College of Liberal Arts | Spring 2021

Meet Distinguished Alumni Award recipient Robert Heiber

Robert Heiber

This week we will recognize the five Purdue College of Liberal Arts graduates who were recognized with the 2019 Distinguished Alumni Award on Friday, March 22.

Today’s recipient is Robert Heiber (BA 1973, Communication), president of The Rick Chace Foundation, whose mission is “to break the silence on the history, art, and technology” of motion picture sound. Heiber worked with Chace Productions for many years in film sound preservation after previously having worked in Los Angeles at Warner Bros. and as an award-winning industrial filmmaker in Chicago. He was admitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1999.

Here are some thoughts Heiber shared with THiNK Magazine editor David Ching on his career, his Purdue experience, and why studying liberal arts changed his life:

Q: How has majoring in liberal arts made a difference in your life?

A: Majoring in liberal arts was how I was actually able to graduate college. I started out as an engineer as a lot of the students back in the day did. Basically they took in two-thirds more engineering students than they could actually graduate. I found the liberal arts program really through a circuitous path. I went from engineering to aviation technology, to psychology, and then to the School of what was then Humanities, Social Science, and Education, the HSSE. In fact, back in those days the engineers used to call us the ‘Hissy Sissies.’

But in liberal arts, I discovered communications and the Radio-TV-Film program, which was fun because I had absolutely no clue that a degree in this area existed, or even that the school existed when I got here. But the beauty of going to college is you meet a lot of people from all kinds of different backgrounds and they’re all doing different things. In this case, I helped a friend out with a project and they were in the School of Communications and it was like, ‘Well, this is fun. You can actually get a degree doing this? Sign me up.’

So it was actually my fourth school at the university, and I think that’s maybe the great thing about universities as opposed to going to a smaller college. At a university, you have a bunch of colleges, and if you find that the one you liked isn’t the one that best suits your skillset, there’s other opportunities without having to change schools.

So I got my degree in communications and was very, very lucky in the fact that as part of my coursework in Radio-TV-Film, one of the things we were able to do in our senior year was back in the day there were a lot of industrial film companies making sales and training and promotional films, and of course there’s a big race that they do every year on Memorial Day down in Indianapolis, and the school would provide a few students to help out the professional film crews at the race.

Our professor at the time, Karl Lohmann Jr., he selected me and a couple of my buddies to go basically be camera assistants, production assistants at the race. Having that experience, sort of being on a professional film crew and being at one of the most exciting sporting events you can imagine, and having never attended, was just like, ‘This could be a job?’ It really kind of set my course to go pursue that after I graduated college.

And then back in the day, we were very lucky. Having attended Purdue – I grew up in Cleveland, which is not known as the hotbed of the movie industry – I went to Chicago. Of course, being a Purdue grad in Chicago is a real, recognized credential, so people were very happy to talk to me, and that’s how I got my first job in Chicago and started my career there.

Q: Prior to getting into the Radio-TV-Film program, was that one of your interests?

A: That’s just the amazing part of the whole story. I pictured myself as an aeronautical engineer and maybe even as a professional airline pilot, which is why I moved into the aviation tech program back in the early 70s. So it wasn’t until I helped this person out with this communications project that I even discovered the school and said, ‘This is fun.’ And I liked it. And my parents were really generous in that respect of saying, ‘Well, go ahead and apply to the communications school.’

Q: What was your favorite course at Purdue and why?

A: Really what’s neat is that Purdue is certainly not known as a film school. The fact that it wasn’t meant that it wasn’t a very large class. I think there were only 20 people in our program at the time, so you really had close contact with your professors and lots of hands-on work. So really all of them: Dick Forsythe in radio and Marvin Diskin for television and Karl for film production, they were all really important figures.

They weren’t only teachers, but they were instructors and mentors and they had a sense of professionalism about what the career could be that made it both interesting and exciting – and there was maybe the potential that you could even make some money doing it, which would be nice. But all three programs, I got takeaways from all of them that I still remember today, which is good.

Q: Which professional route do you think you might have selected if not the Radio-TV-Film path that you chose?

A: Once I realized that engineering was not my strong suit, and then the aviation technology part, which was a lot of fun – I did learn to fly out at the Purdue University Airport – but I also learned there that I didn’t have the skills and actually the physical ability. I have a little vision discrepancy that at the time would have prevented me from flying for the major airlines. So then psychology actually seemed very, very interesting.

I like the thought-provoking, mind-exploration things, and then the fact that I did know math pretty well, I thought some sort of research in psychology. I actually assisted some of the grad students in psychology with research projects and things like that, and I thought that would have been very satisfying. It’s sort of technical and scientific, but it has a little more freedom of thought. That’s probably the course I would have pursued had I not been conscripted into somebody’s communication project.

Q: So how was it that film sound preservation came into the mix?

A: Well that’s part of the whole Bob Heiber story. It comes about because I spent five years in Chicago, which is where I met Robin, and we got married. And then I was doing industrial motion picture filmmaking and was totally hands-on. I did everything but process film, and it was a terrific background. And then I thought, ‘Well, Chicago’s really cold and the weather’s terrible,’ and the industrial film business was changing at the end of the 70s because video technologies were becoming widespread in use in the corporate communication world. So I just figured we’d go west and give it a shot out in Los Angeles where the real movie industry was. And then I ended up totally hands-off and away from film for 11 years when I worked for Warner Bros., kind of as a studio manager, but I was always looking for the entry back into the business.

