Bran Ferren

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Bran Ferren
Action portrait of a man in his fifties with a bushy, strawberry-blond beard seated while speaking wearing a safari jacket and gold watch
Born (1953-01-16) January 16, 1953 (age 65)[1]
New York City, New York, U.S.
Alma materMIT[2]
OccupationCo-Founder and Chief Creative Officer, Applied Minds[3]
RelativesJohn Ferren (father)

Bran Ferren (born January 16, 1953), is an American technologist,[4][5] artist,[6][7] architectural designer,[8][9] vehicle designer,[10][11][12] engineer,[10][11][12] lighting and sound designer,[13][14] visual effects artist,[15] scientist,[16] lecturer,[17][18] photographer,[19] entrepreneur,[20] and a prolific inventor.[21][22] Ferren is the former President of Research and Development of Walt Disney Imagineering[23] as well as founder of Associates & Ferren, a multidisciplinary engineering and design firm acquired in 1993 by Disney.[24] He is Chief Creative Officer of Applied Minds, which he co-founded in 2000 with Danny Hillis. Apple's "pinch-to-zoom" patent, which features prominently in its legal battle with Samsung, was invalidated by the US Patent and Trademark Office in 2013 based on a 2005 patent by Ferren and Hillis for multi-touch gestures.[25][26][27]

Early life[edit]

Bran Ferren was the only child of artists John Ferren and Rae Ferren.[8] He grew up surrounded by art, artists, and technology. His father, whose work is part of the permanent collections of many American art museums, mixed with luminaries such as Picasso, Miró, and Mondrian[28] before becoming an integral member of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists.[29] His father was also personal friends with Alfred Hitchcock and created paintings for The Trouble with Harry and designed the nightmare sequence in Vertigo.[30] Ferren's uncles came from the worlds of engineering and technology: Roy Ferren served as director of flight test for North American Aviation[31] (later North American Rockwell) and worked on the B-25 Mitchell bomber,[32] X-15 rocket plane, XB-70 Valkyrie, and B-1 Lancer bombers. Stanley Tonkel, was a noted senior recording engineer for Columbia Records, who engineered recordings for artists such as Miles Davis,[33] Barbara Streisand, Aretha Franklin, and Bob Dillon.[34]

He first attended Hunter College Elementary School for gifted students in New York City, followed by a year at the American Community School, in Beirut Lebanon (1963-1964) while his father served as the first artist-in-residence for a U.S. Department of State cultural exchange program to introduce American abstract art to the Middle East. After returning from overseas, he spent three years at the McBurney School in New York City, and then the last three years of high school at East Hampton High School, in East Hampton, New York.

Ferren started his first design and engineering company, Synchronetics while in high school.[35] He left high school at age 16 to attend MIT, but departed in 1970 to continue entrepreneurial pursuits. Despite his short stay at MIT, he was invited back by then school president Charles M. Vest to be a keynote speaker for MIT Technology Day 1996.[36] Before his 21st birthday, Ferren had worked on TV commercials, films, and regional theater. He had also pioneered visual effects for arena concerts for groups such as Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Laurie Anderson, Pink Floyd, Roger Waters, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, R.E.M, Depeche Mode, and Foreigner, using pyrotechnics, audio, projection, and novel lighting techniques.[35][37]


Associates & Ferren[edit]

Ferren founded Associates & Ferren at the age of 25[1][3][4] to do work at the "crossroads of design and science and entertainment."[37] One of the first projects was for Broadway play The Crucifer of Blood, a Sherlock Holmes mystery that starred Glenn Close and won Ferren a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle award.[38] The production featured a "shattering display of thunder and lightning",[39] which got the attention of director Ken Russell, leading to Ferren's first prominent assignment as Special Visual Effects director on a major Hollywood science-fiction film, Altered States.[35]

