One of my biggest frustrations in telecommuting for Yahoo! is this: I miss a lot of amazing speakers. A lot. Technologists, entrepreneurs, social scientists, Nobel-prize winners (no lie!) have come through Yahoo's campus since I started work more than a year ago, and—usually—I miss 'em all. (Some, I'm not so choked up about.)
Of course, many of the sessions are webcast internally, so I could dial in and follow along but that's usually fraught with peril. Video that falls out of sync with the audio, or slides that don't come across the 'cast. Or a speaker that steps away from the immobile camera and leaves me watching a blank whiteboard for 3/4 of the talk. Let's just say that it's not quite the same as being there.
Which is why it was a particular treat today to see Michael Rubin speak. I could not have timed a better visit to Sunnyvale. Rubin, (who's now a Director of Product Management at Netflix) was present during the formative years at Lucasfilm, and has written what looks to be a wonderful book, Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution. His talk was a delight, on several levels.
First of all, Rubin is an ENGAGING speaker and his talk is well-practiced—polished, almost to a sheen. (Nice visuals—large images, great photos of young Lucas and Francis Ford Copolla and their surrounding cast of characters, film-making tools of the pre-digital era, etc.) Rubin peppered the talk with beat-perfect jokes and asides. It was truly a fun hour.
Adding to the specialness? There were some pretty auspicious guests in the audience. Right down in the front row, in fact. Chip Morningstar, Doug Crockford, and Randy Farmer are all themselves graybeard veterans of the early Lucasfilm days. (And all are Yahoos now.) Rubin quipped that “the only time I've been more nervous to give this presentation was when I did it at Pixar.”
The talk was built on a framework of the stuff you probably already know: Lucas's early days at UCLA film school; the friendship with Copolla (while observing Finian's Rainbow) ; the American Zoetrope days and the unexpected runaway success of American Graffiti. And, yes, Star Wars, the founding of ILM, the building of the Ranch.
But hanging off of that framework of the familiar was an enthralling exploration of the technology of making movies—and not just the modern technology, but the ugly realities of what Lucas and his generation started with: the tattered hand-me-down remnants of the Big Studio era. Moviolas and film-editing synchronizers. Romantic-looking devices—in their own way—to be sure. But painful to use, from Rubin's vivid descriptions. Duping, synchronizing and managing those multivariate data sources was, as he put it, “basically a database problem.”
But these devices led to painful cost overruns on the Star Wars and Empire films, and convinced Lucas that there had to be a better way. Over the next hour, Rubin's talk dashed through a rapid succession of early Lucas hires (Ed Catmull, Alvy Ray Smith and the like) and—almost casually—rattled off the list of graphics and audio innovations that they were responsible for (some before joining up with Lucas): texture-mapping, fractal landscapes, video-editing timelines and some amazing-for-the-time direct manipulation interfaces. I had no idea that this fertile creative group at the Lucas Ranch was such a generative force in Silicon Valley at the time (the early 80s.) To hear Rubin tell it, Sun Microsystems was practically the House that George built. (I'm exaggerating somewhat but not by much.)
There's so much more to talk about here. Unfortunately, I had to leave Rubin's talk a bit early (for a meeting. Sigh.) But the book truly sounds wonderful. (And it sounds like a treasure-trove of Pixar- and Disney-ana as well.)
On his blog, Rubin has toyed with the idea of making the book available for free as a PDF download. Which would be wonderful. Even more wonderful would be owning a copy of Droidmaker for yourself. (And while you're at it, why don't you buy me a copy as well?)
Before the talk, Randy Farmer was kind enough to introduce my friend Matt and me to Mr. Rubin and I was glad I got to thank him for coming before we had to rush off later. The presentation was—no lie—amongst the most enjoyable I've ever attended. I'd love to see it again, and in toto.