On Innovation, Flying Deloreans & Explosions In The Desert

06/09/2011 § 1 Comment

Innovators are a strange breed. What makes them move ahead against all odds? Especially hopping over the road blocks and avoiding the potholes placed there by zealous department heads who are managing according to company policy and frameworks, plans, etc. The very fact that a plan is notated and written places it firmly lying down in the past, while the innovators are working in the present, edging toward the unknown of a future.

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest New Yorker article, “Creation Myth – Xerox PARC, Apple, and the truth about innovation” is a must read for all those in a business that fosters creativity for both fun and profit. While Gladwell details the failings of the day-to-day managers who ran Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), and the bigger corporate brass of Xerox, to fully understand the future of personal computing as a mega-billion dollar industry, the article does impart a different view to the oft-held idea that Steve Jobs stole his future Macintosh while the giant of a Xerox slumbered away. Basically, Gladwell asks, what did Xerox know about computers and building a whole new industry based on the cool things their engineers had created in Palo Alto?


But in order to make the computers they were creating work more efficiently and spit out cool documents with snappy and cooler pictures, photos, fonts, graphs, and all the other geegaws they had had their Xerox word processing programs finagle into the files, someone at Xerox PARC had to create a printer; the laser printer, in fact. The laser printer. Ponder that. Before we had those spinning wheels grinding away hour after hour to reproduce images with dots in a matrix, which the laser printer puts to shame with photo-quality precision. Laser printers which Xerox went on to manufacture and make billions over the years. They knew what they knew and moved ahead within their comfort zone. They were not the dummies that legend has made them out to be. Oh yeah, to let Jobs in to see what was behind the curtain, they knew enough to get a deal of stock options in his new company, Apple. They weren’t a sleeping giant, just a tad confused. They let Jack go down the beanstalk, so to speak, so he could turn their toys into gold for the both of them.

Gladwell also busts the notion that Xerox was behind the curve which is why they couldn’t understand what kind of innovation they had fostered: the funtastic future of personal computing. Gladwell instead posits that Xerox was cresting so far ahead of most, a bit in front of the curve. Xerox was forward enough to create the idea of Xerox PARC itself; a free-form laboratory where managers let the inmates run the place — much like what I know from my office on this side of the Charles of that heady place at M.I.T, their Media Lab. Instead of trying to manage the staff, they nurtured, sparked, fomented innovation.

Which you would expect of enterprises that create things, like films, music, games, toys, and those non-essential and extraneous items that make the rest of us thrive and give us pleasure, happiness, joie de vivre. But, no. I keep hearing tales of now successful writers and film-makers being run through the mills way back when they were no-bodies. Just last week I was watching Public Speaking, a film by Martin Scorcese on Fran Leibowitz, the writer. (Yeah I know it was released awhile ago, but I’ve been a bit busy writing bloggettes for Berklee, work, more work and other life stuff.) In the seventies, Fran wrote a book of essays, compiled from her “I Cover The Waterfront “column she wrote for Warhol’s Interview Mag called Metropolitan Life. A bunch of big-name publishers, except one obviously, told her it would never sell. “No book of essays ever sold, no book of essays ever sold,” was their mantra. Guess they had the wrong Yogi. It sold millions.

Lucas and Star Wars, same thing, though as we all know he had “a science fiction film, a science fiction film” instead of a book of “unsaleable” essays. Even after Lucas’ success with American Grafitti, and the backing of his USC chum, Francis Coppolla, it was “no deal, no deal, no deal” all over Hollywood town, except for one studio, of course. But Lucas slogged it to a great many studios. “If they had read the script,” you might say, “if they had seen the film.” Naw, not even then. A few years after Star Wars was released, I was hanging out with a friend who had found a job with an editing house specializing in trailers. These guys had spent very little time with their creative bid for Lucas’ flick as they didn’t “see” any future to it, could not find any legs to the project to keep it in the theaters, any future editing of additional trailers down the line—the review trailer, the awards trailer, and on—like many in the industry, they thought Star Wars would bomb. My friend had seen the film before the special effects, without the full thunderous mix and John Williams boombastic score, but even as professionals they should have SEEN it, felt how it could capture the imagination of millions the world over, but they didn’t.

