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How Pixar's graphics gods made Lucas and Jobs look really smart

DroidMaker

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Book review When first looking at Michael Rubin's droidMaker, you can't help but be nervous that another 400 pages have been wasted on the special effects magic behind Star Wars. Thankfully, that's not the case - far from it. DroidMaker really captures the 20-year technology journey that runs through Lucasfilm for a period and ends with Pixar Animation Studios. In short, it's the tale of relentless technophiles, visionary patrons and a film revolution.

We have to confess to falling into that category of dolts who assumed Pixar and its first major film Toy Story appeared simply because computers had become more powerful. Faster chips, more storage and better software opened up a new realm of possibilities to film makers. Pixar and its CEO Steve Jobs simply capitalized on the technology first.

Without doubt, the arrival of machines such as Sun Microsystems' workstations did make Toy Story and the like possible. But to focus just on the hardware tools does a huge disservice to the two-decade long effort put in by folks such as Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith, the Pixar co-founders. DroidMaker tells their story.

"When the guys at Fairchild and Intel invented the IC (integrated circuit), it wasn't like someone's high school dream to one day make a supercomputer that could sit on your desk," Rubin told us in an interview. "They just invented the thing. But the graphics projects at Lucasfilm represented guys who dreamed of doing this their entire life in many cases. These guys invented the industry out of absolute pure passion."

Rubin's book almost has two starting points.

One is the shared ambition of then young filmmakers Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas to buck the Hollywood system and find ways to make movies on their own. The directors knew that technology would play an important role in this quest, figuring that they needed new gear to do editing, sound and production. They wanted to own their own tools for making films instead of being dependent on the Los Angeles crowd. And they were willing to pay to make these advances possible.

Separately, an eccentric fellow named Alexander Schure, who founded the New York Institute of Technology, was determined to make a movie with computers and had the millions necessary to chase this goal. He hired the best and brightest computing minds who showed any interest in graphics or animation and gave them the top hardware available.

Eventually, these two worlds would collide, following the success of Star Wars. Lucasfilm had serious cachet and many of Schure's workers began heading West when they heard that Lucas was also putting major cash behind graphics technology.

Rubin's book documents the few successes and many challenges that Catmull and Smith's team at Lucasfilm faced as they tried to make computers do incredible things when the machines weren't quite up to the tasks. The engineers and scientists were able to wow fellow technophiles by accomplishing feats other design houses couldn't dream of, but few of the advances made their way into actual films.

Despite the limited return on his multi-million dollar investment, Lucas poured more money into the graphics projects and largely left the group on its own.

Eventually, however, Lucas did run into serious money troubles and was forced to sell the graphics group to Steve Jobs for just $5m. That talent became Pixar, which paved the way for a new class of films and pioneered many movie making techniques.

Instead of glossing over this 20-year journey as we've done, Rubin gives a thorough account of every aspect in the story. He covers the motivations of Coppola and Lucas, the technophiles, and the technology that arose out of their work.

True technology fans will find the book fascinating as it walks you through early days at Xerox PARC, the University of Utah, NYIT, SGI, Sun and other sacred institutions. You can see how the graphics crowd were pushing up against the computing limits like experts in other fields but then finding out unique ways of solving problems. You'll feel a rush as the Siggraph presentations get more and more impressive and the idea of something like Toy Story starts to seem like a reality.

You'll likely be equally impressed and enthralled by the passion Schure and Lucas brought to funding these outlandish projects. This was venture capital with a huge heart.

If you're not a film making buff, the book does drag in a few parts. Rubin spends a lot of time going over the film editing process and how Lucas' work helped push editing tools along. Such information proved compelling up to a point and then became overload for us.

If you actually edit films, you'll probably be in heaven.

What you won't find is a mushy tribute to Star Wars and the "magic" behind it. The Star Wars characters, stories and myths have little role in this book.

Rather, it's a well researched account of how Pixar came to be. The book gives the engineers their due and allows them to steal the limelight for a moment from Lucas and Jobs. It may read a bit drier than the typical, sensationalized business profiles, but that's part of droidMaker's charm. There should be more books like this. The engineers deserve a bit of glory now and then.

The droidMaker site is here, and you can buy the book at Amazon US here or Amazon UK here.

If you know someone who is both a hardware and a Star Wars geek, then you've found your present. ®

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