing, who knew what we wanted to do, and they also wanted to make a superior product.

“Finding kindred spirits in manufacturing levels was our hardest job. Once that got done, products started getting better. Reviewers started to recognize a potential for the product by calibrating it.”

“Your TV is even dumber than Microsoft Word,” Silver told the exec.

Silver continues: “And he goes, ‘Oh, that’s not nice to say. Word is very dumb.’ And I said, ‘No, Word lets me save my work. I need to save.’ After we spend three hours calibrating your TV, I don’t want to hear that the dog stepped on the remote and wiped out all our work.

“And we shook hands, put together something, and our big break happened right then.

“Our little company’s logo made it onto the menu of a mainstream TV set — and one person at one manufacturer changed the lives of our company.”

Joel Silver received the CEDIA Lifetime Achievement Award for 2018 on September 5, 2018 at Petco Park in San Diego.