The hard part in L.A., it was at the time a very unionized business, so you could only do one thing at a time. You could be an editor, you could be a cameraman, you could be the guy who held the light, you could paint the sets, but you couldn’t do all four of those things, which is what I had done in Chicago. Of course I liked that. So the only other course, then, was to be a producer or director. I thought that would good, but there was a long line of guys who wanted to be directors.

And so after this 11-year apprenticeship in studio management, I met this brilliant guy who had a small audio post-production company and his name was Rick Chace. It was a very technical company, so that really spoke back to my technical interests and early engineering thoughts, and he taught me, really, this entire industry of sound preservation and restoration from the standpoint of what the services were. And he had invented a few very key technologies that made the company unique. It was a very small company. But then the need for these services started to explode because it was the time when cable services – so companies like Turner Entertainment – launched all their broadcasting operations. The home video industry was just emerging, but it was all on videocassette if you recall those. So the demand for the services that the company was designed to provide really exploded.

I say it was a school of hard knocks, but really we’d be presented with problems because we were a very small, independent company, non-union, but all the studios would send us the stuff they just didn’t want to do because it wasn’t mainstream and it wasn’t important and the dollars attached to it weren’t big. So they’d send us all this stuff and then we’d look at it and try to figure out how to solve the problems. So we came up with a lot of ways of handling the material, and then the industry started to really explode with demand and we were the facility that had the services and the expertise to provide it.

And it turned out that it was something that really was a natural pathway in my career because it was technical, it was historical, there was an educational component. We had the opportunity to still go out and try to create solutions, so it was very creative from that standpoint, but also had a technical kind of bent, and I worked with a terrific group of people who were very smart and very, very motivated, and we built up a terrific business.

When the American Film Institute listed the 100 best movies the very first time they did that list, 94 of those pictures had been through our facility. So we were really considered kind of the pros from Dover when it came to doing it. And even when they redid the list in 2000, we’d done 92 of those pictures – because they picked a few of the newer ones and those don’t need those kinds of services.

Q: On that list, is there a favorite project where you’re especially proud of the work the company did?

A: They’re all really important movies from the standpoint of the creative achievement by the filmmakers that made them. There are some really great success stories of what I really just like to call perseverance.

One of my favorites is one that we finished fairly close to when I finished my work at the company, which is West Side Story. In that case, that picture had early on – which is in the early 60s – been mixed for 6-track stereo. It was really one of the very first pictures. But then those 6-track masters were lost. And so for the next 40 years, anything anyone had ever heard had either been something that had been faked from the original 4-tracks or the original 4-track mix, which is also very, very good. But the other was 6-track stereo that had been done by a guy named Murray Spivack who was one of the actual cornerstone sound engineers, creators of the entire motion picture industry. And so MGM in their quest to try to solve this problem literally spent two years combing the globe looking for every possible piece of sound material from West Side Story, and then they brought it all to our facility.

I used to get involved a lot with the organization of the projects, even though I was not the technician anymore. I liked the creative challenge of organizing it and helping the guys figure out how we would approach problems. And we were inspecting material and we open up a box that had been mislabeled, and here from the early 1960s are the original 6-track masters for West Side Story. It was like finding gold in the goldmine.

We had a lot of great stories. We got to work on some of the earliest sound materials in the entire industry. Another great one was a piece of film we got from the Swedish Film Institute. It was an experimental recording made in 1921, and we helped them recover those recordings and create new copies, authentic copies, without enhancing it or making it better, but just recovering it basically because we have technologies to allow us to do it to hear what is now almost a 100-year-old recording. You can hear this guy and basically he’s doing sound tests in 1921 on this material. It was fascinating.

For me, the best thing was you never knew what was going to show up in a box, and then the fun part was figuring out how we’d make it work. We were successful most of the time.

Q: How has Purdue changed since you were a student?

A: Well of course it’s a lot bigger. I don’t know that it’s changed all that much, really. Certainly from my first two visits to campus, I’m participating in the Liberal Arts 300 project, students are still kind of students. The world has changed around them.

For me, the college experience – you go to school to get a degree and want to go into a profession, which is important – but going away to college, getting to Lafayette was so difficult when I was growing up in Cleveland. Back in the day, there really were no great roads. Literally when I went to school, my parents rented a car and said, ‘Drive yourself down there. You know how to get there. We don’t want to do the ride again.’

We sent our two boys off to school and there’s a lot more parental involvement: setting up the dorm, and being in touch, and everybody’s got one of these things (a cell phone), so you can track your kid or be in touch every single moment. When I wanted to talk to my parents, I had to go to the phone bank at Owen Hall and sometimes just to check in you do the old collect call game. You tell the operator you need to make a collect call and when they ask who is calling, ‘Tell them that it’s Bob Fine at college.’ Then they say, ‘I have a call from Bob Fine at college,’ and my mom would go, ‘That’s great. Thanks, but we won’t take the call’ and hang up. If you really wanted to do something, you wrote a letter.

So you had less supervision and a little more freedom to really grow and be your own self. I had terrific experiences. The school offered so many different things. I know it does that now and 10 times more than it did even when I went to school. So the real thing is do the kids have time to take advantage of that? Does the school make sure that’s an important part of the experience? Because I think that’s a critical part of going to school. It’s not just academics.