BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,
BTRIPP
btripp

Once upon a time ...

This is one of three books currently in my to-be-reviewed pile that got into my hands via the LibraryThing.com's “Early Reviewer” program. As I may have bitched about previously, the LTER “Almighty Algorithm” (which matches books to program participants) has seemingly deemed me to be a go-to guy for any business books that I might request … despite the genre being a relatively recent feature in my library … frequently coming in ahead of requested archaeology, religion, science, history, philosophy, and psychology titles – all of which are (I'm pretty sure) “deeper” in my collection. I bring this up (again) by way of providing some context: while I've read and reviewed quite a number of business/marketing/employment books over the past several years, they're in my reading more for their potential usefulness to me than any integral interest I might have for the subject.

I suspect that this makes me somewhat “less forgiving” for some books than somebody who spent a lifetime in the study of business … and some of the reservations I have about Ed Catmull's Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration might not have been an issue for other readers.

Now, generally speaking, Creativity, Inc. is a very engaging book, being a bit of an autobiography of Catmull himself, and a bit of a “bio” tracking the evolution of Pixar … both of which are fascinating subjects. Catmull was one of the beneficiaries of “right place, right time, right skills” intersections back in the 1960's … he'd early on wanted to be an animator (with Disney, of course), but was pretty sure his drawing skills weren't up to snuff for the big leagues, so went into the burgeoning computer field, just as it was beginning to drag itself out of the all-text swamps and discovering graphics. After working in industry as a programmer for a while, he returned to university in 1970, and got attached to a professor, Ivan Sutherland (who had developed one of the first computer graphics programs), who led him into making several major advancements in computer graphics, from texture mapping to spatial anti-aliasing. One of Catmull's projects was a 3D animation of his hand in 1972, which was featured in 1976's Futureworld, the first movie to use 3D computer graphics.

It gets harder and harder for the present-day reader to appreciate just how recently computers have become ubiquitous, and capable of the things we take for granted. Most folks in the mid-70's who were able to work with computers were hand-punching cards that were then bound in stacks, set into readers which would then punch a series of holes in a paper tape, which would then be fed into another machine at which point the data on the paper tape would get digitized onto magnetic tape that the computer could actually read and work with. For anybody who's done hand-coding … imagine trying to debug that process … where one might have, on a modern system, mistyped a comma for a semicolon (and have a color coded highlight showing you something wasn't right in the code), back in those days you'd have to go back to the boxes holding the stacks of 7.375x3.25" cards and try to figure out which card had the wrong hole punched in it. Obviously, Catmull and his associates were working on higher-end equipment by the mid-70's, but it was very much “feeling their way through” as all aspects of the graphics process (let alone animating anything) had to be invented as they went along.

Apple fans, of course, will find the presence of Steve Jobs in the story gripping. Catmull had been hired by LucasFilm in 1979 to develop digital elements for Star Wars and other projects, and he worked on the early versions of Pixar (when it was a high-end computer platform). Jobs bought the digital division from them in 1986 and over the years pumped in vast amounts of cash to keep it going – eventually they “pivoted”, and concentrated on making movies, rather than the equipment. Catmull provides a perspective on Jobs which is not frequently presented … including what it was like to “go to the mat” with him over points of contention.

Another long-time associate of Catmull, John Lasseter, had worked on an animated feature for Disney, The Brave Little Toaster (which featured digitally-produced backgrounds), and had been let go … he was brought on to be the creative side of the equation at Pixar … forming the core of the management team that re-defined the animation industry. Most of the book deals with the “behind the scenes” on making those movies happen. Especially in the early days, they'd be having to create systems to be able to get what they envisioned onto the screen … but also there were cases where they'd determined that something was simply not working and completely re-writing the films.

O.K. … now here come some of those caveats. There is a struggle in the book between the over-all historical/biographical sketch of Catmull's career and Pixar's development (which is the most attractivet part of the book), and sudden shifts in tone from “telling a good story” to … well, almost being “school marm” in pontification on how elements from the story relate to “managing business in general”. Obviously, at some point, Creativity, Inc. was targeted to be a presentation on (in the words of the subtitle) “Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration” … and in reading it, I almost had the sense that there was an editor or project manager or somebody along those lines, calling him up to say “hey, we need more of that business stuff in there!”. An example of this follows a tale about a road trip Catmull took at one point … where he shifts from “telling the story” into:
Now, consider this: The tire incident involved the interconnected models of just two people. In business, where dozens if not hundreds of people may work in close proximity, that effect multiplies quickly, and before you know it, these competing and often at-odds models lead to a kind of inertia that makes it difficult to change or respond well to challenges. The intertwining of many views is an unavoidable part of the culture, and unless you are careful, the conflicts that arise can keep groups of people locked into their restrictive viewpoints, even if, as is often the case, each member of the group is ordinarily open to better ideas.
Obviously, these sorts of “teaching moments” are worthwhile, and built on significantly keen experience, but when they come, they sufficiently change the tone to an extent that it feels wrong. If you don't mind me indulging in some “armchair editing”, I think the book, as a whole, would have been far better served to have the “now I'm going to impart the business lessons” sections set off in boxes, and be free-standing instruction that then related back to the elements in the narrative from which they arose. Just sayin' …

Anyway, Pixar developed some awesome movies, Jobs sells the company to Disney, there are “cultural” challenges (despite Catmull and Lasseter being thrilled to be there) to overcome, and lots of stories about films you've probably seen. There is also an afterword essentially memorializing Steve Jobs. The book has an arc through four sections that pretty much traces the Pixar story, and at various points there are the “teaching moments”. Again, it's an entertaining read … with lots of “insider stuff” on both the development of computer graphics and computer animation (and the movies based on it) … but it reads like it's trying to be something more pedagogical, and that interferes with the story supporting those elements.

Creativity, Inc. has just been out since April, so it's no doubt still easy to find in the brick-and-mortar book stores clinging to life out there … and it's always a nice thing to support those guys … but the on-line big boys have it currently at 40% off of cover … making it quite reasonable to pick up. If you like Pixar's movies, or are interested in animation in general, or are a Steve Jobs fan, or want to know more about the evolution of computers as they developed into the graphic-intense beasties they are today, you'll certainly find something to grab your attention in this book.


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