Droidmaker: 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