The passing of Steve Jobs on Wednesday underscores, more than anything else, the crucial importance of technological innovation, creative freedom, and entrepreneurial spirit. Jobs was the leading visionary of our time, and we need those attributes now more than ever.
I got to meet Jobs in early 2002 at a party in LA celebrating Pixar's 15th anniversary, where he thanked me for a story I had written about him and Pixar in the LA Times. He was as casual in his manner as his dress, as he proudly explained the secret of Pixar's enormous success in animation. It wasn't about technology: it was about fostering a creative climate so they could make the best possible movies. I told him how much I enjoyed visiting Pixar to cover Monsters, Inc., and he suggested that it would be much more beneficial to come up and observe what it's like earlier in production. I took him up on his offer and was able to score a first look at Finding Nemo for Premiere Magazine.
As I walked away, I overheard Jobs discussing the heated Oscar race between Monsters, Inc. and Shrek with a few of his Pixar colleagues. He believed that Pixar's film would have a far more lasting impact than DreamWorks' satirical box office smash. Jobs was competitive, for sure, but he always had an eye on the future
Speaking of which, the Visual Effects Society held its third annual Production Summit last Saturday at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills. While they didn't directly address the VES' recently published Bill of Rights (intended to foster change related to deteriorating quality of life issues for individuals, while leveling the playing field for facilities), the discussions were all about shifting the paradigm to improve biz conditions in the 21st century.
Fox's post production president, Ted Gagliano, raised a cautionary note in contrasting the 41-week schedule for Rise of the Planet of the Apes (or "Apeatar") with the hectic four-week crucible for X-Men: First Class. Despite the fact that Apes went smoothly to accommodate Weta's elaborate performance capture tour de force for Andy Serkis as CG Caesar, Gagliano divulged that the script originally called for James Franco's scientist to die, which was scrapped when it didn't test well. This necessitated Franco flying over the July 4 weekend from North Carolina to Northern California to shoot a more effective goodbye to Caesar in Muir Woods.
X-Men proved even more challenging, of course, but they pulled it off. So what is the take away? You can get away with it, so be prepared for more of the same? No, he said, "The X-Men experience isn't the right way to make movies."
Rather, it's about invoking better planning and discipline, which Tom Wujec (Autodesk Fellow and editor of the new book, Imagine Design Create) explained in his design-centric conversation about tools and creativity. It's no surprise that a lack of clarity before you go into production has dire consequences.
Which was echoed in a conversation I had with Marc Weigert of Uncharted Territory (Anonymous). "The VES Bill of Rights makes a lot of sense, but is it really going to change anything? Are there any action items? The reality is that VFX companies underbid and work artists to death. The studios will continue to chase tax incentives to London, Vancouver, and Montreal, and then they'll bid it out to three different [facilities] and take the lowest bidder.
"But the real problem is disorganization and who pays the price for that? Where is the responsibility and accountability for unrealistic schedules and directors who can't communicate what they want or don't understand visual effects? The price is actual cost accrued by artists redoing things in different ways and squandering time. The only way to create responsibility is the production services model that we've embraced. It's done for live-action movies. Why can't it be done for VFX movies?"
On Sunday at the inaugural Palo Alto International Film Festival -- a mashup of technological innovation and visionary storytelling -- I engaged in lively conversation with VFX whiz John Gaeta (The Matrix) about the future of movies and interactive media, predicated on advancements he's making with motion sensing technology. Just imagine experiencing "Bullet Time" first-hand with Neo.
"There will be a time that comes in the next decade where the film will be made volumetrically and the ability to nav and explore [it holographically]," Gaeta predicted. "You can serve it any way you want. Just imagine how indelible it would be if I interacted with something, and if something absolutely remarkable and inspirational occurred. I think there's potential for some really good experiences."
Somewhere Jobs is smiling.
[Photo of Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs, and John Lasseter courtesy of Pixar.]