Charles Swartz, 67; took film to the digital age

Times Staff Writer

Charles S. Swartz, an innovative educator who helped push the movie industry into the digital age during his four years as executive director of USC’s Entertainment Technology Center, has died. He was 67.

Swartz, who had been battling brain cancer, died of pneumonia Saturday at a Los Angeles hospital, his family announced.

“He was one of the fathers of digital cinema,” said Jerry Pierce, senior vice president of technology for Universal Pictures. “Charles played an important role in bringing people into the same tent to nudge digital technology in the right direction.”

Bob Lambert, senior vice president of worldwide technology strategy for the Walt Disney Co., called Swartz “a leader, a visionary and a collaborator” whose skills as a filmmaker and educator helped him broker understanding between the technical and creative sides of the business.


Through the USC center, Swartz established a digital cinema lab in 2004 at the Hollywood Pacific Theater that is considered a premier testing ground for new cinema technologies.

Before he retired last summer, Swartz saw the lab flourish as a testing site that helped speed the distribution and exhibition of digital films, said Rochelle Winters, a colleague who consulted on projects.

Swartz relished the lab’s historical ties to Hollywood’s past as he led research meant to take the “film” out of filmmaking. Digital cinematography relies on capturing images on hard disks or other media capable of recording digital data.

The lab -- with its battery of satellite dishes on the roof and bank of powerful computer servers in the projection booth -- was founded at the first theater built expressly for talking pictures. Conceived by Sam Warner, the youngest of the four Warner brothers, it opened in 1928.

“Technology always has been a part of cinema,” Swartz said in 2003. “And it always will be.”

Research at the center and its digital lab is funded by major Hollywood studios. Depending on the test, results can be scientifically pure or completely subjective.

To gauge the brightness and sharpness of a digitally projected image on the screen, a 25-foot-tall crane fitted with sensors was used to measure both transmitted and reflected light in increments as small as one pixel, the New York Times reported in 2003.

The lab, which was moved last fall onto the USC campus, also has relied on “expert viewers” -- motion picture industry professionals -- who evaluate picture quality.


Charles Samuel Swartz was born April 22, 1939, in Dallas and grew up there.

After earning a degree from Yale University, he did graduate work in cinema at USC. While there, he met and married another film student, Stephanie Rothman, who survives him.

Early in his career, Swartz collaborated with his wife on several features. He wrote and directed several B movies, including “It’s a Bikini World” (1966) and “The Velvet Vampire” (1971).

He started out in television and film production, serving as an associate producer at Warner Bros. Television, then as head of production at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures.


By the early 1970s, Swartz was in charge of acquisition and production at Dimension Pictures.

In the early 1980s, he became an education specialist and manager at UCLA Extension’s Department of Entertainment Studies and Performing Arts.

While there, he created a trend-setting curriculum that reflected the rise of digital technology and business in entertainment, according to USC.

Upon leaving UCLA, he became director of business development for the entertainment industry for Anderson Consulting, now known as Accenture, and director of integrated strategy for the e-business consulting firm Sapient.


“Understanding Digital Cinema,” a book Swartz edited that was published in 2004, is considered the definitive text on the subject, according to USC.

With a deep and resonant voice, Swartz was known for speaking in paragraphs with perfect syntax but could also crack a joke to puncture his professorial demeanor. He attended one digital technology conference dressed as a “Columbo"-style detective.

Memorial donations may be made to Save the Redwoods League,, or the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank,