Although best known for her work in setting global tech standards, Warner Bros.’s Wendy Aylsworth is also a leader in communicating technology’s issues to Hollywood’s creative side.
Bridging The Gap Between Art And Tech
In 1971, as 17-year-old Wendy Aylsworth debated majoring in computer engineering, there were few women in the field, and personal computers were rudimentary toys for computer enthusiasts. Bill Gates hadn’t entered Harvard yet, and Steve Jobs’ Apple I wouldn’t debut until 1976.
Aylsworth’s first love had been music and she dreamed of becoming a professional flutist. But the Detroit native did not win either of two slots for flute in the University of Michigan’s performance program, leaving her with the option of music education instead — something she thought she’d tire of over the years.
So the girl who had also excelled in math and science, and whose high school math teacher had taken her under his wing and let her punch programming cards for his “pretty basic” PC — “It didn’t even have a keyboard,” she recalls — signed up for computer programming classes.
Today, Aylsworth, 59, is senior vice president of technology for Warner Bros. Technical Operations and the first woman president of the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers (SMPTE).
She is also TVNewsCheck’s 2013 recipient of its annual Women in Technology Leadership Award.
Aylsworth’s career has included designing programming at Lockheed so Navy pilots could find enemy submarines — that’s where she met her husband — and working on simulators to train soldiers while at Honeywell.
DISNEYLAND, WB & SMPTE
In 1989, she made the transition from war to entertainment, joining the Walt Disney Co. to manage its software department for theme park rides and to direct engineering efforts for animation.
She arrived at Warner Bros. in 1994 as director of technology in the newly-created feature animation division. Five years later, she moved over to technical operations for the entire company.
Aylsworth is perhaps best known for her work developing the industry’s earliest standards for digital cinema and getting them adopted by the International Standards Organization in 2008. As chair of SMPTE’s D-Cinema Technology Committee, she traveled the world talking to camera operators and cinematographers to get the standards accepted.
“I think it’s one of the cornerstones of my career,” she says of the effort.
Before the new standards, the quality of digital cinema wasn’t as good as that of traditional 35 millimeter film or of high-definition TV, she says. Now, she said, it’s better than both.
More recently, Aylsworth paved the way for Warner Bros.’ release of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey by helping thousands of theaters around the world upgrade their projectors to High Frame Rate technology. That allowed them to play the movie at twice the normal frames per second, creating a smoother picture.
“There wasn’t a theater in the world that could do what he [Jackson] wanted to do” before the changes, she said. By the time the movie opened in December 2012, Aylsworth said she had certified 4,000 screens capable of playing it.
Despite the respect she has earned in the industry, there were times over the years when Aylsworth wondered if she should have stuck with music. She didn’t like the chilly computer labs. And while writing computer programs is a solitary process, “I’m sort of social,” she says.
An epiphany came as she worked at Lockheed, when she realized there was a need for techies who could communicate with the customer (in that case, the Navy).
That’s something Aylsworth excels at, says Amy Pell, who came to know the tech leader when both worked on the 1992 Disney animated film, Aladdin. “She could talk to the artists. She almost was a kind of interpreter between the artists and the technology guys,” Pell says.
Having found her path, Aylsworth headed to the University of Southern California for the credential that would turn her into more manager than programmer.
In 1981, armed with a Master of Science in management sciences (“I call it my M.S., M.S.,” she jokes.), Aylsworth was ready to use her technology background to focus on business and strategic planning. “And suddenly I was having a really great career. I was having a ball,” she says.
HELP FROM FRIENDS
Aylsworth points to Pell — like her, a woman who pushed against the era’s glass ceilings — as a valued confidante.
Chris Cookson, now president of Sony Pictures Technologies, was another crucial colleague along the way, Aylsworth says. In 1999, Warner Bros. decided to close the feature animation division where Aylsworth worked. Cookson, then chief technology officer of Warner Bros. Entertainment and president of technical operations, decided the company should find a way to keep this “tremendously capable” woman — someone he describes as smart, a good leader and someone with the ability to “cut through the hard-core engineering.”
Cookson moved Aylsworth over to technical operations as a VP.
Technical operations was a bigger pond, a place where a manager had to get used to the idea that there would always be more to do than could get done. The important thing was making sure the important things didn’t fall off the plate, Aylsworth says. “It just seemed a little scary to me,” she recalls. But, “Chris is a very patient and calm leader.”
That was 14 years ago.
Today, Aylsworth monitors emerging technologies that might affect Warner Bros. She also keeps up with the wide array of devices consumers now use to access entertainment — computers, tablets and phones in addition to TVs and theaters — and figures out what content is more palatable where.
When she thinks of those who brought her here, the first name she conjures belongs to someone not in the industry. It’s her father, Robert L. Aylsworth, who worked as a superintendent or manager at Ford Motor Co. for 36 years.
The elder Aylsworth, now 94 and retired in Florida, remembers his last job with Ford, opening a plant in Brazil. It was the early 1970s, and Ford was beginning to use computers to run some of its equipment, he says. “Computers were in their infancy at that time. But the company was going whole-hog to get into computers.”
“My father was always encouraging me to get involved in computers because he thought this was the wave of the future,” Wendy Aylsworth says. “He would always say: ‘This is going to change the world.’ ”
The world will probably never know what kind of flutist Wendy Aylsworth would have been. Aylsworth, herself, says she gave up the what-ifs about a music career long ago, deciding technology was the best choice. “It’s always changing. It’s always exciting.”
But Cookson too thinks she chose the better path. “I think what she’s done has had a much greater effect than what she thought of doing.”
This story originally appeared in TVNewsCheck’s Executive Outlook, a quarterly print publication devoted to the future of broadcasting. Subscribe here.