The Creative Catalyst: An Unassuming Maverick Who Quietly Reinvented Industry Standards by Ira Tiffen

Reference: StudentFilmmakers Magazine, February 2007. The Creative Catalyst: An Unassuming Maverick Who Quietly Reinvented Industry Standards by Ira Tiffen. Pages 26 – 27.

While many know his name, few today may know what he did that was so important, because we have long been taking it for granted.

At seventeen, he was an airplane mechanic; at nineteen, foreman of a machine shop; and at twenty-one, he had his own machine shop. He then joined with two of his older brothers in a commercial venture that soon became a key source for lathe-turned aluminum photographic accessories like lens caps, adapter rings and filter rings.
His name was Nat Tiffen. He passed away on November 21, 2006. He was my father.

Nat was inquisitive and persistent. He asked tough questions and sought out answers in others and in his own experimentation. And as usual, one thing led to another…

Providing filter rings brought customer requests for complete filters. Looking for ways to expand his offerings, Nat obtained filter glass from the then-available sources. He soon realized that it didn’t adequately match the needs of the market. In the 1950’s, he embarked upon the research that led him to the development of the glass lamination process by which most Tiffen filters have since been made.

The then-contemporary processes for making filters were deficient in several ways. Nat set out to find an alternative that addressed these issues. Solid filter glass, colored with additives during the glass melt formulation, changed color density with thickness. If a filter of nominal 0.100” thickness, similar to that of many standard filter sizes, were to vary by a typical tolerance of plus/minus 0.005”, that meant thickness could vary a total of 0.010” which was a ten percent variation overall. The result of this was that the color density also would vary by ten percent. Nat’s glass needed to do better than that.

Another problem with solid glass was that it could only be made cost-efficiently in relatively large batches, which did not lend itself toward making many of the more professionally-focused filter types that were needed, especially initially, only in small volume.

Gel filters had the color accuracy required, and Kodak’s were actually the standards Nat first used to develop his own filter colors. Gels suffered from being easily damaged through environment and handling. The method then in use to improve gels was to cement them between glass. The problem with this was two-fold. The refractive index of the gel and that of the glass were different enough to make true optical quality difficult to obtain. Resolution suffered. In addition, especially in tropical climates, the cemented gel was still susceptible to fungal growth that destroyed its use as a filter.

There were other filters made from cementing two layers of glass together, but these were not ideally durable, often separating under situations of high altitude or kinetic shock. In addition, numerically graded filters were available only as sets; if you broke or lost one filter of a set, you had to send the whole set back to have one made that fit it. This was because the individual filter grades were not consistent with each other. The grade two from one set may not exactly match the grade two of another set.

All of these issues were problematic for cameramen. Nat listened to them and, after years of experimenting, perfected the process that would lead to an entirely new range of products for Tiffen, and of optical effects for the world.

The unique aspects of this process began with two layers of clear glass which were joined together using a material that acted as both bonding agent and filter effect. Unlike cemented gel construction, and other glass-bonding techniques then in use, this internal layer was both of similar refractive index to the glass, and also only about 0.001” thick, which made it optically ideal for producing high-resolution results.

Color could be added to this layer in a manner that was far more controllable than any previous method for making glass filters. It was also of critical importance that the lamination was able to withstand the rigors of optical finishing, the grinding and polishing that produce perfectly parallel and flat exterior surfaces for the finest optical quality. And when it was ground and polished to final thickness, a ten percent variation in overall thickness affected only the outer layers of clear glass, not the filter-effect layer within. Variation in density due to variation in filter thickness became virtually nil.

The process was also cost-effective for small quantities, allowing custom filters, even one-offs, to be made that in some cases only later became standard production items. Many of the filters we know today had their start as a cameraman’s vision for a film translated into glass by Nat.

The chemistry of this internal layer was also different in that it had long-term durability that rivaled that of solid glass – it simply did not separate in use. Nat’s confidence in his new process was such that he backed it up by a ‘lifetime’ warranty, which only became the current ten-year warranty when the government changed the rules regulating such things.

Nat did one additional thing with his process that endeared him to many – he made consistent grades. You could lose one filter of a set, walk into the nearest dealer and buy another on the spot, and it would exactly match the others. This made filters far more accessible, as having to have extra filter sets on set to ensure production schedules was no longer necessary. No downtime came from having to return an entire set to the factory for replacement of a single filter.

Having developed his filter process was not enough. Back then, no one in the motion picture world had heard of Tiffen. Nat had begun using his filter glass for still photography applications, but this was of little interest to the cinematographer. Making motion pictures was a tradition-laden business. No one could afford to stake his professional reputation on something new and untested unless there was a special need for it. Even then, breaking with tradition was not easy.

Nat had to find a way to get his product introduced. He made the rounds to the various studios with his filter samples and, while treated cordially, was often politely shown the door. This went on until he got his break through the head of the camera department at Columbia Pictures, Bill Widmayer. One of Bill’s productions had a problem, and it turned out that the filter samples Nat had left with him had solved it. Word got around, and from then on, Nat became familiar to many on set.

Over the years, he added to his range of effects, introducing diffusions, fog effects, star filters, and more. His introduction, in the sixties, of the FL-D and FL-B was seminal, as it eliminated the need for an entire assemblage of CC filters and a color temperature meter in controlling color under fluorescent lighting.

Here was a man, though self-taught and without ever having gone to college, who had created the best answer available for optical color and effects control of images using filters. Yet his unassuming manner allowed him to work well with people at all levels.

During the filming of Jaws, he had watched while a rowboat carrying camera and crew left the dock. Noticing how it lay in the water, Nat called out that there was too much weight aboard…Unfortunately, it was too late, and the boat sank, swamping all on board. This elicited comments that next time they’ll check with him first.

Stanley Kubrick, and his long-time cinematographer John Alcott, corresponded with Nat. John used to send Polaroids of filter combinations he was experimenting with while on his travels. Most were of airplanes made while waiting in the lounge. John was constantly experimenting. His filming of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon almost entirely through Nat’s Low Contrast filters created a ‘look’ that helped him garner an Oscar® in 1975, along with numerous other awards.

Countless others sought Nat out for advice over the years, and he gave it freely. He himself often learned by listening, and he was always interested in helping others to do the same.

Ultimately, Nat succeeded in making his name, for many, synonymous with the products he produced. His achievements were recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with both a Technical Achievement and a Scientific Achievement Award. In addition, he received a Prime-Time Emmy Award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

In so many ways, his influence transcended his modest ego; his creativity lives on in the myriad productions past, present, and future that take advantage of his methods of controlling light to help tell our stories most effectively.
He was also a loving father of four and grandfather of eleven. He will be missed by many.

In over 30 years of making optical filters, Ira Tiffen created the Pro-Mist, Soft/FX, Ultra Contrast, GlimmerGlass, and others, netting him both a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a Prime-Time Emmy Award. Elected a Fellow of the SMPTE in 2002, he is also an Associate member of the ASC, and the author of the filter section of the “American Cinematographer Manual.”

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