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"Droidmaker" takes an entertaining & informative look back at the development of computer animation

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"Droidmaker" takes an entertaining & informative look back at the development of computer animation

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Monday, September 17, 1979 is a day that lives in infamy. At least for the folks at Disney Feature Animation.

You see, that was the day that Don Bluth, Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy suddenly resigned from the Mouse House to form their own animation studio, Aurora. And over the four days, nine other animators would also depart from Disney for Bluth's new company. Which effectively gutted WDFA's recent rebuilding efforts.

Whereas Monday, September 24, 1979 is a date that is not as well known to animation fans. Though it probably should be. Given that this was the very first day that 22-year-old John Lasseter -- a recent recruit from Cal Arts -- reported for work at the Mouse Factory.

"Here I was thrilled to be at Disney," recalled Lasseter," and everyone was moping around."

You know, I had never heard that story before. But then again, there were literally dozens of stories that I'd never heard before in Michael Rubin's excellent "Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution" (Triad Publishing, October 2005), this thoroughly entertaining & informative history of Lucas's effort to revolutionize filmmaking.


Copyright 2005 Triad Publishing

Mind you, the beauty of Rubin's book is that the strands of this story run in so many different directions. Because -- in order to tell the story of George Lucas and his extremely private companion -- you first have to talk about George's mentor, Francis Ford Coppola. Not to mention his contemporary & frequent collaborator, Steve Spielberg.

But it's not just George's director pals who get the chance to step in the spotlight in "Droidmaker." Rubin also allows us to get to know relatively private people like WDFA's new president, Ed Catmull. Who ...

"While still a graduate student in Utah (in 1972), Catmull met with Disney technologists to discuss applying computers to animation. They -- in turn -- asked Catmull if he'd be interested in helping them work on the development of their Space Mountain attraction."

Or -- better yet -- the man that Catmull co-founded Pixar with, Alvy Ray Smith. Who (because of a silly argument that Alvy once had with Steve Jobs over -- of all things -- a whiteboard) tends to be overlooked these days when it comes to discussing the many breakthroughs that Smith personally helped bring about in the field of computer animation.

Given that it seems like everyone is making CG films these days, it's important to remember what a virtual impossibility computer animation seemed to be just thirty years ago. As Rubin recounts in "Droidmaker" :

From time to time, Ed and Alvy (Ray Smith) would do the math on the back of a napkin over dinner ... If they had to buy the computer equipment in 1977, it might cost seventy-five billion dollars to make a movie, which, needless to say, was unrealistic. If Moore's Law continued to be a reliable metric -- and at the time this was unknown -- (that) $75 billion price would cut in half every eighteen months. In three years it might cost $15 billion; in nine years only $600 million. It would take about fifteen years before the price reached dollars that would be realistic for a movie -- $30 million.


Pixar co-founders (L to R) Ed Catmull & Alvy Ray Smith
Copyright 2005 Triad Publishing

What's almost stunning about Catmull & Smith's prediction here is how absolutely on the money it was. For serious development of Pixar's first feature length animated film, "Toy Story," didn't actually began until 1992. The very year that Ed & Alvy predicted that the cost of doing CG would finally reach a low enough point that Hollywood's moguls might then begin entertaining producing a project such as this.

If you're a fan of modern film history and have ever wondered how we arrived in today's HD world ... Then you have to read "Droidmaker." For Rubin does a masterful job of tying all of these seemingly loose strands together. Creating this immensely readable account about how the digital revolution really came about.

On the other hand, if you're just a Disney fan and have absolutely no interest in learning about how CG came to be ... I still urge you to pick up a copy of "Droidmaker." For there are some Disney-related gems in this 518-page hardcover about what the studios were actually like in the 1970s & early 1980s (I.E. That period between Roy Disney's death & Michael Eisner's arrival that is still woefully under-reported) that are just wonderful.

Take -- for example -- Rubin's story about the afternoon that Lasseter, Catmull and Smith finally bonded. As Michael tells this tale ...

