Steve Rutt, a brilliant video engineer and artist
died yesterday. Steve and Rutt Video were a landmark in the New York
video post production community for over 40 years. Many video
engineers and technicians and many video artists got their start with
Steve, whether it was by working or just by hanging out at Rutt Video,
or by using something Steve invented - even if they did not know
One could not help but learn and do fun things
when you hung out at Rutt Video. I do not know how many people came
through Rutt as clients, as editors, as technicians in the machine
room, or just as people who for the most part hung around and drank
coffee. It was thousands. Even if you just hung out - you learned, and
almost always had input into what was going on.... and there always
was a lot going on. Steve was a magnet for creative projects, and
while he certainly preferred clients and projects who had the money to
help support what was a very expensive place to run... if you had no
money and Steve liked you, or your project - somehow it got done.
Steve was extraordinarily generous.
Steve pioneered so many innovations in video that
it is impossible to catalog them all and I am sure he would have
objected if I tried. Steve was a quiet and modest man, rarely
appreciated being in the spotlight, rarely took credit for his
innovations, and preferred to help others do amazing things.
It is hard to describe Steve's brilliance because
it is in an area that few are really brilliant. Perhaps a few pictures
would help a bit....
Steve sitting at the console is pretty close to
perfect. I can tell you that each piece of equipment you see is there
for a reason. If it did not provide a cool effect or required function
it was not there. When you look at the picture to the left below the
top picture and see the machine room - that was all the stuff needed
to make the stuff at the console that Steve is sitting at, work. I
will tell you that Steve knew how all of that worked, and he kept it
working, for the most part with little assistance. There is not a
single piece of equipment in these pictures whose function Steve did
not know. Not a button, not a switch, not a connector, not a
wire, not a hidden menu function. Steve had an encyclopedic
grasp of video and how things worked, and so when something went wrong
- as it often did when you have that much stuff (and it was not nearly
as reliable as equipment today) - Steve knew how to figure it out and
fix it, and he did. Steve enjoyed providing an environment where
people could do "cool things".
I do not remember the first time I met Steve, but
it was in the very early 70's - in the porta-pak era. He was always
involved in doing interesting things. I remember one of the first
times at his place when I saw that he had 1"B machines running
and doing editing. Everyone else was running Quad and a few places had
just gotten 1" C machines in those days, but there was Steve
running machines that no one else had ever seen nor used. I remember
asking him why he had those machines and not the 1" machines
everyone else was using, and he told me. And after about 10 minutes I
was absolutely convinced that these were the best machines and that
anyone else (including me) just did not understand. That was typical -
if Steve thought a certain technology was cool or better - he got it
and he really did not care much about what other people did.
Very early on he got an Avid editor. It seemed
counter intuitive to me - he had millions tied up in editing rooms,
and here was this little crappy buggy editor that essentially would
make people not use the big editing rooms. I saw it as competition and
told him so, Steve looked at me strangely and said - "No Jim -
this is just another way to edit and do cool stuff".
I still do not know who was right on that one,
but Steve was always buying new equipment and putting it into the
system and removing other equipment. Over the years, many million
dollars were spent, and Steve had no reservations at all in spending
tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in a blink if he believed
that the equipment did cool things that other equipment did not do. If
he did not find a piece of equipment on the market that did what he
wanted to do, he would occasionally build one. The Rutt Etra was only
one of the many things he built - he built an analog video
repositioning system (pre ADO which was Digital) and many other little
circuits and widgets that were buried in the facility that only Steve
understood the function of. We just knew that it worked.
There is a lot to know about Steve, and it is not
too much of a surprise that some of his work is on the Internet. I am
sure that Steve would prefer that you looked at his work rather then
hear people like me describe it.
