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Better camera lens comes into focus for Hollywood dreamer

Hollywood was concocted by dreamers, and no matter the era, the industry still draws and needs those passionate people with ideas. People like Dan Diaconu. A Romanian who fled his homeland in the early '90s, he settled in Canada with a dream - to work in the film industry and, like many who've come before, to leave his mark.

Mr. Diaconu has chosen to transform a small but important corner of the movie dream factory in a big way - the focus reflexes of a camera. Cameramen have always set the focus on a camera by pulling out cloth-tape measures, pacing off distances to the objects (or people) to be filmed, and manually setting focal distances on the camera. Once film rolls and actors begin to move in unexpected ways, adjustments for proper focus are made through experienced guesses.

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If a shot is out of focus, it won't be discovered until footage is reviewed, often days later. The problem, as decades of directors, actors, and cameramen know, is that reshooting scenes can send costs sky high, not to mention inflict the anguish of the-take-that-got-away. Some spontaneous moments just can't be re-created.

Diaconu, an assistant cameraman (though an economist by training), intends to change that. "What I've invented is instant feedback, with regard to where the focus of the film camera is, at any given time," says the founder of Perfect Focused Lens Inc., his Vancouver, B.C.-based company. Manual focus relies on actors hitting their spots. "But actors aren't machines. They won't do it the same each take, no matter how many rehearsals they have," he adds.

Diaconu hit upon his mission during film school, when a fellow student wondered aloud why there was no reliable focus system. The need is critical when cameras are shooting at a wide aperture to achieve that magical effect of having the face in sharp focus and the background softly focused. "You can imagine," he says, that when doing a hand-held camera or crane shot, "you can't mark the distances. It's basically an educated guess based on experience."

The new system, which he calls "revolutionary," is based on an old, conceptually simple method that uses two points of view. "It provides a parallax vision of the scene," he says, noting that it works much like human vision. Diaconu has mounted two tiny video cameras on the film camera. "The two cameras act exactly like our eyes," he says. They create two ghostlike images visible to the camera operator. Simply put, "When the two images match up, the shot is in focus."

It's not that nobody has tackled the need before now. Several sonic tracking systems are in modest use, but as critics note, they rely on flat objects to send back reliable information, and most folks just aren't very flat. Beyond that, most industry pros say existing auto-focus systems are too clunky and they prefer to rely on the artistry of the hand-done focus.

Christopher Taylor, a Los Angeles-based colleague and fellow assistant cameraman, examined the new invention at the recent Show Biz Expo here, where a prototype was unveiled for the first time. Mr. Taylor called the design "potentially revolutionary.... "

Don't be surprised, he adds, if Diaconu walks away with an Oscar for technical merit, as did Garrett Brown, inventor of the Steadicam, a design which took the jiggle out of the hand-held camera shot. Brown himself viewed Diaconu's invention at the Expo and commented, "This is one of those 'Why didn't I think of it myself' inspirations."

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Diaconu is busy refining his design, but says he is getting interest from around the world after splurging for the Los Angeles trade-show booth. Camera houses in Europe are vying to be the first to offer the invention for rent. The entrepreneur has some work to do, however, before his design can take its first on-the-job assignment. He'd like to reduce its size and weight.

Then there's his pending patent. "My competitors are breathing down my [neck] already," he says. But he's not worried. "You can't buy the motor that makes my system work," he says. "I designed it myself."

The bigger problem is tackling an industry set in its ways. "People are afraid of the new," he says, and the key is the old Hollywood truth: Timing is everything. "If I can get it into the right hands at the right time, and it clicks fast enough with the right people, then," he says with a laugh, "then it will be used. And it will change the world."

That'd be a Hollywood dream ending, if ever there was one.

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