... Ed and Alvy continued to go back to Disney each year, exchanging ideas with the technologists, meeting animators, interviewing all of them about the process and production. "We knew we could solve their problems and save them money," said Alvy.

In the fall of 1983, on their annual pilgrimage, they decided to visit their old acquaintance, John Lasseter, in the animation building. Lasseter, still a round-faced kid with glasses, invited them to check out what was going on in the department. Last they heard he was trying to put "The Brave Little Toaster" together, but that repeatedly hit snags.


Newly hired WDFA employee John Lasseter
Copyright 1983 Walt Disney Productions

Lasseter was different from the other Disney animators. While most retreated the moment Alvy began to discuss computers, Lasseter was immediately excited by everything that Alvy said. He wanted to hear all about their progress and anything Ed and Alvy could tell him about Lucasfilm.

They all shared a love of animation, and as soon as John realized how profound this was, he led the pair deep into the studio's Ink and Paint building, down the stairs, to an area called the Morgue. Here, in a relatively unsecured area, Disney Studios kept all the cels and artwork from all the films. John pushed open the door and flipped on the light, revealing a basement full of shelves, file cabinets and flat drawers.

He turned to the guys: "What do you want to see ?"

"You're kidding," said Alvy.

"What do you want to see ?," John repeated with confidence.

"Oh, God, how about (the) Dancing Hippos from 'Fantasia' by ... what's his name ... Preston Blair ... Preston Blair's Dancing Hippos."

"Okay," said John, and he walked over to a chart, scanned it for a moment, then pulled a folder from a bookshelf, opened it ... and there were Preston Blair's original drawings of the Dancing Hippos.


 Copyright Walt Disney Productions

John flipped through the drawings to make them animate. "I'm in heaven," thought Alvy. Ed left Alvy with John, elbows deep in animation history. "What do you want to see now ?" asked Lasseter, and the two of them spent the rest of the afternoon pulling out scenes ... from "Fantasia" ... from "Dumbo" ... reminiscing about the movies, getting to know one another.

Isn't that a great story ? Well, Michael Rubin's the only guy to ever report about this truly crucial moment in Disney company history. So if you'd like to learn more about all the little incidents like this that ultimately led to John Lasseter & Ed Catmull becoming the heads of both Disney & Pixar Animation Studios, I suggest that you pick up a copy of "Droidmaker : George Lucas and the Digital Revolution."

Your thoughts?

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  • Whow, sounds like a wonderful book, Jim. I'm sure as hell going to buy that book, if its available here!! Lasseter looks so innocent in that picture there, gehe..

  • Oddly enough, I returned to Disney in the fall of 83 after a ten year absence. Wish I had known Dr. Catmull was roaming the lot. I would have loved to have met him. Who knew that in another ten years I would wind up at Pixar?

    I'm not surprised by Disney's reaction to Lasseter's new ideas. The company was so closed to technology, I had to bring my own computer to work.

    Now, Catmull and Lasseter run the place. Who could have known?

  • Jim, thank you for the really kind and comprehensive review! If you (or anyone) has questions about the book, i'm happy to respond. Cheers.

    michael rubin

  • Well, you can't say Disney was closed off to technology - especially in 1983, the year after Disney released TRON. Two years after that, IdeaThe Black Cauldron[/i] utilized the brand-new APT process and the first CGI work in a Disney film (IdeaThe Great Mouse Detective[/i] wrongly receives that distinction).

    Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner saw the numbers for IdeaTron[/i] and IdeaThe Last Starfighter[/i], and Katzenberg told John Lasseter there was no future in CGI animated features. Lasseter left for LucasFilm, the rest is history.

  • hey ernest,  i'm not entirely sure you get it. Disney WAS closed off to technology. Sure, they dabbled here and there --> Tron was outsourced entirely, for instance. As for what films were "first" is a grey area, there are so many fine definitions: first to use 2D, or 3D, or to use the computer to aid the hand drawing or actually putting the computer output in the frame, and so on.

