Rememberances: Steve Rutt (updated May 25)

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From Michael Temmer

I met Steve Rutt, maybe 35 years ago. He had a place over a rock club. I cannot remember the exact circumstances, but it had to do with used video equipment, through Steve I met  many other wonderful people in the world of video who all had a very high opinion of Steve.

He was always willing to talk and was very generous with his time and very patient with all his friends which are many.
I will miss him.
Let us remember him as the great guy he was.


From Louise Ledeen, NetApp Inc., AMIA Member

When I received the call yesterday that Steve Rutt had passed away, one of the first friends I contacted was Jim Lindner.   Jim is one of the many hundreds of people in NY and around the world who, in part, owe their life-long love affair with the moving image to Steve Rutt.  Steve Rutt was a dear friend and during the early 1970’s a business partner, along with my first husband, Bill Etra.    Bill and I met Steve in the late 1960’s.  Steve’s friend Paul Goor, Bill and my dearest friend, Susan Beth Smith, were all were attending New College at Hofstra.   Paul and Steve had been childhood friends and were in the AV club together in Great Neck, LI.  They both enjoyed creating pyrotechnic events to their parents’ horror and their friends’ amazement.  

Steve was fascinated with all technology, but I remember that one of his early mentors was a CBS news editor named George Hartman.  George was an extremely large man and the space between the 2”Quad machines in the CBS newsroom were designed with George in mind.  Sometimes George would let us visit him.  I remember the moment that Steve, Bill and I watched as George got a call, and ran across the machine room to make an ‘L splice’ on a quad tape in seconds, during an on-air Walter Cronkite newscast.   We all looked at each other in amazement and I could see in Steve’s eyes – his sheer joy in the magic and spontaneity of the television medium. 

When we first really got involved with Steve professionally, he was working at his uncle and father’s company – Sprague Electronics.   By this time I had just finished college, Bill had sold our car and bought a porta-pak.  It was a wonderful time to be artists, film and video makers in NY.  Video equipment was suddenly in the hands of the people, grants were plentiful and many artists and technologists were collaborating on new forms of electronic music and enhancing film and video with electronic effects.  These collaborative efforts were taking place simultaneously, everywhere.

The Paik Abe synthesizer, and early synthesizer work by Eric Siegel, Lee Harrison, Bill Hearn, Steve Beck, Dan Sandin, Dan Slater, Walter Wright and of course the vision and friendship of Woody and Steina Vasulka, all helped propel the idea (or fantasy) to go forth and create a modular analog synthesizer and get it into the hands of artists and access to as many people as possible. 

After many all-nighters and long months in the corner of the Sprague factory, and countless meals in the Howard Johnson’s, Steve and Bill developed the first Rutt Etra video synthesizer.  It was not the first synthesizer, by any means, but it was the first ‘commercially available’ synthesizer due largely to Steve’s desire to make his passion for electronics a real business endeavor.   Steve had also designed a video strobe device that was used to capture motion imagery for television and commercials.  He thought it was really cool when Woody and Steina Vasulka let us drag it to the Kitchen, where we proceeded to have a video strobe art event with lots of large balloons and bodies hurling through space.  Steve was into ‘the coolness factor’ in a big way.

A few years later, Bill and I had moved to California, and split up.   Through it all Steve and I remained close friends.   Steve rarely ventured out of Manhattan, let alone New York, so I would spend time with Steve when I visited.  He always wanted to show me his latest gadget or the piece of equipment that he had just beaten into submission at Rutt Video.  He found it extremely amusing that I, of all people – aka ‘the muse’, continued working in ‘the business’ of developing computer graphics tools, digital dailies and media management workflows for film and television.   Steve was a dear friend, mentor, and as generous and gracious a person as one is likely to encounter.  He will be missed.


From Jim Lindner, Media Matters LLC

Steve Rutt, a brilliant video engineer and artist died yesterday. Steve and Rutt Video were a landmark in the New York video post production community for over 40 years. Many video engineers and technicians and many video artists got their start with Steve, whether it was by working or just by hanging out at Rutt Video, or by using something Steve invented – even if they did not know Steve. 

One could not help but learn and do fun things when you hung out at Rutt Video. I do not know how many people came through Rutt as clients, as editors, as technicians in the machine room, or just as people who for the most part hung around and drank coffee. It was thousands. Even if you just hung out – you learned, and almost always had input into what was going on…. and there always was a lot going on. Steve was a magnet for creative projects, and while he certainly preferred clients and projects who had the money to help support what was a very expensive place to run… if you had no money and Steve liked you, or your project – somehow it got done. Steve was extraordinarily generous. 

Steve pioneered so many innovations in video that it is impossible to catalog them all and I am sure he would have objected if I tried. Steve was a quiet and modest man, rarely appreciated being in the spotlight, rarely took credit for his innovations, and preferred to help others do amazing things. 

It is hard to describe Steve’s brilliance because it is in an area that few are really brilliant. Perhaps a few pictures would help a bit….

Steve sitting at the console is pretty close to perfect. I can tell you that each piece of equipment you see is there for a reason. If it did not provide a cool effect or required function it was not there. When you look at the picture to the left below the top picture and see the machine room – that was all the stuff needed to make the stuff at the console that Steve is sitting at, work. I will tell you that Steve knew how all of that worked, and he kept it working, for the most part with little assistance. There is not a single piece of equipment in these pictures whose function Steve did not know.  Not a button, not a switch, not a connector, not a wire, not a hidden menu function.  Steve had an encyclopedic grasp of video and how things worked, and so when something went wrong – as it often did when you have that much stuff (and it was not nearly as reliable as equipment today) – Steve knew how to figure it out and fix it, and he did. Steve enjoyed providing an environment where people could do “cool things”.