For his work in theater, Ferren also received two New York Drama Desk Awards,[40] the Maharam Foundation Award,[41] and the American Theater Wing, Hewes Design Award.[42] He has designed the Special Effects and Sound for several Broadway shows,[43] and is a long-term member of the Broadway stagehands union, IATSE Local #1.[44] His theatrical special effects design work for the Broadway productions of Frankenstein, Cats, and Sunday in the Park with George, were widely acknowledged for their groundbreaking special effects. Frank Rich said in his New York Times review of Sunday in the Park with George: "What Mr. Lapine, his designers and the special-effects wizard Bran Ferren have arranged is simply gorgeous."[45] It was the first Broadway musical to utilize digitally-processed projection mapping (pre-processed, geometrically corrected 35mm film projection), a radio-controlled costume with a robotic endoskeleton, 20kW xenon light ray effects, and dazzling high powered lasers that broke the 4th wall, traveling throughout the audience.[46] Frank Rich said of his work in Frankenstein, "Bran Ferren's special audio-visual effects are also impressive by theatrical standards" [47] and Carol Lawson, said in the New York Times, that "critics have remarked that Mr. Ferren's work on this play, which included the spectacular destruction of Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory by his monster, had the lavishness that audiences have come to expect in films, but have never before seen in the theater."[48]

As principal designer of Associates & Ferren, Ferren went on to lead many high-profile projects, such as special effects for the Paul McCartney World Tour,[16] R.E.M, Depeche Mode, Pink Floyd,[1][49] and visual effects for Little Shop of Horrors.[50] He was a technical consultant for the films Impostor and Fat Man and Little Boy, and designed the titles for Simon, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Guilty as Sin, and Little Shop of Horrors.[50] In addition to special effects, they were considered leaders in advanced projection,[51] simulation and laser effects technology, and provided customized equipment for dozens of major road tours, and stationary installations.[52][53]

He also produced, directed, and was the cinematographer for the movie "Funny", which received a Nomination for a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival,[54] and nomination for Best Documentary at the Chicago International Film Festival,[55] Gold Jury prize at the Houston International Film Festival (now called WorldFest Houston),[56] and was featured in the Toronto International Film Festival Midnight Madness program, and at the Cleveland International Film Festival.[57] "Funny" features over 100 individuals, from Dick Cavett to Frank Zappa, telling their favorite jokes on camera.[58]

Ferren served as lead designer, engineer, and producer of the 50-state, 16-month tour of the Bill of Rights, which celebrated the document's bicentennial.[12][59] For the tour, he designed and built the Bill of Rights Secure Transit Vehicle, which transported the fragile parchment document, as well as a 15,000-square-foot travelling exhibit equipped with state-of-the-art lighting, A/V, security, and safety systems.

In addition to their work in the entertainment sector, Associates & Ferren was responsible for developing many technologies for industrial and government customers in the areas of robotics, sound systems, vehicle systems, control systems, scientific research & experiment design,[60] optical systems,[61] and 3D machine vision,[62] as well as moving lighting fixtures for Strand Lighting Inc.[63] Mr. Ferren was responsible for the development of advanced lens and thin-film dichroic coating technologies for the Revo Sunglasses brand, and served in the role of Director of Research & Development for Revo,[64] which established new performance standards for sunglasses including the first to incorporate Infrared blocking. He did the lighting design and interiors concept for Ian Schrager's "White" variation of Studio 54 in NYC, as well as invented the what is believed to be the first multi-monitor video wall, which premiered at the opening of the Palladium Club, also in New York City, in 1985.[65]

By the time Disney acquired Associates & Ferren in 1993, Ferren and the company had won an Academy Award for Science and Engineering as well as two Academy Awards for Technical Achievement.[66][67] Ferren was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Visual Effects for "Little Shop of Horrors",[68] and received a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) nomination for special visual effects.[69] He is a voting member of both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Oscars), and the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences (Emmys).[70]

His entertainment industry projects at Associates & Ferren include:

