Chapter 7 - The Force Within
By the time I was in LA at Delos, Lucasfilm had grown into a real corporation with over 500 employees not counting all the folks that worked at the special effects division, Industrial Light and Magic in Northern California. The main company was located in LA in those days across from the Universal black tower where I had worked in the mail room.
Over the years, the folks at Lucasfilm had been very kind to me as Jane’s spouse. I had gotten to know many of them at Lucasfilm functions, film openings etc. One of those people was the CEO Charlie Weber. I think I had been whining to him about being bored with developing film projects and not actually making them when he asked me to lunch. In our conversation he explained that in addition to the films and television, Lucasfilm wanted to explore other media plays. They already owned all the merchandising for Star Wars and were involved in special effects and sound mixing facilities. At that point Lucasfilm had piles of money. The second SW film has made its run and Charlie said they were looking to expand. I didn’t know what this had to do with me, but when I asked for an example. He said… new technologies.
At that time in 1980, "new" technologies were things like satellite television, laserdiscs, home computers, and video game consoles. The landscape of the media world was rapidly expanding. He said they needed someone to go look at all of those companies/technologies and make some recommendations about potential partnerships/projects. I am sure my face gave away my answer even before Charlie asked his question… "would you like to do this for us?"
Stop the presses, this was so unexpected. I guess Charlie liked the way I thought about things and I could organize stuff, so I jumped at it. Charlie introduced me to the head of promotion for Lucasfilm, Sid Gannis. Sid had a long history in the film business and was just fun to hang out with. He and I put together a hit list of people/companies to visit and I began making plans. The other great thing about this new project is that I could do it from home in Marin, except for some LA meetings. That felt much better. Herb was disappointed, but there was really nothing happening at Delos and there was still that friction between Herb and I about his lack of truth telling.
Another Star Wars thing happened just as I began this new journey. George was ready to move into the big house on the property as his residence and that meant the Medway House (as we called it) was available. Medway was the house George bought with American Graffiti money and the place he wrote the original Star Wars stories.
The house was this wonderful Marin wooden ship, big porch, hot tub etc. It also had an office on the second floor that looked out into the trees through wrap around windows. We joked it was like sitting in the nose of Millennium Falcon from the movie. I sat at the big wrap around desk in George’s former office and wondered if some of the force would rub off on me. It didn’t happen right away, but when it did, it came from a galaxy I didn’t even know existed at that time .
On the Road for Lucasfilm
The list of visits we put together took me all across the country. It was the first time I had traveled that much since my rock and roll days. Of course all doors opened to me because it was Lucasfilm. All anybody wanted to talk about was Star War stories and I would have to explain I didn’t work on the movies. I won’t go into all the stops, but they included a couple of notable moments like visiting Ted Turner outside of Atlanta just as CNN was launching.
Ted was a pioneer in satellite television and was planning a 24 hour news network called the Cable News Network. The first CNN news studio was built in the basement of his big mansion outside of Atlanta. He gave me a tour. The elevator doors opened on to a fully staged news room in the basement of his house.
It wasn’t fully operating yet and we talked about whether there was enough news to fit a 24 hour cycle. Obviously, Ted was right, but at the time it was a risky bet.
The other stop of note opened the door to the new galaxy I mentioned earlier. There was this strange sounding research lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology called the Architectural Machine Group.
Directed by Nicklaus Negroponte and crewed by graduate students, it later became the famous MIT Media Lab. If you remember the infamous session with my high school counselor, MIT was the other choice to study Aeronautical Engineering. Not that I could have gotten in or afforded it, but here I was in another life walking into this big Eastern educational institution. Sometimes you can’t write this stuff.
They had been playing with something they called an interactive movie. I had seen something like it early on at a science center, but I had no idea what I was in for. I walked into the lab permeated by the smell of marijuana. They steered me to a big chair that sat in front of three screens.
In front of the chair was something they called a “joystick” I had seen early game controllers, but this was something that looked like a stick you would control aircraft with. They turned on the machine behind the screens without explaining it to me. Up came a still frame of Aspen Colorado. They had picked Aspen to shoot this experiment because they wanted to go skiing.
They told me to push the joystick forward. As I did the still frame of Aspen animated into moving pictures. It was a little grainy, but I was driving down the street in Aspen. When I approached a corner they said I could turn left or right by moving the joystick that way. I drove for a few minutes and then sat back. The hair went up on the back of my neck. This usually means I am supposed to pay attention. I said.. “how are you doing that”. They showed me the dual laserdiscs and the main frame computer they were hooked up to. I walked out of there thinking, I don’t know about driving around Aspen, but as a storytelling medium this was interesting.
