Don StewartFor someone who has been behind some impressive industry achievements, it’s hard to believe that Don Stewart didn’t initially see himself working in the family business.
“When I was 12, 13 years old, in the summer, when my friends were out surfing, I had to come here and work—and of course, I was sweeping floors and washing windows, and doing the jobs that you would typically give to a 13 year-old,” he recounted. “[Working here as an adult] wasn’t high on my list.”
Instead, Stewart began his career in real estate, launching a small business that purchased and remodeled properties before putting them back up for sale. This was back in the late 70s, “and I was making some pretty good money for my age,” Stewart relayed. But then came 1980: interest rates soared and real estate ground to a halt.
Around the same time, Stewart’s father asked him if he’d reconsider joining Stewart Filmscreen. With little coaxing, he threw himself into his new career, taking night courses at the USC School of Cinematic Arts in Los Angeles. “I did bring my seven or eight years of entrepreneurship with me, and I had a good understanding of business from having my own real estate company. But once I made the commitment, I said to myself, ‘If I’m going to be doing this, it would be nice to bring something to the company.’”
The early 80s was an exciting time to be a screen maker. The burgeoning home theater industry was producing its first projectors––largely five-inch CRTs with a light output of 120 to 150 lumens. “At the time, typical CRT-driven home theater screens required a gain ranging from 2.0 to as high as 3.0 for screen images 10 to 12 feet wide,” Stewart explained. This led to Stewart’s creation of the VideoMatte 2000, which delivered the brightness associated with commercial theater screens to the home.
But it was the development of the company’s gray screen technologies, an effort Stewart headed up, “that has been the icing on the cake for me,” he said. “Late one night the thought came to me, ‘No matter how bright projectors get, projectors will never be able to project black. Therefore, the screen itself can be engineered to create its own black level.’” R&D shifted its focus from image brightness toward the enhancement of image black levels. The result: GrayHawk, the first front projection gray screen, followed by the Stewart Filmscreen FireHawk G1 screen. Stewart Filmscreen also continues to fulfill the mission it established in the 1960s: to produce seamless front and rear projection screens for large venues––screens up to 40 feet high by 90 feet wide––for applications as disparate as cinema, simulations, amusement park attractions, and aerospace.
Aside from having the opportunity to develop new technologies and work with customers in such varied markets, Stewart says that he also enjoyed his time as an instructor for organizations like ICIA, InfoComm and CEDIA––occasions that not only allowed him to impart his knowledge, but learn from his students as well. These days, he’s semi-retired, but continues to contribute to Stewart Filmscreen as a consultant on the various R&D projects the company is currently working on. The question is, with all of the projects he’s been involved in throughout the course of his professional life, is there one thing that Stewart wishes he would have done, but never got around to?
“I’ve worked here for over 30 years and accomplished more than I ever dreamed of as a child––I think I was in the right place at the right time with a lot of support, so I’m not going to take personal credit,” he said. “So you know what? I really have to say that I am more than satisfied with how everything came out. How many people can say that?”
Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor.
See all 2014 SCN Hall of Fame inductees here.