The Rutt Video web site has a great deal of work
that is interesting to look at and some history as well:
Along with Bill Etra, Steve built one of the
first accessible analog computer animation systems called the Rutt
Etra Synthesizer. A great deal of video art was made using the Rutt
Etra Synthesizer - a description of which is here:
There is a great deal of video art on the Internet that was produced
using the Rutt Etra Synthesizer and I hope that some video artists on
this list will give a much more detailed description then I could, but
if you have not really seen any analog computer animation then go to
YouTube and search with "Steve Rutt" and there are several
pieces to view.
So other then video art - what does this have to
do with AV Archiving you may ask?
Around 1991 I was working as a machine room
operator at Rutt Video part time. I had left the job of being the
Managing Director of Devlin Videoservice - a large Standards
Conversion and post production facility and making a very nice salary.
I needed a job. Steve was generous and gave me one. Steve got a
phone call from the Andy Warhol Foundation. They had some 1/2"
Reel to Reel tapes that they could not play back in their machines.
They said the tapes were sticky, and needed some help and so called
Rutt. Steve knew that I had some experience with those machines, and
so asked me if I wanted to go help them out - he was too busy running
the place. He said that they said something about sticky
tapes, but they probably just did not know how to run the machines.
Everyone knew tapes never got sticky - no one had ever heard anything
like this. I was just hanging out at that moment, and I desperately
needed the money (and Steve knew it) - and I was glad for the
I went to the Warhol Foundation and tried to play
back the tapes, and found out that they were indeed sticky. Very
strange. I had nothing else to do really, I needed the
money - and they needed someone to play them back. They asked me if I
would continue to work on it - and I was thrilled.... a job! I figured
I would have it all done in a week or two. I knew I needed a lot of
equipment to play these tapes back, and a place to do it. I asked
Steve if I could use a corner somewhere to do the project, and he said
that I could. He never charged me a penny to use the space or his
video equipment or his expertise. Nothing. He thought the project was
cool - that was it.
It took me about 2 years to play those tapes
back. I had to figure out not only how to solve the sticky tape
problem, but to get past some rather major electronics issues as well.
During that time I would occasionally ask Steve for help. One day I
had a deck set up in the machine room and was trying to play back a
tape and having real trouble. I had the video playing back through the
Tek VM700 - the ultimate waveform monitor - one so complicated that
only people like Steve really understood how to use them (I did my
best but it was really beyond me).
The facility had both editing rooms down - that
meant 2 sets of unhappy clients not paying. Steve was frantically
trying to get the place working. I was very absorbed in what I was
doing and so I asked Steve if he could figure out why the video looked
so bad. He told me that he was busy, and to ask him later. I asked him
about 10 minutes later - I was not paying attention. Steve came over
and looked at me (not at the VM700) and said - "You know what the
problem is Jim? I do not need to even look at the scope. I will tell
you what the problem is - this is a piece of S---, it was a piece of
S--- 20 years ago when they made it, and it is a piece of S--- now,
and it will be a piece of S--- 20 years from now, so leave me alone -
I have a company to run....".
I was more then a little startled. I had never
heard Steve talk like that. Here was a guy who was giving me a job as
an operator so I could eat, gave me a lead on a consulting project
doing Andy Warhol's video tapes, gave me space in his place to do the
work.... But I felt the light bulb go on - Steve was telling me
something. I was doing work that no one in the current video
world could deal with. They had facilities to run, and these tapes
were all just trouble for them. No one had time to look back - they
all were working as hard as they could just to keep the current
equipment working. They did not have time to deal with the old stuff.
Once again, I learned from Steve, and I decided then and there at that
moment to specialize in playing back old tapes. If it was not for
Steve there would not have been a VidiPax nor a SAMMA.
I owe a lot to Steve Rutt, but it isn't just me.
These kinds of stories are typical of people who ran into Steve, at
one point or another in their careers. I never ran into someone who
worked there who did not have a Steve Rutt story. They did not always
involve Steve directly, it was more like he provided the tools and
environment and many, many people passed through, but anyone in NY
doing creative work ran into Steve and Rutt Video at one point or
He was brilliant, creative, and mentor to many.