I came flying back to Lucasfilm a true believer. We had to do this I exclaimed. George commented… “how much equipment was necessary to pull that off” I thought about the mainframe computer and the laserdiscs and knew it would be awhile. But that didn’t end the story. Soon after that Atari, the first video game maker, backed a truck up to Lucasfilm with a lot of cash in it and contracted with the newly formed Game Group to make computer games for their 800 home computer based on Star Wars stories. Something has begun…
In the late 70's a private group of rich conservative businessmen set out to end the progressive political trajectory of the United States.They wanted to return to Americans being rich white people. They put millions behind Reagan, the ex-Governor of California in his run for the nomination. He was the perfect front man for a new conservatism that said it wanted to slash the size of the Federal government and deregulate everything. Or so he said. He ended up spending more money than Democrats and not reducing the size of government unless you count de-regulating everything so big corporations could do whatever they wanted.
Reagan’s presidency began on a dramatic note when, after the inaugural ceremony, he announced at a luncheon that Iran had agreed to release the remaining American hostages. The timing of Iran’s decision led to suspicions, which were never substantiated, that the Reagan campaign had made a secret deal with the Iranians to prevent the Carter administration from unveiling a so-called “October surprise”—the release of the hostages in October 1980, before election day.
Then, on March 30, 1981, a deranged drifter named John W. Hinckley, Jr., fired six shots from a .22-calibre revolver at Reagan as he left a Washington, D.C., hotel. One of the bullets entered Reagan’s chest, puncturing a lung and lodging one inch from his heart; another critically wounded Press Secretary James Brady. Rushed to George Washington University Hospital for emergency surgery, Reagan joked with doctors as he was being wheeled into the operating room: “I hope you’re all Republicans.” After his release 12 days later, Reagan made a series of carefully staged public appearances designed to give the impression that he was recovering quickly, though in fact he remained seriously weakened for months and his workload was sharply curtailed.
A Women in the House?
Sandra Day O'Connor was the first female associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1981 to 2006. She was both the first woman nominated and the first confirmed to the court. A moderate conservative, O'Connor was known for her precisely researched opinions. Nominated by President Ronald Reagan, she was considered a swing vote for the Rehnquist Court and the first five months of the Roberts Court. Reagan nominating her was interesting considering he was the poster boy for the male macho cowboy archetype, but I suspect Nancy had something to do with it. She ended up running the country while they hid Reagan's diminished condition towards the end of his second term.
The Honeymoon Period
Before we go gaming… I want to circle back to my life with Jane. At this point we were living the dream in the beautiful Medway house. It was the scene of much entertaining and laughter. Many memorable days and nights with friends, family and holidays of course. And all the Lucasfilm openings, parties and picnics that Jane produced that I were a big part of my life.
One of those events was attending the Academy Awards in 1977. Star Wars was up for a bunch of awards. Jane organized an entourage for George that included the core team that created the film and us. Having watched the Oscars for years, it was something to actually be attending. Award shows are mostly tedious unless you are nominated for something. This night we were in the middle of it.
The interesting thing about Star Wars being nominated was that it was the beginning of the success runs of new directors like George, Steven Spielberg etc. Unlike past directors, they made their mark in the beginning with hugely successful sc-fi and adventure films. As much as they changed film making in the 70’s, the Academy did not recognize these creations as being “serious” films. Star Wars, in spite of being nominated for everything, won just the technical awards like best special effects. This would continue into the eighties and nineties. George was nominated many times, but never won any of the major awards. Spielberg was also treated that way until he later made "serious" films like "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan".
However, it was fun to go once and do the whole limo, Oscar’s show and Academy Ball thing. That moment that a lot of people imagine of accepting an academy award and giving an acceptance speech happened for me later at the Interactive Academy Awards in 1994. We won eight awards that night. Yes, I did an acceptance speech that was televised on the TNT network. Close enough I guess.
Back in Marin
From the Medway house I could run with my buddies on the streets of Marin. Around this time however, I reconnected with my younger cousin Ned. He was the oldest child of my mother’s brother Ed. At this point he was in his late teens and quite an athlete. There had not been a lot of contract between our family and theirs. Ned and Whitney had endured Ed’s drunken rages. Growing up, I had always remembered Uncle Ed as a lot of fun. He was artistic and playful. The drinking apparently took over and he would fly into fits of anger we heard about later. Ned and Whitney’s mother also remarried to a SF surgeon that was also an abusive alcoholic. Really traumatic childhood for these two.
By the time we reconnected, both of them, were seeking contact with other parts of the family they had been isolated from. Ned and I first bonded around running. He took me up on Mt Tamalpais and we ran trails. At first I was unsure. It required lots of concentration to stay upright. Tough to zone out like you could on the streets.
This trail running however took us into the beauty of Marin county. Old growth redwoods, beautiful reservoirs and amazing meadows. Ned and I talked a lot in the early days about what I remembered about his childhood. When my mother joined the conversation later she added more positive stories about their father from their childhood together. It began an expansion of our core family to include all the cousins etc. By the time my mother took her place as the solo surviving member of her generation, the family network was big and active.
Fun with Jane and David
Jane and I really enjoyed our lives together in this period. We were that young couple in the late seventies.
