This is a work in progress but I figured I’d publish it to get it out there. It will be refined and a short version will come from it. In the meantime here is the TL;DR version of my life history. For a short form listing of skills Marty has acquired please click here.
In 1958 Martin Brenneis made his entrance into the world in Berkeley, California. The son of a photographer, Jon Brenneis and a professional volunteer Aida Brenneis led Martin to a path in the entertainment world where he has worked on many projects using many different skills.
This was a family steeped in the entertainment world and once he could reach the print dryer he started helping in the darkroom.
Through watching his father’s photos go by he learned a lot about the world and how to visualize it.
His brother John Brenneis and sister Lisa Brenneis would also go on to careers in the entertainment industry.
Click the photo to the left for more of the Brenneis family xmas cards.
From an early age Martin was fascinated with devices and things with wires and controls.
In 1969 Martin embarked on 2 similar technical paths. At the recently opened Lawrence Hall of Science he was learning computer programming.
At school he started working with a Sony AVC3400 portable video recording system. Over the next several years the school district asked him to capture many events on video for them, and he was also allowed to use the system to capture his own video projects.
Martin spent a lot of time in the school theaters while his mother was volunteering after school to teach costuming and makeup at Berkeley High. His interest in the technical side of things led him to learning the basics of stagecraft. By the time he got to Berkeley High in 1974 he was familiar with their electrical systems in both the little theater and the Berkeley Community Theater. That led to a job on the student stage crew working alongside the members of IATSE Local 107. Diane MacDonald ran the Berkeley High performing arts department amd she made sure each student got a solid base in all forms of stagecraft including electrics and lighting, props, set construction, sound design, fly rail operations, and with Martin’s help video production.
The technical equipment in the school was new and somewhat fragile. Triacs failed in dimmer packs and camera tubes got burns in them. Martin set out to learn to fix these things, to that end he flew to Burbank and was trained at the Colortran factory to repair their equipment. That made repairs to the school dimmers cost a lot less and resulted in faster turnaround. Colortran also sent him to other customers of theirs in the SF area to handle on site service. A local AV supply company taught him how to service video cameras and change vidicon tubes.
In 1974 Martin’s brother John Brenneis was preparing gear for a rock tour at Swanson Sound Service in Oakland, CA. He needed one more stage box for the system that was in stock. He called inMartin to come to the shop and build it that night. That led to a part-time job at Swanson fabricating custom audio gear. Once he could drive Martin started working for Swanson doing simple community sound jobs. That then led to working on rock and roll concerts which frequently took him back into Berkeley Community Theater as a member of the sound crew rather than a student stagehand.
In 1975 Martin took a class in Advanced First Aid and Emergency Care at the American Red Cross in Berkeley. This was the launch class for a new type of responder training called Emergency Medical Technician. Martin then went on to become an instructor in First Aid and CPR for the Red Cross.
In 1976 Martin graduated from Berkeley High School. The commencement ceremony was held at the Greek Theater on the UC campus. Since Martin was working for Swanson Sound he was sitting at the mixing board for that event, he picked up his diploma during the strike of the sound system.
Along the way Martin would find himself at the local radio station KPFA helping with maintenance and installing new equipment.
In 1977 Martin got tickets to a premiere screening of a film called Star Wars at the Coronet theater in San Francisco. That was a cool film. A friend gave him the number for a place called Sprocket Systems in Marin County. When he called he learned that they were not setup to take resumes or interview new workers, so instead he enrolled at College of San Mateo in the Electronics Technology program. One of the instructors discovered that Martin had no filters and would call out an instructor when they made errors in lectures. That led to Martin testing all the lab experiments from his new textbook before the rest of the class got them. In the fabrication classes he honed his skills at building devices. When he inquired about the second semester of the new digital devices class, the instructor instead asked if he would help teach it.
While at College of San Mateo Martin found a job at the college theater. On his second day working there he discovered that he was the assistant manager and wound up using all his AV and theater skills to help run the place.
Another job that came along was working at Zoetrope Studios in San Francisco to wire up the post production facility where Francis Coppola was working on a little movie called Apocalypse Now. Martin got really good at running and terminating audio and control wires. This was where they started calling him Droid, since he did those boring mundane things you would get a droid to do.
