To Pixar and Beyond: Animating the business end of filmmaking

You’d expect a book on the history of Pixar to include lots of drawings, models, and frame blowups. But you’ll find only words in Lawrence Levy’s To Pixar and Beyond: My Unlikely Journey with Steve Jobs to Make Entertainment History.

But then, To Pixar and Beyond is not about animation, design, or storytelling. It’s not even about technology. It’s about money, and its arguably evil twin–the stock market. And yet, if you’re interested in animation, technology, or the movie industry, it’s worth reading.

Levy, a lawyer and a businessman, became the animation company’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) early in 1995. Steve Jobs, exiled from Apple and the sole owner of Pixar, picked Levy for the job of making the company profitable. The book doesn’t discuss how Pixar creates movies, but Levy clearly respects what he describes as “a level of creative and technical wizardry that I could never have imagined.”

1995 was an important year for Pixar, then a 16-year-old company breaking down barriers but losing money. They were busy finishing their first feature, Toy Story, due for release Thanksgiving week. But their contract with Disney, which financed the film, made future profits almost impossible. Levy’s job was to learn Hollywood’s financial structure, re-negotiate Disney’s contract, and set up an initial public offering (IPO).

Most of the book covers that important year. While Toy Story director John Lasseter and his team struggle to get the movie ready, Levy prepares the IPO. Neither task was easy. Toy Story was the first feature-length computer-animated picture; no one knew if audiences would accept a new type of movie.

Jobs pushed Levy to make the IPO happen as soon as possible. The book paints a surprisingly positive portrait of Jobs, with whom Levy developed a close friendship. Levy acknowledges the sociopathic Jobs that other employees knew; it just wasn’t his experience. On his first day at the studio, an employee told him that “Pixar lives in fear of Steve.”

Steve Jobs, from Alex Gibney’s documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine

Levy may be a lawyer, but he doesn’t write like one. His clear, easy-to-read prose help explain a lot about how money works. He describes IPOs, stock options, contract details, and the market in general in ways that make it clear to people who can barely balance a checkbook. He has an entertaining gift for metaphor, telling us that a Disney executive “was handing me a lifeline, and apologizing because it wasn’t in my favorite color.”

Toy Story made its Thanksgiving deadline, and the IPO happened the same week. That was fortuitous. The movie was an immediate hit of huge proportions, and everyone wanted a piece of Pixar. It was that IPO, and not Apple, that made Steve Jobs a billionaire.

Toy Story

The simultaneous premiere and IPO also gives the book a spectacular happy ending–only two thirds of the way through. Then we follow Levy as he helps Pixar mature. He arranges a new contract with Disney, gives Lasseter and the rest of the creative team artistic freedom, and eventually sells Pixar in a way that makes everybody happy.

Yes, it’s definitely Levy’s version of the story.

Levy goes off the deep end in the last three chapters, telling us about his discovery of Eastern spiritual practices. I have nothing against his religion, but it seemed out of place in this book.

I write about technology and cinema, and To Pixar and Beyond didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about either of these subjects. But it taught me a considerable amount about the finances that make technology and cinema possible. I enjoyed the book. And yet…as I read about IPOs and contract negotiations, I kept wanting to sneak into another room and watch Lasseter finish the final touches to Toy Story.

Revisiting Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By

Anyone who cares about silent films has to read Kevin Brownlow’s mammoth oral history survey, The Parade’s Gone By. Not a history book in the usual sense, it describes early Hollywood primarily through the recollections of people who were there. Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, Louise Brooks, and William Wellman were among the many filmmakers who Brownlow interviewed.

imageI first read The Parade’s Gone By in 1972, and wrote a book report on it for a film history class. The book was only four years old at that time, and the American silent era had been dead for 42 years. And now, 42 years after my first reading, I’ve re-read it.

We have far better access to silent films, and I suspect have far more silent film enthusiasts, than we did when I first read this book–or when Brownlow wrote it. Brownlow complains frequently about washed-out prints projected at the wrong speed–the most common way silents were screened in those days, if they were screened at all. Today, thanks to restorations, digital technology, film festivals, and especially thanks to Kevin Brownlow, that’s no longer the case. When I first read this book, I’d seen maybe six silent features in theaters and classrooms–two with live music–and maybe another five on broadcast TV. Now, there are weekends when I see more than that.