Even on the winning Lucasfilm softball team…
Normally New Years is not one of my favorite holidays though I’ve had a few good ones. One memorable one was the time our friends Herb and Elaine flew up from LA. We had no plans. No dinner reservations. No clothes, No limo etc. When they arrived we decided to take a shot and started calling around madly. It was one of those magical nights, when everything works. For some reason people liked the idea of what we were doing, so we got the best limo, the best dinner reservation, the best clothes. We went well into the night.
Another feature of our lives at that point was becoming uncles and aunts to Virginia and Bruce’s two young sons, Neal and Louis. Bruce was the first of us to have children. Jane Bay and I never had a strong feeling about having children at that point, so we loved doting on these two. I will never forget the looks on their faces when Jane would get out all the Star Wars toys. This would begin a long Uncle relationship that I would enjoy in so many ways as they grew into very interesting young men. My only regret is that I did not live closer later on but we made the most of my visits.
This whole question of Jane Bay and I having children would surface for us later. That story is coming up.
Tripping the Light Fantastic
Jane and I had not taken an official honeymoon after our wedding. Jane finally turned to this task and planned this amazing journey for us beginning in England, running through the south of France, on to the Greek islands and finally four days in Egypt at the great pyramid. So many memories from that trip. It was the first time I went to Europe or any of those other places. It was like we were traveling back in time from medieval England and France to the mythology of the Greek Isles to Egyptian tombs that we had only read about. Each step much older than the previous one.
This was in the early eighties, so the romance of those places still remained. It would later change as the world became a much more dangerous place. Paris was as beautiful as advertised. The café culture was like you see in the movies. We met friends there that had never been out of Paris... ever. When we asked why… they would say… "why would we when everything else pales in comparison."
We did run into a sort of anti-American feeling in Paris, but in the south of France people couldn’t have been nicer. That was a good thing because our French was lousy. At one restaurant, Jane ordered what she thought was the fish of the day and got a huge bowl of squirming muscles. I am so glad that I got a chance to see that way of life. By the time I went back in the nineties it had become much more like everywhere else.
Getting out of the US also gave me a wider cultural perspective. Particularly about the impact of World War II on that area of the world. As a child I had been fascinated by the history of WWII military battles. On this trip I got another view being there. Particularly in the Greek Islands the effects of the Nazi occupation lingered. Most every family had been touched in terrible ways. They had not forgotten and that caused friction at the Greek beach resorts we stayed at between the staff and German tourists. The German tourists didn't do themselves any favors with their seeming sense of entitlement.
The Top of the Mountain
One Greek island story. We decided to take a day trip up into the mountains of the island we were on.
They rose thousands of feet in the air from the sea. We rented a car and began driving the long road to the top. Along the way we would pass Greek women hiking up the road with huge baskets on their heads. It was like something out of an old movie. About mid-day we drove into this little town and found a lunch spot, but they didn’t speak much English. That surprised us, but we were a long way from the tourists on the coast. We muddled through ordering and noticed a man walking with a band of children behind him. He walked stiffly. We were sitting outside at our table and he stopped and said “Americans?” We said yes, and he lit up with a smile and immediately started conversing in English.
He was a professor from Athens that had grown up in this rural village. As he talked, all the people from the village gathered around us. He would say some things to them occasionally in Greek based on our answers to his questions. They would all laugh.
During the war he had been part of the Greek resistance. He had worked with American officers as they fought the Nazi’s. At some point an explosion had blown both his legs off, crippling him. After the war however, one of the US officers he had worked with came and got him. He took him to Oakland CA to get fitted with artificial legs. He regaled us with stories about big American cars and his adventures in San Francisco, but you could tell it had changed his life and ever since he had loved Americans. It was a very touching afternoon. As we drove off the whole village waved us goodbye.
Three moments from Egypt…
Cairo Baggage Claim
Egypt was a last minute spontaneous choice. We were just across the Mediterranean in Greece and with all the stuff I had studied about the pyramids I thought we had to go. We jumped on an air shuttle and arrived at the Cairo airport late in the evening. It was very hot and the baggage claim was full of tourists. First lesson, an airport in the Arab world in those days did not work the same way the US does. In the US you grab your bags and walk to the street. Here it seemed there were sections that were run by different people. All happy to help you for a price. You literally had to pay your way out to the taxis.
Baggage claim was a mess. Armed guards were stationed at the doors looking very serious. Lots of the luggage were these big trunks that were popular with the Egyptians. However, luggage carts were nowhere to be found. Occasionally, a door would open and attendants would bring a few into the room. The crowd would surge towards them with lots of words and jostling being exchanged. Jane and I were exhausted and it was getting late so when the next batch came in I moved quickly to grab one just as a German tourist grabbed the other side. He started yelling and tried to pull the cart from my hands.
