Ken Williams: Risks that Advance Art

HarvardWood Alumni Profile

Originally published in Harvardwood [October 1, 2020]

Photo Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times

Kenneth S. Williams AB ’78 began our hour-long conversation with a flip-side marketing pitch on why film school students should consider returning to a virtual fall: having a firm grasp of collaborative software solutions and non-in-person digital tools could well-position a job-market candidate entering a world bestrewn with uncertainties such as the COVID-19 resurgence. “The old way of in-person work will soon be replaced by the new normal,” he says. “A lot of companies are not only looking for temporary work-arounds, but they’re trying to find permanent solutions to future-proof themselves.”

As the Executive Director of the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at USC, Williams shared his reams of first-hand observational knowledge on the colossal shifts in the film and entertainment industry. His work at the ETC, a collegial post he’s taken up for eight years, stands at the forefront of groundbreaking entertainment technologies. Bringing together major studios and tech companies, Williams has led research, projects, prototypes, and demonstrations in areas of immersive entertainment experiences, cloud-based remote production and post-production, AI, and machine-learning-driven applications for media and entertainment.

Williams’s career progression has been anything but linear. Starting out as a history major at Harvard, where he performed in Hasty Pudding shows and sang a capella with the Harvard Krokodiloes and the Glee Club, he later undertook an intensive training program in commercial banking and management at the former Chase Manhattan Bank (now JPMorgan Chase). Charmed by the creative process, he requested to join the media and entertainment lending group.

Williams was soon recruited by Columbia Pictures, headquartered in Manhattan, to join their finance staff. Climbing the traditional finance and operations chain of command while also acquiring a master’s degree from Columbia Business School, Williams became the youngest treasurer in the company’s history. He then moved to Los Angeles in 1990 as a senior corporate officer, as Columbia Pictures was acquired by Sony Corporation. There, Williams took charge of renovating and modernizing the company’s new home base, the old MGM Studios in Culver City, transforming it into Hollywood’s technological jewel.

In 2000, having spent almost 20 years at Columbia, Williams decided to dive into the dot-com world, joining as partner a creative venture that Marvel’s Stan Lee had created. Afterwards, he took on a number of different jobs — from becoming president of Technicolor Digital Cinema, to starting a venture capital consulting and an out-of-home advertising business. Drawing from these experiences, and setting aside COVID-19 implications, Williams highlights the importance of being a lifetime learner since our generation is likely to hop to and from many employers.

He is no stranger to innovation and invention, having personally spearheaded many “firsts at the studio.” Williams has led projects for the first operational HD post-production facility in the country, the first H-authoring facility for DVDs, and the prototyping and installation of some of the largest digital mixing consoles to replace the old analog mixing environments for major motion pictures.

One of the most rewarding opportunities for Williams, he shares, was spearheading the development of Sony Pictures Imageworks, which remains to this day one of the country’s largest visual effects animation companies.

“It was a very risky business proposition back then to do anything that advanced the art.”

One day, while at lunch with the head of the studio, Williams was assigned an R&D task to create a photorealistic Stuart Little using advanced texture mapping — his “own little Manhattan Project.” Sure enough, his team delivered the first real-looking animated character with fur.

Another major shift Williams observed in the film and media industry was the standardization and interoperability of custom code. The industry started out with “everybody having their own secret sauce,” a proprietary pipeline that was often kept secret from other competitors in the market. Over time, however, companies realized that they didn’t want to train people in the visual effects and animation houses on a limited set of tools, and then have them leave and have to retrain new employees again. Companies began to standardize the software packages and use the cloud for more efficient and collaborative workflows.

Williams admits that in his earlier roles as a mid-level studio executive in the first 10 years of his career, especially on the financial side at the bank or as treasurer of Columbia Pictures, failure was not permitted without consequences. But as he swiftly transitioned into operations at the studio, he began to recognize that without the allowability of failure within certain parameters, there would hardly be any controlled risk-taking for creative and technical innovation.

Now that he is in a university environment, Williams has made a 180-degree turnaround from the competitive business atmosphere at the studios.

“Academic investigation is rife with failure,” he says. As long as the failure can be fed back into the next stages of exploration, it is welcomed as a part of the program of discovery. Around six years ago, Williams worked on an experimental film, using the cloud in its early days — not to make a successful film but to identify gaps in the current architecture and make recommendations for improvement. Undertaking projects that, by virtue of their failure, can provide valuable information, Williams much enjoys his freer work environment, where he is firmly settled after a wide-ranging career.

When asked to give advice to aspiring film students, Williams shares what he calls cliché but true statements: “Filmmaking is all about collaboration. There are many different entry points to the entertainment industry — I came at it from the aspect of finance and banking, whereas others may come with a background in production or animation or interactive media or creative storytelling. There’s a lot of cross-pollination that happens. Try out different roles and find your place of passion within the community.”

The process of switching among different tracks and pioneering creative ventures is an ideal that Williams has embodied throughout his career and aspires to pass onto future generations.

Harvard | arts & film reviewer, philosophy-themed columnist, in search of new conversations | Twitter @limowooj

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