One example of how things have changed: When I first read Parade, I fell instantly in love with Louise Brooks. I would have to wait ten more years to actually see her in a film. Now she’s readily available everywhere.

Although the creations of the era are now readily available, the people who created them are long gone. And its these people that Brownlow had access to in the 1960s. Here we have Gloria Swanson describing the time Cecil B. De Mille filmed her with a real lion on her back for Male and Female. "Then they cracked their whips till he roared. It felt like thousands of vibrators. Every hair on my body was standing straight up. I had to close my eyes. The last thing I saw was Mr. De Mille with a gun."

Some of what they say is shocking by today’s standard–and even by the standards of image1968. Mary Pickford, recalling a fight with the American Legion over bringing Ernst Lubitsch to America, quotes a speech she planned but never had a chance to say, which including the argument "I’m white, twenty-one, and an American citizen." By then an old woman, she doesn’t seem to realize how offensive the statement sounds. Curiously, Brownlow put Pickford’s chapter in the section on directors, even though she never was one. She was a star, a producer, and ran a studio, but she never directed.

Decades-old recollections are notoriously inaccurate, but enough of them, well edited, can create a vivid view of the world they recall. I doubt that every incident described in The Parade’s Gone By happened exactly as written. But the general sense of a technical gimmick maturing into a major industry and a magnificent art form, then suddenly dying just as it reaches its peak, comes through. So does the sense of pioneers building something new. Those following today’s tech revolutions would do well to read this book.

Brownlow doesn’t stick entirely to his interviews. He has chapters on Griffith and DeMille, neither of whom lived long enough to be interviewed for this book. It includes chapters on art direction, editing, tinting, and, of course, the talkie revolution that killed one art form to create another. He also devotes two chapters to specific films: Douglas Fairbanks’ version of Robin Hood, and the original Ben Hur.

Although the first chapter is called The Primitive Years and the last one The Talking Picture, Brownlow doesn’t attempt a chronological history. He’s more interested in the flavor of the period, and the day-to-day work. He assumes, for instance, that you already know that Griffith was a beginning of cinema as an art form (an opinion that isn’t as widely held today as it was in 1968).

The British Brownlow focuses his book almost entirely on America, but he turns to Europe for two chapters near the end. The second of these chapters, and by far the longest chapter in the book, covers his hero, Abel Gance. In almost worshipful terms, using both Gance’s words and his own, Brownlow describes Gance as the French Griffith, and the greatest filmmaker of all time. He goes into great detail about the man’s life, and the making of his three most important films. He bemoans the fact that Napoleon (in Brownlow’s eyes the greatest film ever made) no longer exists in anything like its original form.

That was 1968. Today, Napoleon has been beautifully restored. We have Kevin Brownlow to thank for that. And not just for Napoleon. The current access to silent films that we all enjoy is, to a large extent, the result of Brownlow’s life work. And The Parade’s Gone By was the beginning.

Approaching The End: Imagining Apocalypse in American Film

Film noir led to apocalyptic cinema. When human society has no clear moral boundaries, the end of the world is but a plot twist away.

imageAt least that’s the argument that Peter Labuza sets out to prove in his new, very short book, Approaching The End: Imagining Apocalypse in American Film. I can’t say that he really and truly succeeds.

After a first chapter arguing the differences between noir and melodrama, he discusses 10 films in moderate detail, showing their connection both to traditional noir and end-of-world themes. First, he discusses three classics from the golden era of noir that touch on issues of the then new atomic bomb:

  • Kiss Me Deadly
  • The Lady from Shanghai
  • The Big Heat

He follows that by examining three more recent films that display both noir tropes and touch on Christian conceptions of the apocalypse:

  • God Told Me To
  • The Rapture
  • Days of Heaven

Next, Labuza takes on noir-sci-fi crossbreeds that suggest a technological end of days:

  • Strange Days
  • The Terminator
  • They Live

Finally, he covers one film "that deals with a number of apocalyptic narratives through media saturation and the post-9/11 social environment."