It was then I noticed that one of the guards had unstrung his weapon and was approaching. The guard said something to the German that caused him to turn to the guard and yell. The guard simply stepped up and decked him with his weapon and then he was dragged off. I raised my hands and backed off. We were not in Kansas anymore.
Somehow I found another cart and after a number of palms were properly greased, we made it to the street. Being late there was not a taxi in sight. If fact the airport was emptying out and we were standing there looking forlorn at the curb when a private car approached and asked us if we needed a ride. We were so tired we threw caution to the wind and got in. The guy was promoting others as well and we ended up jammed on top of each other. Our hotel was the farthest away at the pyramids, so we rode and rode while the driver gave us a lengthy tour of Cairo. Finally we arrived at the Mena Hotel and drove through the gates into another world. We had three days to experience everything.
The Mena House
The Mena House hotel was a holdover from the 1920’s. Every film you see about Cairo from that period has this hotel in it. Very British, very proper and a little tarnished with age. We picked it for that reason and it was supposedly a mile from the great pyramid in this little village on the edge of Cairo.
When we got to our room I walked out on the terrace that overlooked the pool to see if I could catch a glimpse of the great pyramid. It was late at night and most of the lights were out, but hovering over us was this huge dark pyramid shape that seemed so close you could touch it. During the day you could literally lounge by the pool and stare at its immense presence. Jane joined me and we laughed. This was the beginning of quite an adventure.
We had learned on our trip that you did not want to do anything with the hordes of tourists. The alternative was to hire a local guide, often our own age, and they would show you around. Our instruction to him was we wanted to see the real town. It would be like coming to San Francisco and only seeing the tourist traps at Fisherman’s wharf. You would not experience the real city unless we guided you.
The next morning we requested a guide and a young man showed up, very excited we were young. He took us to many places including standing by ourselves in the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid at midday when the tourist buses were at the museums. A truly mystical moment.
As we entered the pyramid I was not ready for the feeling of such weight around us. You could feel the stones pushing down as we went deeper.
The Kings chamber pictured below doesn’t look like much in this image, but what makes the great pyramid different from all the others that were built after it were the air shafts that came into this room from the outside. If it was supposed to be a burial chamber like the others, why did they need air? As we sat in the chamber by ourselves for about a half hour, you could feel the richness of its history. So, many famous people had been in this room. Some staying overnight. As advertised it was like no place I had ever been before.
As Lawrence as it Gets
At the end of the second day our guide asked what else we wanted to do. Having been a big fan of the film “Lawrence of Arabia,” I wanted to go horseback riding in the desert. The only issue was the pictures of the pyramids in the movies are all taken from the same side because the plateau sits at the edge of a very congested Cairo.
If you wanted to ride into the desert you had to do it on the back side.
Again, there were people throughout history that had done this before me.
He had us meet him later that night (full moon on the ascent) He had arranged for horses. At the last moment Jane decided she couldn’t do it and he put her in a car that would drive her to the place we were riding too.
Just the two of us rode out. This was the seventies, pre-internet and knowledge about other countries was mostly passed on from limited TV or magazines in a minimal way. We took off into the desert and I must say it completely fit my fantasy. The moon lit up the desert beautifully as we rode away from the city.
After about a half hour he stopped and motioned for me to get off. I’m having all kinds of thoughts of “what now” but he just wanted to talk. We sat in the desert just like Lawrence had with his first Arab guide in the film. He asked me questions in stilted English about America. Being Muslim, he had no frame of reference for the wide open culture of the United States. He particularly wanted to know about the women and did we have sex openly. I answered his questions as best I could and he kept shaking his head as if not believing what I was saying.
We then proceeded further into the desert and I wondered where we were going. At some point he pointed to a small light on the horizon. As we rode closer I realized it was a big tent with a giant electric sign above it saying… “Club Sahara.”
It was a night club for the local villages. We left the horses with attendants and met Jane who was already sitting on the floor around a low table being waited on hand and foot. It turned out there was a wedding party there that night complete with whirling dervish dancers. We sang up the sun before heading back. Truly a night to remember for many reasons.
When we finally headed back to the states we were changed by all we had seen. That world would evolve soon and we had been lucky enough to experience that world as it was fading away. We got in on the last of the romantic part we saw in movies. I would often go to Europe in the nineties as part of my Hollywood job, but there was an innocence about this first time that made it special.
The Fading British Empire
The Falklands War was a ten-week undeclared conflict between Argentina and the United Kingdom in 1982 over two British dependent territories in the South Atlantic: the Falkland Islands and its territorial dependency, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. British Prime Minister Margret Thacher lived up to her nick name the "Iron Lady." She sent the British fleet half way around the world to deal with Argentina. It almost would have been
funny if a 900 combat troops had not been killed. The conflict began on 2 April, when Argentina invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands, followed by the invasion of South Georgia the next day. On 5 April, the British government dispatched a naval task force to engage the Argentine Navy and Air Force before making an amphibious assault on the islands. The conflict lasted 74 days and ended with an Argentine surrender on 14 June, returning the islands to British control. In total, 649 Argentine military personnel, 255 British military personnel, and three Falkland Islanders were killed during the hostilities.