I do not remember the first time I met Steve, but it was in the very early 70’s – in the porta-pak era. He was always involved in doing interesting things. I remember one of the first times at his place when I saw that he had 1″B machines running and doing editing. Everyone else was running Quad and a few places had just gotten 1″ C machines in those days, but there was Steve running machines that no one else had ever seen nor used. I remember asking him why he had those machines and not the 1″ machines everyone else was using, and he told me. And after about 10 minutes I was absolutely convinced that these were the best machines and that anyone else (including me) just did not understand. That was typical – if Steve thought a certain technology was cool or better – he got it and he really did not care much about what other people did. 

Very early on he got an Avid editor. It seemed counter intuitive to me – he had millions tied up in editing rooms, and here was this little crappy buggy editor that essentially would make people not use the big editing rooms. I saw it as competition and told him so, Steve looked at me strangely and said – “No Jim – this is just another way to edit and do cool stuff”.

I still do not know who was right on that one, but Steve was always buying new equipment and putting it into the system and removing other equipment. Over the years, many million dollars were spent, and Steve had no reservations at all in spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in a blink if he believed that the equipment did cool things that other equipment did not do. If he did not find a piece of equipment on the market that did what he wanted to do, he would occasionally build one. The Rutt Etra was only one of the many things he built – he built an analog video repositioning system (pre ADO which was Digital) and many other little circuits and widgets that were buried in the facility that only Steve understood the function of.  We just knew that it worked.

There is a lot to know about Steve, and it is not too much of a surprise that some of his work is on the Internet. I am sure that Steve would prefer that you looked at his work rather then hear people like me describe it.

The Rutt Video web site has a great deal of work that is interesting to look at and some history as well:

Along with Bill Etra, Steve built one of the first accessible analog computer animation systems called the Rutt Etra Synthesizer. A great deal of video art was made using the Rutt Etra Synthesizer – a description of which is here:

There is a great deal of video art on the Internet that was produced using the Rutt Etra Synthesizer and I hope that some video artists on this list will give a much more detailed description then I could, but if you have not really seen any analog computer animation then go to YouTube and search with “Steve Rutt” and there are several pieces to view.

So other then video art – what does this have to do with AV Archiving you may ask?

Around 1991 I was working as a machine room operator at Rutt Video part time. I had left the job of being the Managing Director of Devlin Videoservice – a large Standards Conversion and post production facility and making a very nice salary. I needed a job. Steve was generous and gave me one.  Steve got a phone call from the Andy Warhol Foundation. They had some 1/2″ Reel to Reel tapes that they could not play back in their machines. They said the tapes were sticky, and needed some help and so called Rutt. Steve knew that I had some experience with those machines, and so asked me if I wanted to go help them out – he was too busy running the place.   He said that they said something about sticky tapes, but they probably just did not know how to run the machines. Everyone knew tapes never got sticky – no one had ever heard anything like this. I was just hanging out at that moment, and I desperately needed the money (and Steve knew it) – and I was glad for the referral.

I went to the Warhol Foundation and tried to play back the tapes, and found out that they were indeed sticky. Very strange.   I had nothing else to do really, I needed the money – and they needed someone to play them back. They asked me if I would continue to work on it – and I was thrilled…. a job! I figured I would have it all done in a week or two. I knew I needed a lot of equipment to play these tapes back, and a place to do it. I asked Steve if I could use a corner somewhere to do the project, and he said that I could. He never charged me a penny to use the space or his video equipment or his expertise. Nothing. He thought the project was cool – that was it. 

It took me about 2 years to play those tapes back. I had to figure out not only how to solve the sticky tape problem, but to get past some rather major electronics issues as well. During that time I would occasionally ask Steve for help. One day I had a deck set up in the machine room and was trying to play back a tape and having real trouble. I had the video playing back through the Tek VM700 – the ultimate waveform monitor – one so complicated that only people like Steve really understood how to use them (I did my best but it was really beyond me). 

The facility had both editing rooms down – that meant 2 sets of unhappy clients not paying. Steve was frantically trying to get the place working. I was very absorbed in what I was doing and so I asked Steve if he could figure out why the video looked so bad. He told me that he was busy, and to ask him later. I asked him about 10 minutes later – I was not paying attention. Steve came over and looked at me (not at the VM700) and said – “You know what the problem is Jim? I do not need to even look at the scope. I will tell you what the problem is – this is a piece of S—, it was a piece of S— 20 years ago when they made it, and it is a piece of S— now, and it will be a piece of S— 20 years from now, so leave me alone – I have a company to run….”. 

I was more then a little startled. I had never heard Steve talk like that. Here was a guy who was giving me a job as an operator so I could eat, gave me a lead on a consulting project doing Andy Warhol’s video tapes, gave me space in his place to do the work…. But I felt the light bulb go on – Steve was telling me something.  I was doing work that no one in the current video world could deal with. They had facilities to run, and these tapes were all just trouble for them. No one had time to look back – they all were working as hard as they could just to keep the current equipment working. They did not have time to deal with the old stuff. Once again, I learned from Steve, and I decided then and there at that moment to specialize in playing back old tapes. If it was not for Steve there would not have been a VidiPax nor a SAMMA.

I owe a lot to Steve Rutt, but it isn’t just me. These kinds of stories are typical of people who ran into Steve, at one point or another in their careers. I never ran into someone who worked there who did not have a Steve Rutt story. They did not always involve Steve directly, it was more like he provided the tools and environment and many, many people passed through, but anyone in NY doing creative work ran into Steve and Rutt Video at one point or another. 

He was brilliant, creative, and mentor to many.

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