The Walt Disney Company[edit]

Ferren led the Disney Imagineering R&D group as Senior Vice President, then Executive Vice President, before eventually becoming President of R&D and Creative Technology for Disney,[23] and head of technology for the company for 10 years.[78] According to his former boss, CEO Michael Eisner, Ferren's mission was "to dream about the future and show us new and innovative ways to tell stories".[79] Starting in 1993, he was the first corporate executive to receive the now-common job title of "Creative Technology",[80] indicating responsibility for both creative and technical domains. When Eisner interviewed him on his new talk show, Conversations with Michale Eisner, he said that he loved that Bran "pushed me against the wall, and pushed management" in the areas of creativity and technology.[81] The idea to create the USC Institute for Creative Technologies,[82] and its name (derived from Ferren's title at Disney), originated from discussions with US Army leadership (four-star general Paul J. Kern) on how to gain access to Hollywood entertainment industry expertise in high-technology areas such as computer-based Modeling & Simulation, and Virtual Reality.[83]

Ferren supported Disney's Strategic Planning Group and had direct involvement in a wide variety of design and technology projects for Disney Theme Parks, such as the Tower of Terror ride, the Test Track by General Motors, the Indiana Jones Adventure, the Virtual Reality Animation Studio, and many ABC Television projects.[84] His team was responsible for engineering the ABC Times Square Studios armored electronic-dimming soundproof window systems, and curved LED ticker display.[85][86]

In 1996, Ferren created the Disney Fellows Program which attracted some of the brightest minds in Computer Science, including Alan Kay, Marvin Minsky, and Seymour Papert, as well as astronaut Story Musgrave.[87] The first Disney fellow was parallel-computing pioneer Hillis[88] with whom Ferren went on to found technology innovation and design firm Applied Minds in 2000. Applied Minds is now headquartered in Burbank, California, a few miles from Imagineering headquarters. In 1997 Ferren and the Disney fellows were profiled in a major article in The New Yorker, by David Remnick,[89] and in many other publications and news service including Bloomberg,[90] and Newsweek.[91]

In the 90's, Ferren's research group at Disney developed many pioneering concepts, and produced demonstrations of these ideas and technologies, to familiarize Disney corporate leadership of their potential to transform the entertainment industry. These included gaming box platforms, personal navigators, electronic books, theater-scale digital cinema, direct on-demand music and video delivery to the home via telephone networks (pre World Wide Web & broadband), interactive cable television, safe browsing concepts for kids, and hybrid on-line/theme park concepts.

Applied Minds[edit]

Ferren's company Applied Minds L.L.C. (AMI) has been described as a "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" for geeks.[20] AMI invents, designs, prototypes, and creates high-technology products, vehicles, architectural designs, and services for government institutions and Fortune 100 companies.[92][93] For example, the Smithsonian American Art Museum selected Applied Minds as winner of an international design competition for the renovation of the Renwick Gallery's Grand Salon.[94] AMI also spins off technology companies. Notable spinouts include Metaweb, purchased by Google in 2010[95][96] and cancer diagnostics firm Advanced Proteomics.[97]

In his role as Chief Creative Officer and Co-Chairman, Ferren serves as lead technical consultant, management consultant, systems engineer, engineer, and designer across multiple disciplines. He has headed projects for General Motors,[98] Northrop Grumman,[98] Lockheed Martin,[98] Herman Miller,[98] Intel Corporation,[99] Sony Corporation,[99] ESRI, the Smithsonian Institution,[100] Genworth Financial,[101] the Library of Congress, and several US Government agencies.[99]

