In Francis Coppola’s 1974 film “The Conversation,” a surveillance expert played by Gene Hackman tinkers obsessively with high-tech gadgets, struggling to decode an enigmatic tape recording. Coppola’s script called for Hackman’s snoop to have technology that was years ahead of its time — a scenario that mirrors the career of Coppola himself.

The film’s editor and sound designer Walter Murch, who recalls that “we had a hunch about digital sound at that time,” recognized Coppola’s technical acumen from their first meeting in 1967. “He and George Lucas came to where I was working in Hollywood and said ‘Let’s go look at this non-linear editing machine.’ It was the demo version of the CMX,” says Murch, referring to an early video machine. “Of course, the technology wasn’t up to it at the time, but I remember working with Francis to put together a proposal to edit ‘The Godfather’ in non-linear. Even then he saw the potential, and it clearly was a vision that’s been vindicated by events of the last 30 years.”

Coppola has always sought better tools for filmmaking, bringing one of the first flatbed film editing systems from Europe to America in 1969. He also found a German sound-mixing system that Murch remembers “allowed us to operate at speeds that were generally impossible in those days. We could rewind at six times speed to get back to the head of the reel and punch in multi-track, which was not yet the standard in the industry.”

By the time Murch was designing the Oscar-winning sound for 1979’s “Apocalypse Now,” the pair had pushed further still. ” ‘Apocalypse Now’ was the first feature film to be mixed on a computerized mixing console,” Murch says. “We used a console from the music industry and converted it to mix on film. It was also the first film to use 24-track recording and it established the six-track format that’s now the standard for digital motion pictures.”

The achievements of “Apocalypse Now” propelled Coppola to embark on a long-envisioned experiment in 1980 — a studio that would combine innovative filmmaking technologies under one roof. He founded Zoetrope Studios on the site of the old Hollywood General Studios, and also acquired the special effects company of FX pioneer Linwood Dunn. Models, miniatures and bluescreen video compositing were part of the Zoetrope toolkit, and Coppola funded the R&D to develop new tools for “electronic cinema.”

Killer concept

“We had big ambitions,” says Dr. Ray Fielding, Coppola’s former UCLA professor who was Zoetrope’s VP. “Francis had a brilliant concept called the electronic armature, which envisioned that filmmaking would be both electronic and computer-based from beginning to end. We were just reaching the point where you could do a script on a computer. Tom Brown, our head of Electronic R&D, build a non-linear digital editing system and also an electronic storyboard machine for pre-visualizing films.”

This system allowed drawings, photos and videotaped scenes to be stored, called up and rearranged at the push of a button. Fielding, now Dean of Florida State University’s Film School, observes that “today, many people do with software what we had to do with hardware.”

Coppola’s 1982 film “One From the Heart” became the “scratchpad” to test these new electronics. He filmed it entirely onstage using cameras with video taps (not a typo) that produced a precisely framed image on a television monitor. Coppola could record and edit that video quickly to see if scenes cut together well. This “electronic assist” method, which seems sensible today, only fueled Coppola’s mad-genius reputation back then. Of course it didn’t help that he was doing this while ensconced in a high-tech Airstream trailer parked off set, communicating via loudspeaker. Fielding remembers “Francis’ voice would come down from the rafters — it didn’t work.”

Box-office disappointments and mounting debts eventually undermined Coppola’s ambitions. While he’d hoped that tools like electronic pre-visualization would reduce costs, the payoff didn’t come in time. Fielding believes “there were several reasons why the studio failed — including that Francis went into business when interest rates were around 21%. But his concept was entirely coherent.”

Coppola’s penchant for experimentation then led him to direct a 3-D theme park film for Disney in 1986, the Michael Jackson vehicle “Captain Eo.”

That project provided a break for a young visual effects supervisor named Eric Brevig, now at ILM. Brevig observes that “Francis finds ways to make new technology assist him, and doesn’t get caught up using technology that isn’t appropriate. He takes existing things and uses them in ways that haven’t been thought of before.”

That philosophy drives Coppola’s current company, American Zoetrope in San Francisco, which uses video techniques for pre-visualizing films. “Francis’ notion,” says VP Kim Aubrey, “is that you should have a low resolution way of doing design work, and wait until you arrive at the right look before you spend a lot of money executing your design in high res.”

American Zoetrope recently partnered with San Francisco’s Western Images in launching ZOWI, to provide filmmakers with services that facilitate pre-visualization and non-linear editing. An enabling technology behind this venture, which was co-developed by Zoetrope to edit Coppola’s 1992 film “Dracula,” has become, remarks Aubrey, “one of the industry standards.”

Citing the example of Coppola’s early use of MIDI technology for soundtracks, Aubrey believes “Francis can see things in their infancy. What seems kooky when he proposes it often turns out not to be so.” Long before most filmmakers, he recalls, “we were editing films on Montage or early Lightworks machines and doing sound on early Emulators and Macintosh tools.

Francis is a technological visionary who’s made a singular contribution to the techniques of filmmaking.”

“Francis could have been the head of an electronics firm and an innovative captain of industry,” Ray Fielding says. “But there’s just so many things that you can get into one career.”