We chat with Scott Cahall and Julie Gerstenberger, former employees of Kodak and now co-founders of Moondog Labs, makers of the iPhone anamorphic adapter used in Sundance and critical darling TANGERINE.
This is a wonderful startup story wrapped in one of the saddest tales in American corporate history: Moondog Labs’ co-founders are former employees of the once legendary film and camera manufacturer Eastman Kodak.
And they like living in Rochester.
To many people Rochester, New York – if they know it at all — is someplace they’d rather not be, a town past its prime on the southern shore of Lake Ontario. To the cognoscenti, Rochester is the town Kodak built — one of the most innovative and enlightened companies of the 19th and 20th centuries — laid low by the firm’s unwillingness to champion one of its own inventions, the digital camera.
Scott and Julie don’t fit the stereotype of high tech entrepreneurs, though between them they have advanced degrees in optics, electrical engineering and physics. Scott is also the co-author of more than half a dozen technical papers and holder of almost a dozen patents.
Julie grew up in Rochester, daughter of a Kodak employee, during the company's heyday. “I remember playing in the company tennis and bowling leagues,” she recalls with affection. She left for Michigan to get a degree in electrical engineering, but surprised herself when she decided to come back to work for Eastman Kodak upon graduation. She received an MS in optics at the University of Rochester and spent the next 26 years with Kodak, starting as an engineer and working her way up the ladder to become a director of corporate engineering and a VP of corporate research & engineering. She finally left the company in 2012.
Much of Julie's effort was in strategic partnerships and alliances; both she and Scott were involved in a number of digital initiatives including Kodak’s EasyShare.
One of the most innovative features of the EasyShare was a dual lens configuration which included a fixed focal length wide angle lens and a normal to moderate telephoto within the body of the camera itself, made possible by a light path bent 90° as it entered the camera. The lenses themselves were made by Schneider Kreuznach, the renowned German optical company (Schneider won an Academy Award for technical excellence for its Super Cinelux lens line for motion pictures).
Hold that thought.
Scott and Julie also remember the QuickTake, an early digital camera joint venture with Apple.
Hold that thought, too.
Scott never meant to stay for very long in Rochester. “It’s cold and snowy,” he smiles. He moved there with his wife shortly after getting married, but somewhere along the way “I became addicted to the knowledge,” he says. “It was a nice community, it had been there for decades…and I just didn’t want to leave.”
Fifteen years later, he’s still there.
Scott spent five of those years as an optical design engineer for Kodak, which of course is where he met Julie. After leaving Kodak, Scott went on to form his own optics design house, which for many years was just Scott. He did design work for cameras, augmented/virtual reality, smartphones, and eventually brought on other designers mostly from Kodak.
“We loved that work very much,” Scott tells me, “but we had an itch to do some products of our own.”
He called Julie, who he knew was “awesome.”
So how did they get from there to here, elbowing each other at the Sundance premiere of TANGERINE, the film they helped, make whispering “our adapter did that!” What’s it like having gone from the corporate life and a scientific world where optical perfection is the goal, to working with filmmakers almost half their age who look for personality in the images – a code word, to this engineering pair, for flaws?
When you sit down with these two, it’s almost hard to imagine it could have ended up any other way, nor that they would have wanted it any other way. Call it a combination of passion, serendipity and creativity.
Here they are, living in the town Kodak built because that town had – still has – a great foundation and tradition of applied learning and community from which both benefited enormously. They are deeply knowledgeable about optics. They understand partnerships. They understand commerce. And they came into contact with some incredible companies in the early days of the digital revolution. So, yeah: about those two “hold that thought” lines a couple of paragraphs ago, plus one more…
· Take a look at Moondog Labs’ basic anamorphic adapter. Whose smartphone do they make it for?
· Take a look at our story on the recent Apple patent about putting a zoom lens inside a smartphone body. Look familiar now? Just saying.
But it’s more than that: lurking inside these two scientists are artists. And why not? Scott’s mom was a commercial artist and his dad was a professional musician.
Still, call it a creative tension.
“It’s a great challenge and lot of fun to take the vocabulary and creative instincts of filmmakers and translate that into technology,” Scott says. “Sometimes it can be a little uncomfortable for us. ’We really like this lens because it has a creamy look.’ How do we specify and design ‘creamy?’ ‘I want swirl.’ How do I write myself a design spec for that? What aberrations or combination of aberrations are causing that? Then how do I design for that, because tools are not set up for that? My day job is to design lenses as sharp as possible, but I really like this.”
“There’s serendipity with these lenses,” Julie tells me. “Flare – our lens did that. Could it have been done digitally? Yes, but it just wouldn’t look the same way as organically. As an optical engineer it makes me crazy that people want to give up optical quality, but now I understand benefits of something a little crazy.”
“We believe all photographers and filmmakers, at whatever level they exercise that craft, deserve to have the best tools,” Julie says. “This is what we’re focused on. We’re happy to to entertain new ideas, and we have a lot of fun with that.”
“I tell my kids pretty often,” Scott muses, ‘that it’s not necessarily normal but highly desirable to have a job you loving go to. I’m lucky to be one of those people who does.”
And What of Rochester?
Moondog Labs is not the only company rising in Rochester. There are many, many small companies there run by people who used to work at Kodak, Bausch & Lomb, Xerox and others.
They want to stay in Rochester, too. A recruiter recently asked Scott, “What’s up with the water up there? I can’t get anybody to move.”
Julie informs me that Rochester has been awarded a number of federal grants: there’s an increasing recognition of optics and photonics, and new consortia are developing there.
“The future here is bright,” she concludes, “but very different from the yellow box and bowling leagues for your kids.”
About That Name…
Moondog Labs — that’s an homage to John Lennon and his first band, Johnny and the Moondogs, right?
“Well, I do know about Johnny and the Moondogs,” Scott begins, but then his inner-Spock emerges fully formed: “but moondog is an atmospheric optical effect. In the right conditions under a full moon you see a halo; even more rare, there’s a bright blob on either side. That’s a moondog.”
Or, to be more precise (according to the Wikipedia entry, a “bright circular spot on a lunar halo caused by the refraction of moonlight by hexagonal-plate-shaped ice crystals in cirrus or cirrostratus clouds.”
And so it is.
To learn more about Moondog Labs’ anamorphic adapter, visit www.moondoglabs.com.
(cover photo credit: snap from the Moondog Labs)
And always with the ambition of authenticity, humanity and wit.
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