This last defense of the empire was seen as the end of era in the South Pacific. China was going to become the threat in that part of the world and the British Armed forces would be no match for them.
At the time, there was a development project underway at Lucasfilm called “Edit Droid.” This was a first attempt to make a "digital" film and sound editing machine using footage encoded on to laserdiscs. George really wanted to be able to edit himself without a lot of other people around. Editing for years had been a time honored art requiring editors to work with thousands of real film clips in a manual fashion. Literally cutting and pasting film clips into sequences hunched over their Moviola machines late into the night. Edit Droid was supposed to be the future of editing based on digital information, with many of the functions automated all at one console.
To build this thing, Lucasfilm had hired some of the smartest computer scientists in the world. The group was run by Ed Catmull who would later form Pixar Studios with Steve Jobs. There was no shortage of coding talent in this group, so some of us set out to test what one of the Atari 800 home computers could do for playing games. This was before any story or game design was imagined, these experiments were strictly platform tests .
Two things emerged. You could create crude fractals (computer line tracings) that could be shaped into a canyon that a player could fly down and shoot at targets. That seemed Star Wars enough. The other thing you could do was create a split screen soccer type field. You could run foils on this checkered field chasing a ball from two points of view. A sort of cybersport.
Those innovations were developed by the coding guys. What we film and story people were doing there was not clear at that point. These first games for home computers and game machines were really a coders art. The results were crude, although the games could be fun to play. What we ended up doing was inventing a cyber sport with rules, objectives etc that we imagined could be the Star Wars universe somewhere. It was the first time I had worked around coders. They were a very different tribe than the storytellers and musicians I was used to. Everything in those days was hard coded. We stuck around for a while, but we didn’t have much we could really offer. You can see an example of Ballblazer gameplay in my body of work under interactive entertainment.
The WE at this time was me and Gary Hare, a new partner. Gary had a background at Disney and was stumbling into the interactive world like I was.
We worked well together to frame interactive stories so I left my consultant and producer gig with Lucasfilm and we formed a partnership we called… ready? Search and Design Media.
I had always wanted to use the name again after the inflatables and here we were. Gary and I immediately began searching for companies that were interested in this new interactive storytelling. We ended up at the “Futures Lab” at of all places Atari. They wanted to build arcade games using laserdiscs. Perfect we thought.
The Future at Atari
Atari’s Futures Lab was an odd place. It was a collection of computer scientists, storytellers, special effect folks etc. Its mission was not to turn out products, but to run experiments that would lead to products. It had a big budget and not much responsibility for delivering anything. Perfect for inventing something new we thought. We worked for over a year on concepts that used film footage to create a game experience. We even did expensive things like build a big model of a roller-coaster on a sound stage in LA and shot tracking POV's with robotic motion cameras like you were riding in a the roller coaster car. Some very early computer graphic techniques were used to create the evil clown at the beginning. You can see one of the PLAYLAND tests on the left.
Also, sometime that year a little start up in LA came out with a laserdisc game called Dragons Lair. It utilized animated footage created by well know animator Don Bluth. Its design featured a series of stop and start sequences where you had to solve a puzzle to move forward. For example, if you were fighting the black knight, you would have to move your character with the joystick to avoid his sword. There was only one right way to do it. It was a game of memorization. It was always the same pattern. When you died, you started again at the top of that sequence. They put it out in bars and it made a lot of money. It was novel, sort of fun and we thought it heralded the beginning of something. And we thought we could do so much better.
During our time at the Futures Group, something else began to happen. Atari started to fail as a company. They had been the original video game company and had the video arcade and home console game business pretty much to themselves in the beginning. As the money poured in, the founder Nolen Bushnell was deemed unsuited to run what was now a very large corporation. They brought in executives from a sock company to run it. No joke. Business was business they presumed.
The rock stars of Atari were the game designers and coders. They turned out hit after hit and millions poured in.
The only issue was they (unlike artists in other media businesses like music or film) did not participate in the profits. They were paid well, but no royalties. A small group of them at Atari thought this was unfair so they went to management and demanded some type of backend profit participation. Atari was making so much money they could have easily given them a small percentage.
Instead they told them NO and the designers quit. They not only quit, they went down the street and started their own company. Others were making games for Atari consoles and other hardware systems at that point and were only too happy to have these stars design and code for them. Atari literally created their own competition. And they did it more than once. Alumni from Atari was responsible for starting at least five game companies that would go on and become successful.
When we got to Atari their revenues that year were over 2 billion dollars. Two years later they would basically give the company away. That is really hard to do. It requires not just one bad decision, but many. Somehow it happened. It was the first time I saw corporate types unable to respond to the challenge. They literally eliminated their own cushy jobs. We were done at the Futures lab, but we had learned a lot and we thought we had an idea worth pursuing.
