Spectarama Logo

The Amazing Modern Art Machine

Chicago Tribune Article November 17, 1963 

By Paul Pinson

Four years ago, in a secluded studio on Chicago's northwest side, artist John Howard toyed with a transparent piece of plastic while trying to dream up a photographic display for a client's advertising campaign.  

A chance beam of sunlight passed thru the plastic and projected the colors of the spectrum onto the wall. In that instant, intuitively, Howard saw new meaning in the common phenomenon of color separation.  That stray beam of light changed his life. 

From then on, all of Howard's free time was spent trying to adapt the principle of spectrum dispersion to photography.

To get a spectrum on film or to create a fringe of color around objects which the human eye sees as white was simple enough. Ordinary prisms or grid lenses would do that. But Howard had more than that in mind.

He wanted to be able to control the color dispersion, to vary the amount of color, and even to select colors and add them to objects in a photgraph, as the artist sometimes adds arbitratry color to a painting.

After three years of puzzling, trial-and-error tinkering, and a persistent outlay of money that ultimaely added up to $26,000, Howard finaly came up with a lens system that gave all the right answers.

He calls the process Spectarama. It creates startling variety of "film paintings" like the one on the cover, the colorful Tribune Tower on page 14, and the photos on the following pages. It has already been used in one movie, "X, the Man with the X-Ray Eyes," a science-fiction thriller staring Ray Milland.

Howard, a big man who hides a sensitive soul behind an adventurer's visage [set off by a salty gray beard that makes him look as tho he'd just stepped out of a whisky advertisement], is probably one of Chicago's most frustrated men.

"Here I am with the tremendous-I think it's tremendous- invention," he says. "It makes films that positively sends people into ecstasies. But what do I do with the thing? I can see myself showing Spectarama slides on Saturday night to my fellow old folks in the poor house." He gives his experience in Hollywood as an example.

After perfecting the lens, he made a short demonstration film. This he packed, along with his camera equipment, and set off for tinsel town on California's golden shore. Before many days had passed in making the rounds of studios and begging audiences for his presentation, the Hollywood gilt had taken on a definite greenish cast for him.

Finally he managed to show the film to producers at American International Pictures, where the "X" movie was about half completed. They said Spectarama was exactly what they needed for the picture's X-ray scenes, in which Milland is supposed to see thru solid objects, even to the center of the earth.

Since Howard is not a union camera man, he couldn't operate the Spectarama lens. So he agreed to serve as a technical adviser for $1,500 a week.

The hitch was that the Spectarama lens had to be adapted to the 16 mm movie cameras. Howard had to pay for that and make a test film [for which he had to pay a union camera man $50 and a developing studio $300]. He had to hire a patent attorney to make sure his rights were protected with such legal armor as confidential disclosure agreements. This left him little more than enough to pay his expenses out of the $1,500.

"I got back to Chicago thanking my lucky stars that I'd been able to break even," Howard says. He was grateful for the opportunity to have Spectarama put before the public in a film. But altho the picture was good enough to take the only American award, second place, in the International Science-Fiction Film festival in Trieste, Italy, its use of Spectarama is limited and in the nature of a clever gimmick.

"You see, wether Spectarama produces art or not depends almost entirely on the person operating the camera," Howard says. "It ins't like turning on a machine and letting it stamp out boot soles one after the other. In order to create art, even with a machine, you must have artistic vision and background."

Howard's own backround is in painting, both in fine and commercial art. For years he made a good living as a freelance advertising artist.  Some of his paintings were really excellent, such as a long series of still lifes of vegatables he did to advertise a "health" drink. When that account stopped using paintings and followed others into photographic plays, Howard moved his drawing boards into a back room of his studio and installed several thousand dollars worth of photographic equipment.

"I suppose that being a novice with a camera worked to my advantage," he says, "becuase I did a lot of things I might have never tried if I had known the rules better; Spectarama, for one."

Most of the artists and esthetically-oriented people who have seen his Spectarama demonstration film [a fantasy called "The Girl Who Dreams in Color"] agree that the process constitutes a new art form. It can take the most mundane subject matter, a heap of rusty metal or patch of dirty snow, for example, and transform it into flowing, delicate images like Japanese prints set in motion.

The strange symbolisms of the technique offer such a complete escape from reality that it's effect has been compared with using drugs such as mescaline or LSD 25 [d-Lysergic acid diethyulamide], which produces hallucinations.

In fact, Aldous Huxley's description of the effects of mescaline is an accurate account of one's experience in wathcing the film:

...you are carried into a realm of ethereal imagery. The experience begins with the perceptions of colored, moving, living geometric forms. In time, pure geometric forms. In time, pure geometry becomes concrete and (the audience) perceives not patterns but patterned things...

...these things give place to vast and complicated buildings, in the midst of landscapes which change continuously, passing from richness to more intensely colored rich grandeur to deep  grandeur. Everthing is amazing... ( you're  staring at a new creation.)

It is this effect he hopes to exploit in a movie of his own, and find a backer for it. And he self-confessed is full of new ideas.  Spectarama, including ordinary 35mm. color film, Spectarama and use  Spectarama abstract image to make permanent on canvas.

"I don't think this will  revolutionize movie making" "Not today, anyways, tommorow, yes."