So how does one whip up a torrent of creativity, place lightning in a bottle, and on down the list, so that you can retire the clichés and have the creatives succeed in the job you hired them to do?

I was thinking about this while pondering past jobs and bosses. I’ve experienced more than my fair share of those creatures jumping from job to job as the economy waxed and waned over the course of my career. Some honchos were actually great. One of those former bosses that I would rate on the higher scale of greatness, Dave Balter, just sold BZZAgent, a word-of-mouth marketing agency, for 60 million buckaroos, which got me thinking the old “what if…” and the glimmer of the idea for this blog got brighter, even though there was never a “what if.” The company I worked for, 360Merch went bankrupt after 9/11 and Mr. Balter, amazingly, started up his newbie one from a little tiny genius of an idea and very little working capital long after I was hired at my present job. And he fostered his new crew on to build a good sized something out of that nothing.

One who I can personally report that he really did know how to get us, his underlings, all on track and buzzing with creativity, was also one of my most open and gracious bosses; the film and special efx director, Douglas Trumbull. The producers, Tracy Mitchell and Arish Fyzee had hired me as one of the hundred or so within feature-film sized crew for Trumbull’s Back To The Future, The Ride. I had previously worked with both in various film and theatrical productions in NYC under various guises, but nothing so big and extravagant as this. Doug had set up his production company, Berkshire Motion Pictures* in an old mill situated in the teeny tiny town of Housatonic in Western Massachusetts. (I dare you to try and find it as you drive from Great Barrington to Lenox.) And it was there that he pushed us to make his ride film better than anything anyone had experienced before.

To that end, Doug wanted us all to know the ins and outs of the script as well as the world of special efx. Not only known by the usual suspects of the cameramen and their crews who were already thick into the day-to-day shooting, Doug wanted everyone thrown into the deep-end of the production; from the craft service people (for some reason that’s the name filmdom uses for the food prep crew) to the programmers writing the code for the mechanics of the ride-vehicle; from the loading dock dudes to the extremely proficient purchasing agent/assistant director: which was me. This was not my understanding of the way Award-winning artists worked.

The awe-inspiring Stanley-freaking-Kubrick had personally hired Doug, when he was still in his early 20s, for the epic 2001, a Space Odyssey. By the way, you know, the film won an Academy Award for those special efx. By the time of BTTFTR, Doug had already worked with the best of the best in Hollywood and brought many out to that little town in the Berkshires as Department heads; Director of Photography; Head Grip, etc. Doug should have had the large ego to suit his impressive resume, but he knew he was not omniscient and had to find answers for some questions. He was very comfortable in asking for our help. WE NEWBIES, THOSE WHO HAD NOT WORKED IN SPECIAL EFX BEFORE! Doug and, to give additional credit where it is due, the producers, all knew they needed to have us all intimately involved so they could make the production better, have the film succeed more than they could think possible, which would also be a win for them.

Doug had hung up the storyboards in the lunchroom for everyone to review all the shots and keep track of the shoot’s progress to facilitate this. Some nights, after work, we watched 2001, A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner while Doug explained the efx shots of those productions and truthfully dissected his own work to point out what experiments didn’t work. And he took suggestions! You could find yourself wrong, but at least you felt Doug considered your idea before dismissing it. Or, at least—and this is important—that was how he made you feel. He also showed us the original explosion shots used as the flames in the Hell-A/Hades opening sequence of Blade Runner. These were real explosions he and his crew made out in the desert in the Seventies and shot on film to be used in the 1970 Michelangelo Antonioni film, Zabriskie Point.  For Blade Runner, Doug had re-used this footage as projections into the minatures of the Los Angeles set. These were simple frame-by-frame projections onto white cardboard pieces cemented into the set. Doug explained how this method created the aerial glows onto the adjacent set objects, adding to the reality of the scene and how you cannot get the same effect with animation.