    And as for that thought about Katzenberg telling Lasseter there was no future... i don't recall Lasseter telling me that story... and my impression (albeit just a hunch) is that Lasseter was relatively junior there when he left... i don't think JK would have had too much to say directly to him (as if they "took a meeting" and Lasseter was told something); The experiences of the Disney company in those early years -- wrought with odd politics and history -- left an environment that was animator unfriendly, and not experimental. Those were the kinds of traits that left Lasseter cold and open to the advances of Catmull. Yes, the rest is history. But I would wager a guess that you don't know much about it.

  • "Tron was outsourced entirely, for instance."

    Of course the computer animation was "outsourced". Disney was a hand-drawn shop, and few houses were capable of producing what was needed for TRON. But give Ron Miller and Disney some credit for taking the leap and the gamble in the first place.

    "And as for that thought about Katzenberg telling Lasseter there was no future... i don't recall Lasseter telling me that story..."

    It's in James Stewart's DisneyWar. Have you read it?

    "...and my impression (albeit just a hunch) is that Lasseter was relatively junior there when he left..."

    Junior, Senior, Freshman -- the point is Lasseter left Disney after Katzenberg told him bluntly there was no future in computer animated features. Lasseter was passionate about the medium, Katzenberg wouldn't even broach the subject with Eisner because (if James Stewart is correct) of the perceived failure of TRON.

    "The experiences of the Disney company in those early years -- wrought with odd politics and history -- left an environment that was animator unfriendly, and not experimental."

    I'm not sure what early years you are referring to. If you mean 1980-1984, when Disney was making TRON, Lasseter and Keane collaborated on a computer animation test based on Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are", a combination of CG modeling and character animation. Disney produced Tim Burton's experimental shorts not to mention "The Black Cauldron", which also used computer-generated images. It was after Eisner and Katzenberg came to Disney that Katzenberg let it be known to young John Lasseter that there was no future for cgi animated features. Lasseter wanted to make "The Brave Little Toaster" as an all-computer animated feature, Katzenberg shot the idea down.

    "Yes, the rest is history. But I would wager a guess that you don't know much about it."

    This statement is so rude and needlessly antagonistic, I'll let it stand for itself.

  • I'll admit to being a little rude and needlessly antagonistic. I found your initial entry brimming with conceit and pomp ("and the rest is history...") Please, i think you set the tone here. I spent almost four years in long discussions with Catmull and Lasseter and Alvy Ray Smith and others, such that while some of the facts you repeat from whatever sources you have are likely true (although trust me: just cause you read it in a book doesn't make it true), they certainly don't paint the full picture, nor relay the actual experiences of the folks living this history.

    I appreciate you are likely an expert on the inner monologues of Katzenberg or Lasseter, and that a conversation they may very well have had was causal for kicking important things into gear. I'm certain if things are as you say, then those conversations were contributing factors to a range of interesting things going on at Disney in that era, and also at Lucasfilm. But since much of this history isn't well known, and my serious work to explore the facts resulted in the only work covering this from the non-Disney side ("Droidmaker"), which it also appears you haven't read, I think my (admittedly rude) quip that "the rest is history, but ... you wouldn't know much about it," wasn't really that far from the mark.

    If you don't like my book, that's fair. I did the best I could researching this topic. I don't know anything about you nor how much effort you put into learning about such things, verifying what you hear, and thinking about these events. You are correct I just assume you don't know your history here. I apologize for the presumption.

  • "But since much of this history isn't well known, and my serious work to explore the facts resulted in the only work covering this from the non-Disney side ("Droidmaker"), which it also appears you haven't read, I think my (admittedly rude) quip that "the rest is history, but ... you wouldn't know much about it," wasn't really that far from the mark."

    I am intrigued with the subject matter of your book and I am looking forward to purchasing it. As an ardent, life-long student of the moving image and character animation in particular, a history of computer animation in the 80's would be an essential work in my library.

    "I don't know anything about you nor how much effort you put into learning about such things, verifying what you hear, and thinking about these events. You are correct I just assume you don't know your history here. I apologize for the presumption."

    I don't claim to be an expert on anything. The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. I look forward to reading your book and discussing it with you, in discourse characterized by mutual respect.

  • 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

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