My Steve Jobs Story
One of the great things about Lucasfilm was that interesting people would show up to demonstrate something. Our Search and Design offices were located just across the street from one of the Lucasfilm complexes. We would be invited to gather in one of the theaters to look at someones latest, greatest thing.
One of those people that showed up was Steve Jobs. Steve had famously founded Apple with his partner Steve Wozniak. They had pioneered the Apple 2, made millions until they became so big the board wanted to bring in a business type to run the company. It was thought that Steve would continue to be the creative force. After initial successes, Apple stalled with a line of computers called Lisa that bombed.
Steve apparently wanted to keep spending money on what was to become the first Macintosh. He fought more and more with the bean counters. In 1985, Apple kicked Steve to the curb. This was not the end of Jobs being at Apple, but we were all shocked. What would Apple be without his creative vision?
What he did next was start a new company called of all things… NEXT. He thought he was building the computer of his dreams for creative people and schools. One night he came to Lucasfilm to demo it to all of us.
It had an impressive operating system that allowed for really fast computation. Jobs also highlighted its great graphic capabilities. At one point he played a computer graphics movie trailer that had been done to demonstrate the machine. Steve said, now anyone could make movies. All of us storytellers quietly chuckled sensing that was a little too simple. You still needed talented people to use his Next Computer to make the movies. The computing coding culture never wanted to admit that. Yet, ironically what would grow up and out of NEXT was the most successful animated film company in history… Pixar.
When people have attempted to tell the story of Steve Jobs as they have many times, they rarely focus on this ten year period when he was away from Apple. I always thought those years were the most interesting learning experience for him and it greatly influenced what he would do when he eventually got another shot at the Golden Apple. It turned out his NEXT computer was too expensive for the educational market, but in one of those interesting turns... something else happened.
The Edit Droid project at Lucasfilm was over and George was left with a very expensive computer science division run by Ed Catmull with not a lot to do. Ed was not only a very bright guy, but completely fun to be around. We went to a CES show together in Las Vegas one year to look at all the games that were coming out. On the plane home he asked me if I was going to do a movie game what would I do. I drew something out on a napkin that was a game where you were trying to kill Ants. It would be six years before that idea came up again. (It Came from the Desert - 1989)
Steve Jobs recognized the talent in the Lucasfilm computer group and arranged with George to buy them for 5 million dollars. He thought he could use their smarts and coding ability for something. Ed commented in the book he wrote many years later that he was very concerned about working for Steve because of his reputation for being difficult. A deal however was worked out and the beginnings of Pixar started to take shape.
As the story goes, they needed a demo for the computer graphics show and by this time John Lasseter had joined the company. John was a rebellious, brilliant ex-animator for Disney. He believed that you could make animated movies with computer graphics. He had been thrown out of Disney animation because he was obsessed with this idea. Ed Catmul also wanted to make animated films with the software tools and hardware they were creating. Ed suggested to John that he create a demo that would show off their new capabilities. John created the now famous short film called "LUX" that featured a pair of desk lamps playing with a ball. It demonstrated for the first time the computer graphic characters could possess a "soul" and elicit emotional reactions from an audience.
LUX Demo by John Lasseter
John Lasseter; and Ed Catmul
The LUX experiment eventually led to the beginning of the development of Toy Story. Pixar was still trying to pay the bills by selling software systems and hardware. The company had always lost money and about a year before Toy Story was released, Steve considered selling the company to Microsoft or some other tech companies. The making of Toy Story was a slog. As the story goes... they just couldn't get the animated characters right. Many times Disney threatened to cancel the project, but it finally pulled itself together and the rest as we say is history.
Through this period Steve was around, but not really involved. He didn’t want to make movies. He wanted back into Apple. That happened in 1997. However, when Toy Story became a huge hit, he created a role for himself at Pixar where he would oversea the expansion of the company, eventually selling it to Disney for billions. Pixar was the perfect blend of art and science. They revolutionized the animation business. All this from an initial investment to write software for his NEXT computer. When you dream big as John and Ed did you sometimes make history.
When Steve was running Apple again overseeing the creative wave that would bring the I-Phone, I-Pad etc. on Fridays he would head up to Pixar in Marin county and hangout with the creative team. It was said that if you wanted to pitch something to Steve you did it at Pixar. Everyone said he seemed happier there. That was a testament to the creative culture the Ed and his team created. I would also meet up again with Ed at Pixar when I was at Disney trying to design the first internet game using the Toy Story characters. These small world stories never cease to amaze me.
First Signs of Trouble
NASA had always been the picture of technological excellence. Even though had been problems on Apollo 13, they had been more about equipment failing. When you are pushing out into the galaxy, shit is expected to happen.
The Shuttle Program had success after success to the point that there wasn't much drama anymore. It was like taking a space bus to work. Hardly the right stuff.