Ever since then, I had thought we reused this same footage for BTTFTR, which I thought was a cool bit of entertainment trivia. After Doug’s explanation of the production, I was most likely in my “fugue” state of movie-watching; trying to fully take in all the effects of the Blade Runnerfootage. Which was probably the case, as Doug recently cleared that up suggesting in a nice way that, perhaps, I was not paying him full attention:

“No, we didn’t use explosions from Blade Runner on The Ride, to my memory, but shot some very wild lava explosion plates in 35mm that were put into the volcano shots in the same way as Blade Runner. The plates of explosions that Bruce Logan and I shot for Zabriskie Point out in the California desert, were, I think, the largest of the time by a pyro team from MGM. Giant steel vats were filled with napthalene, gasoline, dynamite, and phosphorous, etc., as big as possible short of destroying the vats themselves – which were giant steel wok-shaped dishes about ten feet in diameter. For The Ride we made syrupy lava-like gunk that we exploded upwards, probably with air jets, rather than pyro, as I remember, with lots of light underneath. We also shot some smoke and flames to insert the same way, projecting onto small cardboard cut-outs placed into the miniature. It worked so well, we should have done more. Go figure.”

BTW, don’t try the ZB/BR explosion bit without having a handy set of firemen around. Doug and his crew used so much explosive agent that they almost incinerated the camera, as well as themselves. Great shots though. To check this out you can go to Doug’s site where he explains how he created this sequence. If you are in Japan, you physically check out BTTFTR, since this production is, sadly, no longer at Universal here in the United States.

Even before the storyboards were up…in fact, AS the storyboards were hung-up in the lunch room, Doug was discussing a problem with one of the model-making crews. We needed a scene transition that could not be shot without spending another few million dollars. Understand we were shooting Omnimax: a 70mm camera outfitted with a fisheye lens capturing everything effectively 180 degrees around the viewer, immersing them in the ride experience. You see everything in front of the camera, from the floor to anything hanging above the set. At one point in BTTFTR, we needed something to swipe across the screen to hide a glaring edit. At that time, no one in the world knew how to animate for Omnimax without spending big bucks and huge gobs of time to find out how, and so we had to this create a fix with physical components.

Doug showed us that he wanted a flying car to veer in front of the camera—the view from the Delorean the ride passengers were flying in—and have the camera swerve away, making the riders feel like they were almost flipping over. We would hide the edit in the middle of shot as the veering car almost hits the camera/riders. But everything that moved in sync with the camera was motion-controlled, working off a computer, so the shots could be tweaked bit by bit over days and nights of shooting and re-shooting. Each motion-controlled crane and computer cost over a million dollars. No one was able to figure out how to do it without a computer controlling the moves. The carpenter hanging the story-boards interrupted Doug mid-stream and explained a contraption he could build for a few dollars that fit Doug’s specifications: repeatable moves, yet those moves could be tweaked to fit the shot and then repeatedly duplicate those tweaks, by hand, to sync-up with the camera’s computer-controlled moves.**

If Doug had been closed and secretive, and not spent the time teaching us some of the tricks he had learned over the years, Universal would have had to spend some real money for another crane and computer set-up or by paying teams of animators to figure out how to animate this transition, cel by painted cel (this was pre-CGI).

