April's patents pick 5 article

Behind the Curtain

Messina Smith : Office of Innovation Development

Pass the popcorn and get ready for some special effects! A lot of fascinating inventions keep us entertained at the box office.

Hollywood's award season has come and gone, but World IP Day on April 26 celebrates the silver screen and the intellectual property that has made it possible. This issue's "Patent Picks" focuses on patents that have enhanced filmmaking over the past 100 years. From new innovations in camera technology to motion capture devices that have become the norm in Hollywood, these patents have undoubtedly shaped the movies we love to watch. Here are my top five film-inspired patent picks!

Note: This article is part of an ongoing series detailing some of the Inventors Eye staff's favorite patents. For each article, the writer selects his or her five favorite patents under a given theme. This list is from Inventors Eye graphic designer-animator Messina Smith.

U.S. Patent No. 2,198,006
Control Device for Animation

The multiplane camera was patented by William Garity in 1938 for Walt Disney Productions. It has seven different layers and a moveable camera that shot vertically, creating an illusion of depth that had so far been impossible to obtain in animation. The first test film for the multiplane camera was the Silly Symphony cartoon "The Old Mill," which won the Academy Award for animated short film in 1937. Following the success of "The Old Mill," Walt Disney used it in his production of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," and the rest is history. In today's animation, the illusion of depth is created using computers, but the multiplane camera stands out as one of the most important innovations in animation.

U.S. Patent No. 2,224,901
Camera Dolly

In the film industry, a "tracking shot" is made using a camera mounted on a wheeled platform, known as a camera dolly. Before 1907, this innovation didn't exist. Camera angles were stuck in one spot. By using a camera dolly, directors were able to follow the action and create dynamic sequences. Today, dollies have four wheels and can be moved in any direction, whereas the original was used on round rails to create a smoother movement. Dolly shots are the norm for audiences today, but their introduction to moviemaking was a game changer for filmmakers and moviegoers alike.

U.S. Patent No. 4,017,168
Equipment for use with Hand-Held Motion Picture Cameras

In the past, filmmakers trying to accomplish a "tracking shot" had two options: use a camera dolly (see above) or hold the camera while moving, which creates the shakiness that can be seen in home videos, documentaries, and similar film footage. Hollywood cameraman Garrett Brown's 1975 invention of the Steadicam solves this problem. His system uses a harness to hold a camera, monitor, and battery pack, which all counterbalance each other and absorb shock. The operator wears the harness and is able to shoot smooth, gliding footage while on the move. Many famous movie scenes have been made using this technology. During the iconic training scene in "Rocky," Brown filmed while running alongside Sylvester Stallone up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The speeder bike chase scene in "Return of the Jedi" also used a Steadicam. During filming, Brown walked through a forest shooting film at 1 frame per second, which created the illusion of a high-speed chase. In 2013 Brown was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame at a ceremony hosted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

U.S. Patent No. 5,222,059
Surround-sound system with motion picture soundtrack timbre correction, surround sound channel timbre correction, defined loudspeaker directionality, and reduced comb-filter effects

Anyone who has been to a cinema in the last 20 years has probably seen the THX logo appear on the screen along with a deep tone that gets progressively louder. This audio quality control system was invented by Tomlinson Holman for Lucasfilm in 1983. It was designed specifically for the release of "Return of the Jedi" so across the country, no matter the theater, viewers would hear sound reproduced the same way. This technology helped standardize audio across the board, improving the movie-watching experience in theaters and at home.

U.S. Patent No. 8,289,443
Mounting and bracket for an actor-mounted Motion Capture Camera System

Motion capture is a big player in the making of today's movies. Gollum from "Lord of the Rings," the Na'vi in "Avatar," and the Hulk in "The Avengers" were all created using this technology. Prior to computers, animated films relied on a system called "rotoscoping,"where actors were filmed and then animators would trace over the film frame by frame to get realistic movement from their characters. Today, actors are outfitted with body suits containing special markers that track their movement and recreate them in a digital model. The device covered by this recent (2012) patent affixes markers to the actor's face and captures facial expressions and features using small cameras that extend from a head piece. We'll likely see many more patents related to motion capture as the technology's prominence increases in the coming years.

Past issues

  • 2017
  • 2016
  • 2015
  • 2014
  • 2013
  • 2012
  • 2011
  • 2010
  • 2006
  • Lightbulbs of various colors representing networking
The USPTO gives you useful information and non-legal advice in the areas of patents and trademarks. The patent and trademark statutes and regulations should be consulted before attempting to apply for a patent or register a trademark. These laws and the application process can be complicated. If you have intellectual property that could be patented or registered as a trademark, the use of an attorney or agent who is qualified to represent you in the USPTO is advised.