John Nagy | January 5, 2017
A long time ago in a research and development laboratory far, far away, Raphi Giangiulio made a little piece of cinematic history.
It was the spring of 1999 and the much-anticipated premiere of Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace was queued up to break box office records — and disappoint fans of the great space epic — all over the world.
Of course, that last part wasn’t Giangiulio’s fault. Nor was he in a position to harvest any of the film’s financial windfall. But he did play an important role in a technological breakthrough that few but the movie industry’s closest observers may remember.
Three years out of the University of Texas at Austin, Giangiulio was a mechanical engineer working in Texas Instruments’ DLP unit. DLP stands for Digital Light Processing, and the team had been developing the very first prototype of the digital projectors that would soon replace traditional reel-to-reels in theaters pretty much everywhere. His colleagues designed the electronics and the optics, he says. “I would make everything to hold it all together.”
When The Phantom Menace debuted in Los Angeles and New York on June 18 that year, TI projectors screened the film in two movie houses. The film’s producer, Rick McCallum, called it a milestone. “For the first time ever,” he said, “a filmmaker can be certain that the audience will see and hear the film in the way the filmmaker intended it to be seen and heard.”
Giangiulio stayed at TI eight “fun” years, but not every project was as exciting as the projector. One day while web surfing he came across the site of a woodworker who was showing how he’d made his own wooden band saw and done other sorts of cool, improbable projects, like a one-stop pipe organ. “Very crudely done,” Giangiulio, 43, recalls, “but it worked. I was like, ‘What? You can make an organ in a woodshop?” It seemed like the ultimate project.