Book Review: Droidmaker


There are countless books out there about George Lucas and his rise from film school know-it-all to cultural icon, and even more books about how Lucasfilm came to be and how it changed the world of filmmaking. I’ve read a good number of these books and then stopped reading them because they seemed to paint the same picture with a slightly different brush. All the main points were there and while some of the small details were different, something was always missing from these books. I could never quite figure out what it was, but they left me with more questions than answers more times than not. I think it might have been the fact that they focused so much on Lucas himself and that all the bit players who made things happen never got the recognition they deserved. Their importance cannot be understated. Without each and every Lucasfilm employee, especially in the early days, the company would not be where it is today.

DROIDMAKER by Michael Rubin fills the void present in some of the Lucasfilm biographies by letting us know that Lucas wasn’t the only brain in the company. He was more like the Wizard of Oz himself—the idea man who made films and started a business while hoping others would bring the technology forward enough to meet his vision, which was way ahead of its time.

Many of the other “Lucasographies” I came across, while interesting, were flat at best. I wouldn’t call them books that I read with enthusiasm and excitement. According to some sources, including Rubin, they’re not all entirely factual. Given Lucas’ tendency to rewrite certain parts of history pertaining to Star Wars, I wasn’t sure what to believe or what not to believe—and perhaps that’s the intent—but Rubin’s book is indeed different from the others. It’s an accurate account of events as they pertain to the technical revolution started by Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, and it’s a bona fide page turner. I found myself caught up in the parallel storylines and wanting to know what was going to happen next. I think the reason for this is that while the first couple of chapters dwell on Lucas and Coppola, roughly 80% of the book features an entirely different cast of characters, some of whom I had never known about outside of the occasional mention in a different book or documentary. That said, the title is slightly misleading. You’re expecting to read a book that goes on and on about the genius of Lucas but what actually happens is that you realize the man is actually as human as the rest of us. When put into a corner, he puts his trust in the people around him and moves the ball forward.

The book features just about everyone who ever held a position at Lucasfilm, but there are two important characters in this story that you’d probably call the leads—Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith. In fact, this book might be better titled The Adventures of Ed and Alvy. Their story and years of history together truly is a remarkable journey and the cast of supporting actors provide the foundation of a good screenplay. Should Mr. Rubin ever decided to turn this into a film, I’ll be there to see it.

Droidmaker starts off as most George Lucas biographies start, by going back to the early days of Lucas and Coppola, pre-American Zoetrope. It takes you through the different stages of Lucas’ life up until the release of Star Wars in 1977. Keeping the focus of the book in mind, which is the digital revolution, certain aspects of this time period are given special attention. Coppola was just as driven as Lucas at finding a better solution for editing features, for example. Coppola was eager to start using video while Lucas and his people were more into waiting for laserdisc technology to rear its ugly head. As the book moves past the first few chapters, the focus drifts away from Lucas/Coppola to Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith, and there it stays for quite some time. Lucas takes a backseat for almost the rest of the book and even Coppola is mentioned more often at times. In any case, the story of Catmull and Smith is a great one, starting way back in their early days at NYIT and following the pair all the way to their Lucasfilm roles. Those roles, as you know, led to the creation of not only the Lucasfilm Computer Division but of a little company you might have heard of called Pixar.

Along the way you’ll be treated to such relevant side journeys like the creation of “motion blur” in animation, the first all digital, computer generated, and fully animated Pixar-like film (not Toy Story) and a great roller coaster ride of the history of the Atari company. There’s a memorable Lucas moment in that section when a bunch of suits are arguing about the box cover for one of the first Atari/Lucasfilm games. They’re going back and forth about what cover to use, all the while not knowing that Lucas himself is lurking in the corner of the room. At one point, Lucas decides he’s had enough, walks up to the table, and points to a box he likes saying simply, “I like that one,” or something similar. Everyone naturally bowed to the master and all the arguing ceased. Classic.

You’ll learn all about what really happened when Lucas decided to sell off Pixar to Steve Jobs and the circumstances surrounding that deal which aren’t as sinister or as dumb as you might have read. You’ll learn where the name Pixar came from. You’ll learn about how the business side of Lucasfilm was run and just how hands-off Lucas actually was. You’ll learn about how Lucas’ divorce in the 1980s greatly affected the company. You’ll learn about the origins of non-linear editing and digital sound design. You’ll learn about the beginnings of THX and how that part of Lucasfilm was committed to bringing better sound to theaters. In the end, however, this book is not just a history lesson. It’s an education. Entire college courses could be taught using this book alone. In fact, reading this book felt much like taking a college class. When I was finished, I felt illuminated. I felt like I had learned many new things about an arena I had previously felt quite comfortable in. There were new facts, characters, and events that put many things I thought I knew into perspective. It’s an education on Lucas, Coppola, Smith, Catmull, John Lasseter, and all the people they’ve dealt with along the way, but it’s also an education on the history of computers and computer graphics, animation, editing, video games, and even corporate America. Oh, and there’s a touch of filmmaking in there somewhere.

The book was obviously a labor of love for Michael Rubin, who once worked for Lucasfilm for a short time. It’s evident on every page. The interviews and quotes are revealing, the story is captivating, and the images are both rare and helpful in tracing the roots of the digital revolution. Looking back, this book feels deeply personal. You can tell that people like Smith, Catmull, or Ben Burtt really supported the project. In fact, Rubin was given full access to the Lucasfilm archives for research, even though silly legal reasons prevented Lucasfilm from promoting this book. Well, you don’t need Lucasfilm to tell you this is a good and accurate book. Take a look at some of the reviews and you’ll see the likes of Alvy Ray Smith and Ben Burtt among others singing its praises.

Whatever your level of respect for George Lucas is at the moment, Droidmaker is bound to raise it after reading this well-written account of the digital revolution.

You can purchase a copy of DROIDMAKER by clicking here

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