Ferren has been named inventor on over 500 current and pending US patents.[21][102] His 2005 patent with Hillis for multi-touch gestures led to the invalidation of Apple's "pinch-to-zoom" patent, which Apple cited in its billion-dollar lawsuit against Samsung.[25][26] Another of his patents is for Metaweb, a contextual database technology that Google acquired in 2010 and which now underlies Knowledge Graph.[103] Google claims Knowledge Graph is "a critical first step towards building the next generation of search". Its output appears on a panel to the right in Google search results or in a carousel at the top of the screen. In addition, Knowledge Graph technology drives Google's autocomplete feature in the search box.[104]

At Applied Minds, Ferren has also been lead designer and engineer on a number of advanced Research & Development vehicle projects, for example:

  • The KiraVan,[105] the next-generation of the MaxiMog, also based on a Mercedes Unimog chassis.[106] The vehicle is currently still in final construction and testing, but was recently the subject of an hour long Extreme RV's special on the Travel Channel,[107] a Vice Motherboard video feature that has been viewed over a million times,[108] and has appeared on hundreds of websites.[109]
  • The MaxiMog,[110] designed to support scientific explorations, research, and location photography anywhere in the world. In 2001, the MaxiMog was on exhibit for three months at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.[10][11]
  • The SmarTruck II,[111] an Army concept vehicle (TARDEC) for defense and emergency response, featured at the 2003 Detroit Auto show.[112]
  • GM-CDV Concept Demonstration Vehicle, a driving demonstrator built in the early 2000s, featuring new concepts in driver interfaces, navigation, seating, infotainment, LED lighting, 3D sound, and semi-autonomous driving assistance.

His architectural and interior design projects include Lockheed Martin's Center for Innovation, known as "The Lighthouse",[113][114] and numerous projects for Northrop Grumman,[115] and the U.S. Government, including inside the Pentagon.

Public speaking & publications[edit]

Ferren, along with Eric Angelson and US Air Force Major General Michael Carey in 2013

Ferren has an extensive public speaking career that has spanned a wide range of professional, government, and academic audiences. His over 250 speaking engagements include Harvard's Center for Public Leadership,[116] MIT,[117][118] MIT Media Lab,[119][120] Wharton,[121] The Smithsonian Institution,[122] The Art Center College of Design,[123] The International Design Conference at Aspen,[124] NASA,[18] The U.S. Army,[125] The US Air Force,[126] The U.S. Navy,[127] UCLA,[128][129] USC,[130] National Academy of Engineering,[131][132] NYU,[133] Intel Corporation,[134] Infosys,[135] The AUVSI Driverless Car Summit,[136] The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers,[137] The Engineers Council,[138] The Smithsonian American Art Museum,[139] The Smithsonian Digital Futures Conference,[140] The Geodesign Summit,[141] RealComm2016,[142] The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA),[143] The Aspen Ideas Festival,[144] The 2017 National Competitiveness Forum,[145] 2018 Miyamoto International, Great Minds Series,[146] several E.G. Conferences,[147][148] and has given multiple TED talks.[149][150][151]

He has delivered the commencement speeches to the California State University, Northridge - College of Arts, Media and Communication (2002)[152]The University of Redlands- College of Arts and Sciences (2014),[153] and the University of Irvine - Claire Trevor School of the Arts, the School of Education, and the School of Physical Sciences (2015).[154]

He was one of the first lecturers and writers to discuss controversial internet-related topics such as the concept of networked human implants,[155] and the idea that reading & writing could turn out to be a fad, to be replaced within 250 years by better and more compelling technology (enabled by what would then-be ubiquitous networked personal electronic technology).[156] His ideas, work, and perspectives on innovation, are often cited by publications and media sources such as The New York Times,[157][158] Wired Magazine,[159] Discover Magazine,[160] The New Yorker,[161] The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM),[162] Fast Company,[163] PC Magazine[164], The Los Angeles Times,[165] Smithsonian Magazine,[166] The Washington Post,[167][168] Newsweek,[169] Time Magazine,[170] American Cinematographer,[171] Theater Crafts/TCI,[172][173] Live Design,[174] Cinefex,[175] NBC News/CNBC,[176] and Strategy+Business.[177]He can be seen and heard on multiple website and podcasts, expressing his ideas on a wide range of topics from autonomous vehicles[178][179], innovation[180], technology[181], creativity & curiosity[182], the future of computing[183], design, and tools[184][185].

