Archive for the ‘Lucasfilms’ Category

droidmakercover1Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution, a history of Lucasfilm’s Computer Group – more popularly known as the “Droid Works” – is a painstakingly researched chronicle of how George Lucas and his motion-picture production company, Lucasfilm, became pioneers in computer graphics. Along the way, one is introduced to several of these brilliant, often eccentric, and uniformly driven computer scientists. These men and women (virtually all were men) applied their talents to push the limitations of late 1970s and early 1980s computer technology to new heights.

In the early chapters, Rubin focuses on Lucas’ collaboration with Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope studios in the late 1960s – the goal being an experimental approach that would apply new technologies to traditional filmmaking. Coppola, who personally was highly technologically savvy, appears frequently throughout this book – particularly when cross-pollination between Lucas’ and Coppola’s employees is discussed.

Rubin, a neuroscientist and Brown University graduate, got his own start with Droid Works, and so it seems logical that many of the considerable number of people he interviewed for this book were also alumni. In this sense, Rubin’s access serves to credibly peel back the secretive veneer of the company — which originally consisted of a number of non-descript warehouses in San Rafael, California. Employees were sworn to secrecy about Lucasfilm’s location – a task which was enjoyed bythose on the inside, but which became increasingly difficult with every successive “Star Wars” hit.

Along the way, Lucasfilm becomes involved in the development of digital editing, video games, computer-animated films, high-definition television, THX sound, and other important high-tech innovations. It was out of this quest for innovations that Pixar Studios came about (started by Alvy Ray Smith, David Lasseter and Ed Catmull) – which now produces the world’s most successful animated films.

Digital Equipment Corporation (D.E.C.), Sun Microsystems, and other notable hardware and software pioneers played important roles in the metamorphosis of the Computer Graphics Division – with Digital’s VAX computer being the original means of “rendering”: the process of generating an image from a model by means of computer programs. As computer software capabilities approached the creative pace of Lucasfilm’s engineers, the means of improving and accelerating the division’s output was also realized.

Along the way, one sees Lucasfilm evolving from a smaller, more informal and collegial environment, to a more corporate one. As George Lucas’ personal and professional interests became more diversified, he relied increasingly on MBA-degreed managers who had little or no experience in high-tech. This served to create tensions between them and the long-time staff, who often felt their efforts were being thwarted – whether for cost or other inconceivable reasons.

Rubin’s accomplishments here are several: you get to know the principal players very well; there are insets throughout that detail concepts the lay-reader might not be familiar with, and his prose is highly readable and engrossing. For a computer history, that’s no mean feat. And when considering such a wide variety of people, companies and institutions such as Walt Disney, The Grateful Dead, Akira Kurosawa, Ross Perot, Steve Jobs, The Doors, Steven Soderbergh, U.S.C., M.I.T., Atari, Pixar, Jurassic Park, etc., etc., putting a coherent story together might appear daunting. But Rubin succeeds with an aplomb that confirms the passion he holds for the subject.

One of the early principals in Lucasfilm confessed to me that Droidmaker was “another good (accurate) book” of Lucasfilm’s Computer Graphics group and its outgrowth, Pixar Studios – another being David Price’s Pixar Touch, which I will also discuss in a future entry.

— Christopher Hartman


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A few years back, I oversaw the publication of Alvy Ray Smith’s family history, Dr. John Durand of Derby, Connecticut, and His Family, for a small press in Boston. I met him through a mutual acquaintance, and found him to be very funny, engaging, and intensely interested in his family connections. Little did I know at the time that he had an illustrious background in high-tech, as the first head of computer graphics at Lucasfilm, a co-founder of Pixar animation, and a founder of Altamira, which was purchased by Microsoft in 1994.

I recently contacted him via email, and mentioned that I had picked up The Pixar Touch, a history of the founding of Pixar, and noticed in there that it was while he was at Lucasfilm that he and his colleagues had originally used Digital Equipment Corp.’s VAX computers. Designed by Gordon Bell for DEC, the VAX was significant because of its capacity for editing computer graphics. Appearing in 1978, the VAX is considered by many to be the most successful microcomputer in history.

In an email he recently sent me, Smith recalled an interesting anecdote from his days at NYIT’s (New York Institute of Technology) computer lab: “Yes, the VAX was very important to us. We had serial no. 1 (actually there were two serial no. 1!) because CMU (Carnegie Mellon Univ.) traditionally gets serial no. 1, but ours was ready before theirs, so both were made serial no. 1). And serial no. 1 was amost dropped off the end of the delivery truck at delivery to NYIT. I happened to emerge from the computer graphics lab building just in time to see the receiving truck (a NYIT vehicle) moving slowly away from the Digital truck, with nobody aboard, and the VAX poised between the two, held up by both. The truck’s door was open, however, so I ran as fast as I could and leapt into the cab, stomping strongly on the brake. This saved the day! If not the lab. (The NYIT group became the Lucasfilm group, became the Pixar group).”

— Christopher Hartman

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