  • Southland Tales

I’ve bulleted all of these films for a reason. The more of these films you’ve seen, and the better you know them, the more you’ll enjoy this book. Reading Labuza’s discussion of a film you haven’t seen is a laborious task; you’ll get little out of it except boredom and spoilers.

Things get more interesting (I wouldn’t go so far as to call them entertaining) when he discusses a film you know. Consider Days of Heaven, which I wrote about in 2011. Labuza notes (as I and others have) that the film places a B noir plot into a self-consciously artistic and beautiful mise en scene, and slows it down to an atmospheric pace.

The physical land thus acts as a temporal space of the past, a time of innocence made into a physical space. However, this supposed spatial heaven, which seems like the promise of an afterlife, has been plagued with the same troubles as human society.


He also discusses the religious themes promised by the film’s title.

Malick juxtaposes the human conflict with the conflict of nature through biblical, apocalyptic imagery—the swarms of locusts, but especially the repeated depictions of fire. There are fires in the opening shots at the factory; in an early moment of the harvest, as the camera gazes into one of the tractors; in a brief mention by Linda during the voiceover recalling Ding-Dong’s story of an apocalyptic fie; and then, finally, during the fire that destroys the crops.

This book opened my eyes to new ways of interpreting Malick’s film. For instance, I had never caught on to the story’s relationship to the Genesis tale of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt. On the other hand, he failed to convince me that there’s anything apocalyptic about Days of Heaven.

But as you might guess from the above quotes, Labuza writes in the word-heavy, over-intellectualized style of an insecure academic. The whole book reads like a thesis. Even when what he had to say was interesting, his writing style made reading it feel like a chore.

If you’ve seen enough of these films, and you have patience with this type of writing, you might find Approaching the End interesting. You can skip the sections on film you haven’t seen or haven’t seen recently. You might even want to take the time to see them first.

The book’s publisher, The Critical Press, sells its e-books directly, without copy protection. When you buy the book, even without a physical form, you’ve really bought it.

Book vs. Movie: The Shining

I read Stephen King’s novel The Shining in the late 1970s, not too long after its publication. It scared and thrilled me like no other work of fiction. I still remember the frustration of not being able to physically turn pages faster.

This past Friday night I finally saw Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation at the Pacific Film Archive, where it was screened as part of the PFA’s current series, Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick. Before the screening, I reread the book and loved it just as much as I had some 35 years ago. I liked the movie, especially the second half, but unlike my book vs. movie experience with Jaws, the original book version of The Shining really is better. Much better.

Warning: This essay contains spoilers for both the book and the movie.

The Real Heartbreak Hotel

When you come right down to it, The Shining is a haunted house story. Economic imageproblems force a family to live in a residence filled with ghosts and other supernatural evils. By turning the house into a large resort hotel, King created a larger canvas for the familiar story. You’ve got hundreds of rooms, long hallways, a huge kitchen and ballroom, and dark stories of homicidal mayhem.

Not only is the Overlook filled with evil, undead beings. The hotel is, in and of itself, evil. What happens in the Overlook–especially when it involves death–stays in the Overlook, presumably for eternity. And the hotel orchestrates that evil. The ghosts are merely minions of the Overlook Hotel.

But the Overlooks’ evil, supernatural nature has little direct effect on the natural, physical world. The book contains only three small incidents when the hotel’s evil directly effects the physical world. It’s real power is psychological. It can tap into  people’s brains, find their weaknesses, terrify them, or turn them into violent killers.

And the hotel finds a perfect stooge in the story’s principle character, struggling fiction author Jack Torrance. As King paints him, Jack is a loving husband and father, but he’s also an alcoholic with serious anger issues. Over the course of the novel, the Overlook plays with these weaknesses, amplifying his anger and sense of persecution, slowing turning him into a psychotic killer bent on destroying his family, now trapped with him in the snowbound hotel.

What Kubrick Did Wrong

And this is where Kubrick blew it. The movie never shows Jack’s loving side. He comes off as terse, self-centered, and borderline crazy right from the start. The sense of a good man struggling with his inner demons entirely disappears.