In May of 1979, not long before graduating from CSM, Martin got a call from someone at a place in San Rafael called ILM. They had heard of him being the Wiring Droid and they had a big wiring job that could use his skills. That led to the building of a giant blue screen with 81 VHO fluorescent tubes running on DC voltage so it would not flicker during high speed filming. Once that was wired he looked around and asked about other wiring projects that looked like they needed building. With that Martin joined with Jerry Jeffress and Michael MacKenzie and a bunch of wonderful people who to this day are still his extended family.
When exploring ILM and Lucasfilm Martin met Tom Duff and Loren Carpenter who were in the Computer Division. They were working on ways to use computers to make the filmmaking process more efficient. To use the unix system one needed a login. Since Droid was Martin’s nickname that was set as his login. people in the computer group tended to refer to people by their login names, so Tom was called TD and Martin was called Droid.
One of the characters at ILM was Brian Johnson, the visual effects supervisor for Empire Strikes Back. He heard people use the name Droid and then created the monniker Marty The Droid. The name stuck. There were people out there who did not know who Marty was, but they did know The Droid at ILM.
Things got slow at ILM in the fall of 1979 so Marty took a gig wiring a central office for American Satellite in their LA CO in the Arco tower. The day before that job ended in January of 1980 Jerry called from ILM and asked how soon he could come in to start on a project he had designed and left the plans for. He said they could order from the parts list and he would show up on Monday to start the building of a Blue Finger. Now as a full time employee of ILM Marty was able to join IATSE local 16.
From there Marty went on to build many pieces of gear for ILM. Part of his process was also to learn the jobs of the people using the gear. They were way better at their jobs but in the process of learning the job Marty could tailor the equipment to help them do their jobs better. Some of the projects created on during this time included camera controllers for several VistaVision cameras, motion control systems for several crane cameras, rotoscope cameras, matte camera systems, optical printers, field motion control systems, and modifications to the original Stedicam rig.
Having moved to Marin in 1980 Marty hooked up with the American Red Cross disaster response team. He started volunteering at public events as a first aid provider. He also joined the volunteer staff at Marin General Hospital working in the emergency room. Over the following 2 decades Marty went on to run the first Aid Station program at Marin Red Cross for several years as well as supervise the ER volunteer program at Marin General.
These were the early days of Computer Graphics and Lucas Film’s computer division was pioneering the technology. One issue they had was seeing realtime playback of animations. The computers could render the frames, but not actually play them at speed. Marty put together a system that fed the video from the computer into a security video deck that would record 1 frame at a time. This was triggered by a signal from the keyboard. These systems were used for several years to preview animations. Once disk based video systems became available Marty worked to interface those to the computers for a better experience.
Another system that went into the computer graphics department was a crude film out system to get images onto file for inclusion in movies. This system consisted of an animation camera focused on a computer monitor. The frame was triggered by a beep from the keyboard. This was used to output some of the earliest CG images used in ILM productions.
In 1983 ILM released Return of the Jedi. Since the project was finished they laid off many workers. Marty took that time off to get sworn in as a journeyman in IATSE Local 16. He then wound up working many hall calls until he landed at the Herbst Theater as the stage electrician. That led to working also as the stage electrician for the Opera House and Davies Symphony Hall. One of those hall calls was as an electrician on the James Bond film A View to a Kill. There he met Ned Kopp, the line producer.
In 1985 Marty was called back to ILM to work in the model department on Howard the Duck. Marty designed a remote control system for the duck animation that worked both wireless and wired. Once that was done Marty then transferred to the Special Effects department under the leadership of Bob MacDonald Jr. He initially was hired to program a flailing stunt duck. As usual one thing led to another and Marty was involved in many aspects of the practical effects for Howard The Duck.
That production led into Marty’s work on *batteries not included. he designed the lighting effects and remote control functions for the saucers in the film. Part of the job involved including the batteries in the models. Marty spend a significant amount of time on the set as a puppeteer. Remote control technology from HTD was used on *batteries. Marty continued with the model team to put in lights and motion gags in many different kinds of models. Notable ones are the lights in the ET and Cocoon spaceships.
Around this time Skywalker Sound was being built out at Skywalker Ranch. Marty joined that team along with his brother to wire the post facilities there and do other special projects there.