That cold morning at the Cape there was a lot of pressure to launch the Challenger shuttle after many delays. In the week leading up to the that moment there had been a lot of talk among the contractors that built the booster rockets about their concerns about the cold. They had seen their O-rings that mated sections of the booster together come dangerously close to failing on past flights.
The Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members aboard. The spacecraft disintegrated 46,000 feet (14 km) above the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 11:39 a.m. It was the first fatal accident involving an American spacecraft while in flight.
The mission, designated STS-51-L, was the tenth flight for the orbiter and the twenty-fifth flight of the Space Shuttle fleet. The crew was scheduled to deploy a communications satellite and study Halley's Comet while they were in orbit, in addition to taking school teacher Christa McAuliffe into space. The latter resulted in a higher than usual media interest and coverage of the mission; the launch and subsequent disaster were seen live in many schools across the United States.
The cause of the disaster was the failure of the primary and secondary redundant O-ring seals in a joint in the shuttle's right solid rocket booster (SRB). The record-low temperatures the morning of the launch had stiffened the rubber O-rings, reducing their ability to seal the joints. Shortly after liftoff, the seals were breached, and hot pressurized gas from within the SRB leaked through the joint and burned through the aft attachment strut connecting it to the external propellant tank (ET), then into the tank itself. The collapse of the ET's internal structures and the rotation of the SRB that followed threw the shuttle stack, traveling at a speed of Mach 1.92, into a direction which allowed aerodynamic forces to tear the orbiter apart.
NASA shut the shuttle flights down for two years. The Challenger accident was more a problem with command structure and the NASA flight managers under pressure to produce not listening to the engineers. Unfortunately, this would not be last shuttle accident. The Space Shuttle Columbia would disintegrate on re-entry because of a problem with the heat tiles that NASA also knew about. There were also some questions about why NASA did not attempt a rescue mission. Its almost like they just looked away and hoped for the best. In the years to come NASA's bureaucracy problem would cause the rise of private space companies like SpaceX who ran much more efficiently.
999- Freedom Fighter
Gary and I left Atari believing we had a better idea about making a movie game for arcades. Very soon after that we were matched up with another company that included a very talented animator and Ken Melville who would eventually write scripts for a bunch of projects I created. The animator had a relationship with Toei Animation in Tokyo, Japan.
They were interested in using some of their catalogue of animated footage in games. One property in particular called 999. The movie was a strange story about a kid and a flying train. We never really understood the original story. We changed the name of what we did to "Freedom Fighter." You can see the trailer in the Body of Work section under interactive entertainment.
So we had a source for footage and one other thing. Phillips had made a specialized laserdisc player that could lift its laser from the surface of the disc and skip 12 frames without a break in the picture. We went looking for coding help.
We found a tech genus named Dick. He had been one of the original Apple employees working with Woz on the Apple 2. He postulated that if we arranged movie scenes on the disc correctly so that they were no more than 12 frames from each other, he could program the player to play multiple potential scenes with out a break in the visuals. This would allow us to design seamless varied game play with film footage that did not rely on memorization. A real seamless interactive movie with real time choices. Each time through a sequence it would offer different challenges.
We took one of the big environments from the film, an apocalyptic city and began to develop game play sequences that would use this technique. I constructed a giant map of possibilities and then began looking at the Toei footage. There was only one issue. Most of the footage was meant for use in a movie. There was very little footage that played towards camera as you needed for games. You could use existing situation set ups and results from particular outcomes, but we were missing huge chunks of what we needed to make it work. The animator went back to Toei and convinced them to create new footage that matched the movie based on our game sequence design for very little money. 95% of what we used was created anew.
With all of these developments we still needed $500,000 in mid-eighties dollars to make the thing. We approached George Lucas’s personal lawyer who fronted a group of investors. We put together a demo and raised the money in a week. This project wanted to happen.
You Never Know...
One of the things about growing old is that your work from years back becomes retro to a whole new generation. I certainly had this happen with my music. Some of the more obscure songs had been licensed for new releases in the last five years,
This one was different. Someone had asked me about Freedom Fight footage so I looked on YouTube where there was footage from my other hit games. Sure enough there were about four videos of game play sections. It turned out there were people out there that had made collecting laserdisc arcade games a thing. Freedom Fighter was super hard to find because we made so few of them.
On a whim I messaged one of these guys and he came right back saying he had been looking for me for years. Brenden Zeitler was his name. He was an expert on laserdisc games and he had one of the four remaining units of Freedom Fighter that he was trying to get working. He said if you could find a working Freedom Fighter it was worth $40,000. I thought back to unit we had given Steven Spielberg in the mid-eighties and wondered if it was still around. Never did find out.
Brenden led me into a whole network of folks that were game players, software coders and hardware engineers that wanted to know everything about Freedom Fighter. We did a Zoom call. They asked me their questions about how Freedom Fighter came to be and I did my best to remember back roughly 18 years. We happened to record the conversation on Zoom. You can look at it below...