Both the book and the film open with Jack’s interview for the job of winter caretaker for a hotel that’s open only in the summer. In the book, the manager interviewing Jack is a jerk, an "Officious little prick" in Jack’s thoughts. The manager, Ullman, rakes him over the coals and lets Jack know that if it was up to him, he’d find someone better qualified. We’ve all had dreadful and humiliating job interviews. Your sympathy goes to Jack from the book’s first sentence.

Kubrick’s version of Ullman (Barry Nelson) is friendly and outgoing. It’s Jack (Jack Nicholson) who seems remote. When he says that he would never do anything to hurt his wife and son, you can’t help but laugh. There’s already a dark twang to his voice. While King uses the interview scene to provide exposition and make us identify and sympathize with Jack, Kubrick just uses it for exposition.

By not showing us Jack’s good side, Kubrick gives him less space to fall into evil. That makes it a less effective story.


I understand that it’s almost impossible to watch a film adaptation of a beloved novel. No matter how good the film is, it can’t possibly contain the detail or the interior monologues of a book. And if it tried to do that, it would become a mess. While watching the film, I tried very hard to push King’s version out of my mind.

Jack’s five-year-old son, Danny (Danny Lloyd) has powerful psychic abilities that play imagea very important role in the novel. He still has them in the film, but they seem less powerful, and less important to the story. That’s a legitimate adaptation choice on Kubrick’s part, but I had a hard time accepting it.

But Kubrick made other, very serious mistakes. Consider the music. As he did in 2001, Kubrick used mostly existing classical recordings, usually of little-known pieces. But here he picked scary-sounding passages, and played them too loud, as if to remind us that we’re supposed to be scarred. That worked very well in the scenes where the audience really was scarred. Otherwise, it got annoying.

What Kubrick Got Right

But Kubrick also added brilliant touches.

In the film, Jack spends a lot more time at the typewriter; you never really see him doing the repair work that’s supposed to be his job. As things begin to get really scary, his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) picks up and looks at the thick manuscript he’s been working on all this time. It says only "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," over and over again. Sometimes it’s formatted like a screenplay. Other times, it’s just plain text. Often it has typos.

Remember that the film came out in 1980, before personal computers and printers were common. Jack (and, in reality, someone in the prop department) had to type it over and over again. That’s a great way to discover that your husband, who is trapped with you and your son in a snowbound hotel, has gone completely bonkers.

Then there’s the matter of topiary objects. In the book, the Overlook has plants in the front yard cut to look like animals–including a dog, a rabbit, and two lions. They seem to come alive at some very scary moments. This works extremely well in a book; I doubt it would have had the same effect in a movie.

So instead, the film’s Overlook has a topiary maze. Before the snow comes and before things get really scary, Wendy and Danny have a fun afternoon in the maze. At the climax, set on a snowy night, it makes a great setting for the final chase.


It wasn’t until I left the theater that I realized that the film’s maze, unlike the book’s animals, is in no way sinister. It provides fun and then safety. I had expected its walls to move like the novel’s plant animals.

Although the film starts weak, it gets better as it goes along. As the danger and fear ratchets up, the overbearing music began to work. The second half is as scary as the novel, and that’s about as scary as it can get and still be fun.

Kubrick provided one scare, I suspect, to make fans of the book jump out of their seats. Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), easily the most heroic character in either version, dies a sudden and horrifying death in the film. He survives in the book.

Unfortunately, Dick’s death brings in a very unfortunate Hollywood cliché: The black man who dies to save white people. I guess some people find that comforting. I don’t.

Kubrick’s ending, quite different from the book, works very well in its own terms. But it seems an odd choice. King’s ending, where the Overlook goes up in flames, would be far more cinematic. On the other hand, Kubrick’s ending must have been a lot cheaper to shoot.

Why I waited so long?

Why did it take me 34 years to see The Shining? I was intrigued the moment I read that Kubrick was making the film version. I had recently read the book, and at that time, 2001: A Space Odyssey was still my all-time favorite film.

However, A Clockwork Orange had disappointed me somewhat. And I hated Barry Lyndon with a passion. That and bad reviews kept me away from The Shining. I’m glad now that I’ve seen it.