In 1987 Ned Kopp reached out to Marty to come and work on a film he was shooting in the area starring Bill Cosby. It was called Leonard Part 6. Marty took on the role of video coordinator to deal with all the computer and video screens on the sets. That was the beginning of Sparkology joining the rarefied world of 24 frame video playback.
In 1988 Marty took a class at College of Marin to earn his EMT certification. When he did his ride along with a Berkeley Fire ambulance, the paramedic he worked with had been an advanced first aid student of Marty’s in 1984.
In 1988 Marty worked out a method of running a computer screen genlocked to a film camera at 24FPS to use for the screens in the TV series Midnight Caller. From this start came the design of a system to genlock VGA boards for use in windows computers.
In 1993 Marty established the 24 Frame Playback business of Sparkology. Sparkology sold modified VGA boards to many video playback operators in the US and Canada. Most of the computer screens and some video screens seen in the X-Files were done with Sparkology VGA boards.
Marty’s skills were then tapped for a number of feature films shot in the SF Bay Area that needed on-screen TVs and computers. Mrs. Doubtfire and Made in America were a couple of those projects. See Marty’s IMDB page for a listing of many of the feature film and TV projects he worked on. ILM tapped Marty’s skills for a commercial for First Union Bank called Noise. There were 120 TV screens and 120 computer monitors on the set. This used more than a mile of VGA monitor cable and a playback crew of 7. Usually video playback is done by a crew of 1 or 2 techs. This might be a link to a youtube video of that commercial.
In 1996 the TV series Nash Bridges started filming in San Francisco. Marty came on to take care of the computers in the police station and the various TV sets in apartments and bars.
In 1998 ILM received a digital cinema camera from Sony to experiment with. In the ILM Camera Engineering department Marty worked with a team to integrate this camera into the on set operations for cinematic production. This was bleeding edge technology. Today those cameras are primitive technology.
In 2004 Marty was sent with a team to Shanghai to take spherical photograph sequences of the environment as seen around the buildings used for stunts in the movie Mission Impossible III. Once again this was a custom rig put together for this job. He spent many nights on the roofs of the tallest buildings in the Pudong district of Shanghai.
In 2005 ILM moved from their location in San Rafael to the Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Francisco. Marty stayed behind with the model shop and camera department at the stages. In 2006 those operations were spun off to become Kerner Optical. Marty took on the technical support for the studio. Maintaining the computer and phone infrastructure as well as the security systems for the buildings, he was doing all the things you get a droid to do.
One of Kerner Optical’s projects was to create 3D camera rigs. The initial rig was a monster that was very heavy. Eventually he worked out a design that could fit in cases that could be checked on an airline. The key of the rig design was the fact that the zoom lens stayed attached to the camera when in transit. That meant the lens could be critically aligned to the camera and then the camera aligned to the rig in the shop. Then the camera/lens assembly could unclip from the rig and travel in a protected case. When the rig arrived on set it could be quickly assembled and the alignment from the shop would still be valid. It could go from cases to ready in 10 minutes. There was no real marketing for the system so it never went anywhere other than a pair sold to NHK TV and one to Emily Carr school in Vancouver BC. Marty’s main contribution to the system was the design of the lens and rig control systems that kept the lenses in sync and adjusted the intraocular and angle relation of the two cameras.
In 2011 Kerner Optical went bankrupt and Marty turned off the lights and locked the doors to the stage for the last time.
A spinoff of Kerner Optical was a small company called Kernerworks. They were making a trauma training mannequin. Marty continued with them to get their new facility up and running. While there he provided IT support and worked on several special projects. One of those projects was to create an audio system to allow the mannequin to speak and respond to the rescuer.
In 2012 Marty joined the team at Pixel Corps to provide engineering for webcasting projects. One of those projects was building and staffing a 24 foot video production trailer that was used for the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
2012 also found Marty joining the team at Moscone Center managing the internal fiber optic systems for video and data transport around the facility. That prompted him to take the Fiber for AV training at the Light Brigade in 2014.
Jumping back to 1998, Marty was introduced to Contra Dancing. One aspect of contra dance is the live music used for all dances. It was only a couple of months after he started dancing that he applied his audio skills to the sound systems at the dances. Since then he has been doing sound for a week long dance camp during the 4th of July week every year. He is also running sound and dancing somewhere around the bay area at least once a week.