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.

Five Came Back: Great film directors go to war

It’s hard to imagine an America so entirely at war that every aspect of the economy is affected. Where GM and Ford stop making cars to concentrate on bomber planes and tanks. Where healthy young men all but disappear from civilian life.

And where five of Hollywood’s top directors (along with multiple screenwriters, cinematographers, and even one studio head) left their mansions and high-paid jobs to join the army and make training and propaganda films.

imageLast week, I finished Mark Harris’ new book, Five Came Back, where he describes the military careers of Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler. All but Huston were major, established directors when Pearl Harbor was bombed; Huston was an exciting new director who had just burst onto the scene. All of them would be changed by the experience.

Harris also wrote Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, which I reviewed back in 2011. The two books have a similar structure, chronologically weaving five slightly interconnecting stories about filmmaking and society. With this second book, Harris has become one of my favorite film historians.

(A bit of trivia: Harris has some marital connections with Hollywood. He’s married to playwright and frequent Spielberg collaborator Tony Kushner.)

Capra had the easiest military experience of the five. Hollywood’s most popular and successful director through much of the 30s, his star was beginning to wane (according to Harris) by the early 40s. He spent most of the war stateside, producing and sometimes directing his Why We Fight and Know Your Enemy series, made up from old newsreels and other existing footage. The closest he came to combat was a few months in London, when the Germans were still regularly bombing that city.

By contrast, Stevens and Wyler (and to a lesser extent Huston and Ford) spent large portions of the war on the ground with troops or flying in bombers. In what is probably the best film of the group (at least the best I’ve seen), The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, Wyler films a bombing raid from inside a plane. The sense of flight and of danger are palpable.

The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress

Wyler paid a lot for his patriotism. He lost all of the hearing in one ear and most of it in the other. But that didn’t stop him from making Roman Holiday, Friendly Persuasion (very much an anti-war movie) and Ben-Hur.

Stevens lost something too, although it’s harder to define. He was with the troops that liberated the Dachau concentration camp, and spent his last months in the military documenting the atrocities. Before the war, he was known primarily for comedies. Afterwards, he stuck to drama.

And Ford? Well, his politics swung from left to right over the course of the war.

But my biggest surprise came with one of the most respected, and best, of the military films to come out of the war: Huston’s Battle of San Pietro. I had previously read that most of the picture was what we’d today call cinema vérité–footage shot of what was actually happening. The linear notes in the Treasures from American Film Archives collection says as much, and it certainly looks like it. But according to Harris, Huston arrived after the battle was over, and almost everything was faked. That it fooled so many people says a lot for Huston’s talent.

The Battle of San Pietro

Something struck me as I read this book, although Harris doesn’t hit on it. For their first film after returning to civilian life, four of the five made one of the best and most iconic pictures of their careers. Harris goes into detail about two of these–Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. (Despite the similar names, they are very different films.) The two he mentions only in passing are Ford’s My Darling Clementine and Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Stevens, recovering from the emotional blow of documenting the Holocaust, took longer to get up to speed.

Harris tells his stories in an easy-to-read style. Within the context of film history, he tells us a lot about how a struggle, now on the edges of living memory, that we could hardly even imagine today.

Book vs. Film: Red River

When someone turns a mediocre book into a great film, people forget that it ever was a book. Such is the case with Borden Chase’s decent but unexceptional novel, Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, and the cinematic masterpiece that Howard Hawks made out of it, Red River.

imageAs I mentioned in my Red River Blu-ray review, Criterion includes a paperback copy of Chase’s novel in the package. At the time I wrote that review, I had not yet read the book. I have now.

But be warned: This article contains spoilers. You should see the film before you read any further. And if you’re really a fanatic about spoilers
–even spoilers for long-forgotten books that aren’t that good to begin with–maybe you should read the novel first, too.

No one ever agreed on what to call this novel. When it first appeared serially in the Saturday Evening Post, it was simply The Chisholm Trail. By the time it came out in hardcover, the title had grown to Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail. The film’s opening credits refer to it cryptically as "the Saturday Evening Post story." The movie’s commercial success gave the paperback edition the  title Red River. Criterion, in republishing the book as a DVD/Blu-ray extra, returned to Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, probably because it sounds so appropriately cheesy.

Now that I’ve read it, I’m not surprised that Howard Hawks was attracted to this story. It’s about men who work a dangerous job for a living, have the professional skills needed for that job, and define their masculinity by their profession. It has one important female character, who is smart and strong and knows how to take care of herself in a man’s world. That pretty much describes half of Hawk’s work.

Hawks’ film closely follows Chase’s story, but not too closely (Chase wrote the first draft of the screenplay). Many of the characters changed from page to screen. Both Cherry Valance and Tess Millay are far less likeable and sympathetic in the book. The book’s Cherry–self-centered and cold-blooded–is probably a more realistic view of a hired gun than the one John Ireland played. But I missed the evolving, arguably homo-erotic friendship between Cherry and Matt that helps make the film so interesting.

The book’s Tess is quite willing (and skilled) at getting one man to kill another for her benefit. Cherry kills a man for her. Then, when Dunston and Cherry make their deadly confrontation, she takes steps to make sure that Dunston is the survivor.

In the novel, Groot is merely the cook; we only meet him on the cattle drive. We never get to know him. In the film, he’s Dunson’s sidekick from the start and becomes a major character. That makes his decision to join the mutineers all the more dramatic and meaningful.

Also in the book, Dunson–that paragon of western strength and reckless violence who could only have been played by John Wayne–is English. That’s right; he comes from the land of teatime and the stiff upper lip, although he never behaves like such a person. When I read his dialog on the page, I didn’t hear a British accent in my head; I heard John Wayne.


Both the book and the film try for an epic feel, but only the film succeeds. Chase attempts a mythic style through purple prose ("A score of years–mad, cruel, bitter years of conflict in which a nation trembled on the rim of ruin") and by inflating the story’s stakes. Matt, and Chase, keep reminding us that this cattle drive isn’t about saving Dunson’s ranch; it’s about saving Texas.

Hawks, on the other hand, created a true epic feel through Russell Harlan’s Fordian black-and-white photography, and Dimitri Tiomkin’s magnificent score. Only Tiomkin could make "Git Along, Little Doggies" sound important and dramatic.

Borden Chase hated Hawks’ happy ending, which undercuts the epic feel of the story. We’ve been set up for a fight to the death between Dunson and Matt–the surrogate father and son heroes who must inevitably become enemies. But their fight turns into reconciliation, and everyone smiles at the end.

The book sort of ends as epic tragedy. Dunson–fatally wounded from his confrontation with Cherry–is too weak to fight. Matt and Tess take him south, so that he can die in his beloved Texas.

But for real epic tragedy, Matt would have had to kill Dunson. After all, the story is really Mutiny on the Bounty seen through the lens of Oedipus Rex.

There’s something else about Hawk’s ending that’s always bothered me: Cherry’s fate. His brief confrontation with Dunson leaves the older man with a flesh wound, but Cherry falls to the ground. Men come running to help him. All this happens in the background, far from the camera. A major character, one whom we’ve grown to like, who fell trying to save the film’s most likeable hero, ends up either seriously wounded or dead. We don’t know which. The film doesn’t seem to care about him any more.

And everyone smiles at the end.

Despite these flaws, Red River is still a great movie–one of the best westerns ever made, and a study in ways to be a man. And it’s based on an entertaining but unexceptional novel.

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.