The PFA screened The Shining of a DCP from Warner Brothers. It looked excellent, like a brand-new 35mm print, only steadier.

Book vs. Movie: Jaws

The cliché tells us that the book is always better than the movie. Except when it isn’t. I know. I just read Jaws.

Most people associate that title with the blockbuster hit that put Steven Spielberg on theimage map. But before Spielberg got his hands on it, Peter Benchley’s novel was a blockbuster in its own right, staying on the bestseller lists for 44 weeks. Today, the film’s considered a popular classic. And while the book remains in print, it’s remembered primarily as the source for the film.

And that’s as it should be. Benchley’s novel isn’t bad. But unlike the movie, it doesn’t hold up as a classic.

There’s nothing special or engaging about Benchley’s writing style. In the first part of the book, he digresses far too often into uninteresting exposition.

The story is still Enemy of the People meets Moby Dick, but the emphasis is far more on the people and community, with the three-men-on-a-boat story delayed until the final chapters. Much of the time, Benchley writes like he’s worried that the book will be too short. There’s an adultery subplot and a mafia subplot. Neither of them add anything to the story.

A novel can give you more detail than a film, and some of the detail in Jaws works for the story’s benefit. We learn much more about the island’s economic problems, which helps explain why everyone is so reluctant to close the beaches. The 1,000 people who live in Amity year round make all of their money in the summer, when the population balloons to 10,000, most of whom are money-spending tourists. Close the beaches, and by next spring everyone will be on welfare. Much is made of the economic differences between the summer and year-round folk.

Benchley describes some early scenes from the shark’s point of view, making it clear jaws2that this is an unthinking, instinct-driven eating machine. But these scenes, while scientifically accurate, contradict later ones, where the shark seems capable of strategic thought.

Several of the characters changed significantly on the way to Hollywood. Hooper, the young scientist played in the movie by Richard Dreyfuss, is a rich snob in the book, untrustworthy, arrogant, and not all that competent. Chief Brody’s wife is also a snob in the book, one who married below her class and now resents her lower society status.

Aside from making these characters more likeable, the film sacrifices realism for suspense. For instance, in the last part of the book, Brody, Dreyfuss, and Quint leave in the Orca every morning looking for the shark, then come home every night. That actually makes sense if you’re looking for something in the immediate waters off your home. The film implies that they sailed out one day and won’t come back until they’re done. Realistically, that’s ridiculous. But it makes better story-telling sense.

For more on the movie, read my Blu-ray Review.

Leonard Maltin’s 2013 Movie Guide

Is this book even necessary? That’s the question I wanted to answer when I agreed to accept a review copy of Leonard Maltin’s 2013 Movie Guide: The Modern Era. Once an indispensible reference for every cinephile, Maltin’s annual reference seems quant today. After all, if there’s anything that the Internet can do better than paper, it’s reference.

Maltin himself suggests so in his introduction. "I suppose it seems strange…that anyone would be publishing such a book in the Internet age, but my colleagues and I still think what we do is relevant…"

I’m not so sure. For $15 on Amazon ($10 for the ebook), you get a 1,640-page leonard_maltinpaperback (how long before that falls apart) containing a fraction of what you’d find on the Internet Movie Database. You’ll get the director, stars, and running time, but not the screenwriter, complete cast, or who wrote the music.

On the other hand, in place of the multiple and often badly-written descriptions on IMDB, the Guide offers pithy and intelligent micro-reviews by Maltin and his staff. For instance, the book describes Fred Willard’s character in A Mighty Wind as "a showbiz promoter and ‘idea man’ whose ideas could sink a continent." If there are spoilers here, I haven’t found them. These descriptions are the best (and pretty much the only) reason to buy this book. It’s fun to browse through, just to find comments written and edited by professionals.

Physical books, even those running more than 1,600 pages, have limited capacity. That’s why Maltin’s reference is now split into two volumes; the other one being the Classic Movie Guide. Most of the films made prior to 1966 land there, yet this Modern Era edition is hardly classic-free. Most of the old movies I thought of can be found in these pages, including several that I would just as happily forget (Caligula, anyone?).