He was one of the first technical experts to articulate the concept of Emotional Resolution (as distinguished from Technical Resolution) for imaging systems, in particular for cinema production.[186][187] The concept being that increasing the technical resolution of a system, such as sharpness and contrast (MTF/OTF) above a certain point, may have the effect of reducing the effectiveness of the medium for storytelling, as excessive sharpness encourages the audience to concentrate on the details and flaws of the scene or process (i.e. set construction, props, effects, artificial lighting) or of a performer (makeup, blemishes, wigs), rather than to suspend their disbelief to engage more deeply in the story. One can see the practical efforts to mitigate the undesirable effects of this phenomenon in the extensive range of options in diffusion filters and soft lighting used routinely in still photography, film and television production.

He has authored articles for numerous publications including The New York Times Magazine,[188] Encyclopædia Britannica, MIT Technology Review,[189][190] The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America,[191] and the Proceedings of the SPIE.[192]

Advisory board memberships[edit]

Ferren's advisory work has included board memberships at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission,[193] Securities and Exchange Commission,[194] International Design Conference in Aspen,[195][196] PBS Kids[197] and the science magazine Nautilus.[198] He has also served as a member of the Army Science Board for 5 years,[199] the Defense Science Board,[200] the Naval Historical Foundation Advisory Council,[201] The USO Digital Advisory Council,[202] The Department of Homeland Security,[203] and the Chief of Naval Operations Executive Panel.[204][205] Bran Ferren is a member of the CuriosityStream Advisory Board.[206] He has also been a senior science and technology adviseradvisor for several US Government agencies and the US Senate.[207] In 2016, he was appointed to Toyota Research Institute (TRI) senior advisory board for driving autonomy, artificial intelligence, and robotics.[208][209]

Fine art photography[edit]

Two of his photographs have been accepted into the Smithsonian Museum for American Art permanent collection.[210] He has presented and exhibited his artwork at 2008 the Entertainment Gathering (e.g.) Conference,[211] and exhibited his photography and multimedia work at the Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton. His photographs are part of several private collections, and he is completing the editorial work for a large format photo book project called Eleven Seconds.[212]

Creative collaborations[edit]

In 2009, Ferren collaborated with Laurie Anderson on the exhibition "The Third Mind" at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.[213][214] In 2004, he helped to develop a gigapixel image system and 360 degree cyclorama with artist/photographer Clifford Ross.[215] He worked with Patrice Regnier and Carter Burwell on his film project TESLA.[216] He had creative meetings with Jim Henson in 1988 about a Muppets theme park prior to Henson selling his company to Disney.[217] Prior to the Disney acquisition, Ferren had been in discussions with Steve Ross, CEO of Warner Communications about his acquiring Associates & Ferren and collaborating with Alan Kay on advanced entertainment and gaming technology.[218]

Other awards[edit]

  • In 1998, Bran Ferren received the Wally Russell Lifetime Achievement Award in Lighting Design.[219]
  • In 2000, Bran Ferren received the Kilby International Award for significant contributions to society.[220]
  • In 2011, Fast Company added Bran Ferren to the list of "100 Most Creative People in Business."[221]
  • In 2014, Bran Ferren was presented with the US Intelligence Community Seal Medallion.[222]
  • In 2016, Bran Ferren received the Sir Arthur Clarke Award for Imagination in Service to Society.[223]

In popular culture[edit]

The final scene in the 1980s music video "Take on Me" by A-ha was inspired by the similar scene designed by Ferren in Altered States.[224][225]

A 2013 ELLE Magazine article on Ashton Kutcher, referenced a "memorable birthday party" with Ferren and other friends.[226]


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