The fix cost Berkshire Motion Pictures under ten dollars. Doug’s ability to be open and generous with us during the production, fully sharing the whole process with everyone, made most of us want to create an amazing ride. (There were a few cranks in the huge crew. It was a job after all, not utopia.) I think we did some extraordinary work for the production, and ultimately, for ourselves. In the end, we felt this was our ride, even though Trumbull got the credit for creating the thing and was there, with the producers and Mr. Spielberg, to cut the ribbon when it debuted in Universal Florida. Doug got us to better our best without ego and bluster, had everyone, even a carpenter born and raised in the Berkshire hills, to think creatively outside of their own comfort zone. A rare bird in this ego-filled entertainment industry chock-full of those who think they know better, and supremely don’t: those whose mantra is so last week, or last year, nay decade before that. Or was never in style. Guys, have your people take a company-wide memo; (1) put the mantra inside a fortune cookie—where all simplistic divinations belong; (2) stick the cookie in a box; so you can (3) think outside of it.

Don’t think that the whipper-snapper Innovators stay that way; whipper-snapping and charging after windmills. They too can get caught being so last week, focusing on last year’s model. Gladwell ends his article with a nice twist. Read into that twist what you will, for me it only underscores how hard it is to foster creativity in a corporate structure, and how truly unique the team was that Misters Trumbull, Fyzee and Ms. Mitchell selected and led as Berkshire Motion Pictures.


*Berkshire Motion Pictures became Berkshire Ridefilm after BTTFTR. For more on Doug and his past and latest stuff go to his new website.  **Anyone with a need-to-know about this genius solution tweet me @tapedave

[Note: Originally published June 16th, 2011, on MusicThinkTank. I first wrote this for the Berklee College’s Internship blogs and they tossed it back. Yeah, yeah, I know this is not about music per se, and they are Berklee College of MUSIC — emphasis mine — but I was writing about the environment of workplaces, finding yourself, hopefully, with great bosses, and trying to give a small amount of insight on those special environs interns may find themselves locked into sometime in their near future. As the intern coordinator here, when interns come to our office to get more experience in the real world I try to impart some of my age-old wisdom to them, along with the quips, anecdotes, and painful lessons I have learned. Not that they won’t repeat the same mistakes — because I sure listened to some really good advice and yet, repeated some very “doh”-full blunders — no, some will, some won’t, just depends. And this story, though in a more abridged form, is something that most-often comes up during the semester. Especially when someone asks about my shelf of toys and tucked in there is the picture — the one at the start of this writing — of one of the computerized camera booms “barrelling” down the Hill Valley Highway at about a six inches per hour. Or less. If the interns don’t find it up there behind Rufus, the naked mole-rat, and the Michelin Man, I also show them a box, that looks very Bladerunner-ish. It was one of the many model pieces lining the street of that very set — used as both decoration and a way to hide some of the set lights. And then I start talking about Doug and the storyboards, and off we go to the heart of the story.

Even after I explained myself in this way to my editor at Berklee, and he explained it again to them, the PR peeps who oversee the informational blogging at Berklee, they still wanted to hew to a music slant on all their websites. With this bloggette summarily spiked, I had to tell Doug, Arish and Tracy, it wasn’t going to run as promised, yet, and I had to whip up another bloggette to appear in its stead. Months later, after I read Malcolm Gladwell’s piece about innovators and innovation, I knew I had an angle that was the way to go to bring this bloggette to a wider audience, initially found on another music-related site, MusicThinkTank, thanks to Mr. Bruce Houghton.]

Bio for this bloggette
DAVID GREENBERG is Director of Marketing and runs the internship program for a boutique booking and management agency located in the Allston environs of Boston, MA with the zip code of 0-2-1-3-4. (You could sing it if you ever saw the WGBH show Zoom.) His background in this industry of entertainment has been varied, (some say excessively variegated) best read on his Facebook or LinkedIn pages. A tidbit: Greenberg once shared an office with Tobin Bell, star of the Saw filmic enterprise, when Mr. Bell was otherwise named and knocking hard on the acting opportunity doors. Opportunity was not knocking back at the time for either of them. And in another twist of fate and flat-out wierdness, one of the producers of the Saw flicks, Dan Heffner, went to film school with Greenberg. Even so, neither one of those dudes has friended Greenberg on Facebook. Probably because they know he’d then hit them up with an email laden with scripts.


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