In some ways, the book seems almost intentionally out-of-date. For instance, it uses three simple icons to tell you if a title was released on video cassette, Laserdisc, and DVD. But there’s no indication of its availability on Blu-ray. I imagine that that would interest far more people today than Laserdisc.

I hate to say it, but Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide is a bit like a Laserdisc. It was great in its time, but that time has gone.

The book becomes available next week.

Pandora’s Digital Box: David Bordwell’s Book on Films, Files, and the Future of Movies

Even cinephiles who embrace the look of digital projection (and I count myself among them) have plenty to worry about. The current digital transition threatens independent theaters, independent distributors, the accessibility of older movies (especially those outside the canon), and the long-term survival of yesterday’s, today’s, and tomorrow’s motion pictures.

No one has contributed to the discussion of this transition as well, or as thoroughly, pandoras_digital_box_coveras university professor/film blogger David Bordwell. In the last few months, Bordwell has written several long, extensive blog posts about every facet of the digital transition. Now he’s gathered up these posts, reorganized them, added new material, and released them as a self-published e-book called Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies. The book costs only $4 and comes as an unprotected, read-anywhere .pdf. It’s only 238 pages, and worth every penny.

Bordwell touches lightly on esthetic issues, giving arguments for both sides and noting correctly that unlike sound and widescreen, digital barely alters the movie-going experience–at least not directly. But he shows the grievous effects the transition has on the industry.

Six major production/distribution companies dominate today’s movie industry: Disney, Twentieth Century-Fox, Paramount Pictures, Warner Brothers, Columbia, and Universal. These companies will significantly benefit from the transition. Major theater chains like AMC will probably come out about even. Everyone else will lose.

Just one example of the problems: Small theater chains and independent theaters can’t afford the expensive digital projectors and the servers needed to control them. Many will go under because of this. Others will upgrade via a financing schemed called Virtual Price Fee (VPF). Here, a third party finances most of a theater’s conversion cost. Every time a film is booked into that theater, the distributor pays a fee–usually about $800–which is a little more than half of what the distributor saves by not making a 35mm print.

This works for the big studios, because their pre-digital business model comes pretty close to one print, one booking. Instead of spending about $1,500 to make a print that will only screen in that theater, they send a hard drive and pay a $800 VPF. But small, independent distributors make a handful of prints that move from one theater to another. They’ll have to pay multiple VPFs for every print they don’t make.

What’s more, the financier may prefer to deal only with companies with whom they already have a relationship.

Bordwell also discusses the stifling copy protection rules built into the Digital Cinema Package (DCP) standard used for theatrical projection. A theater needs permission to move a picture from one auditorium to another in the same multiplex, and the distributor can control how often a film is screened and at what times.

I wish Bordwell had covered a few topics that he doesn’t touch on. I would have liked his opinion on to what degree 4K improves on 2K; I’ve heard conflicting reports, and my only true 4K experience was inconclusive. Nor did he cover the environmental issues–one area where I assume that digital has the advantage.

Nor did I agree with Bordwell on everything. As someone who follows digital technology for a living, I doubt that obsolescence will be as much of a problem as Bordwell and others predict. Yes, Moore’s Law marches on, seemingly unstoppable, but market forces rule its effect on the real world.

True, filmmakers like James Cameron are already pushing for projector upgrades, but they don’t have the final word. The big six do. Right now, the major studios have a strong incentive to force theaters to go digital–it saves them money. They won’t have a similar incentive to push them to 4K or 8K, and they don’t want to have to pay VPFs forever. Consider, nearly 20 years after the introduction of digital sound, today’s 35mm prints still come with backward-compatible analog soundtracks. The studios will have no trouble sending out 2K DCPs for a very long time to come.

I suspect that the newer, fancier digital projectors will serve the function of full orchestras in the 1920s and 70mm in more recent decades. They will give the larger, better financed theaters a competitive edge without knocking out the smaller ones..

Despite my disagreements with some of Bordwell’s conclusions, I came away from Pandora’s Digital Box with far more knowledge and appreciation of digital projection’s strengths and problems than I had before–and I had already read his blog posts and have written on the topic myself. If you’re interested in the business or technology of motion pictures, this is $4 well spent.