Esalen, Dick Price and My Father
While I had been at Cal Poly, groups from the Esalen Institute in Big Sur would come down and engage us in exercises that were being developed for deep personal development. I remember the women being really attractive and Esalen had a reputation as a free love mecca, so I paid attention. Dick Price and his partner Michael Murphy had founded Esalen to be a center for the brightest men (later women) that were writing and experimenting with personal development techniques and trans-personal theory.
Giants like Stan Grof, Alan Watts, and Timothy Leary, were all attracted to Dick’s dream and Esalen became the go to Gestalt community on the west coast.
Jessica, my ex-girlfriend therapst, and I had remained friends and at one point she developed a close relationship with Dick’s wife Chris and had moved to the property. Esalan consisted of little rows of cabins built around the infamous dining hall on a beautiful piece of property sandwiched between highway 1 and the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
All the buildings felt like they were handcrafted. Certainly not elegant, but Big Sur sheik. In those days we all wondered why the bath tubs didn’t fall down the hill into the ocean below, but that didn’t stop many a night smoking dope sans bathing suits in those friendly environs.
I would visit Jessica and I talked to Dick and others about what they were exploring. I was however terrified about doing any real personal work. My trauma with my father was hovering and Dick finally tricked me into doing some work with him. The fact that my Dad had died early and in spite of that “story” moment with him, there was still lots buried that influenced how I felt about myself and how I treated others, particularly the ones I loved. He suggested we do a solo gestalt session (usually these were group sessions) where no one would witness what happened.
Dick was a skilled gestalt therapist and soon I was in conversation with my father. Well, conversation is an understatement. All that pent up trauma started to make its way out and I felt like I was completely out of control. When we finished, I opened my eyes and there was a circle of people there. The caring and the love I felt from that circle was breathtaking and I hadn’t died. This started a long journey into my personal development. Afterwards I was walking to the baths looking like I had been through the ringer when Alan Watts came towards me, smiled and said “lighten up.” Never forgotten it.
Esalen held many notable adventures. I was picked up by a woman for the first time one night in the dining room. She was older and attractive. She slid up beside me and said hi. I started my usual male patter and she just quieted me and said let’s get out of here. That was a first. The times (as Dylan said) were a changing. Also, isolation tanks were introduced. These were coffin shaped units filled with saline solution that caused you to float. When you got inside and closed the door, it was completely dark. For some reason I loved it. Once your brain didn’t have to account for your floating body you could just wing out to some other place.
Esalen. like all these centers, eventually had its down side. Staff experimented with Ketamine, a strong mind altering drug and gone into the tanks. This led to some unfortunate incidents where three people died tripping. There were also other moments like Tim Leary crawling over a table in the dining hall towards a Buddhist monk screaming “yellow devil”. I did get to sit in on some of Joseph Campbell’s lectures. Joseph’s work had been a great influence on George when he was writing Star Wars.
It was interesting that at that time the women were arising at Esalen. They were tired of the male gurus holding court and relating to them as “girls.” Another sign of the times. Some of them even challenged Joseph that his writings were primarily male oriented. I thought technically they were right. Joseph was of an older generation but for me, it still didn't take away from the importance of his work that influenced my storytelling.
The Esalen at which Jessica hosted me ended with the unexpected death of Dick Price. Dick had gone on a hike up the steep ridge behind the property to check the water supply after some heavy rains. What they surmised was that a white boulder had dislodged itself from the softened soil and had come hurtling down the mountain. It hit Dick in the forehead. Death was presumed to be instant. I always thought of it as a “real” appointment. Esalen still goes on today focusing on tech folks that want more out of life. It was an education for me that set the stage for when I would do some real serious work later with my trauma issues. Jessica went on to be a renown global teacher in the Diamond method for the Ridwan school.
Amblin Before We Go
One more thing happened while I was still in the Lucasfilm network. We got Freedom Fighter done and I had made a tape of its gameplay. Gary and I had this idea about doing a laserdisc dating game for bars. We called it “Matchmaker”. Somehow I got introduced to Steven Spielberg through Jane and showed him the Freedom Fighter tape. Little did I know he was a game freak, much more the Lucas had ever been and he said let’s do something together.
We pulled it all together and Steven paid for a test shoot with attractive models playing the women the player was trying to pick up.
The experiment proved interesting except we could not put enough footage on the disc to create sufficient variety. We tried all kinds of things, but the demo just fell flat. We had a great time working with Steven at his Amblin production house on the Universal Studios lot.. (I kept circling back to the Universal lot for some reason)
George had been distracted and not very interested in what we were doing, but Steven was the opposite. He was fun to work with and made you feel like he was really listening. We all agreed the demo didn’t work so for a while we worked on some interactive television ideas until Steven had to go off to do his next film. Nothing really came of it, except for when we later built Freedom Fighter production units we gave him one for the Amblin game room and he told us it was his favorite game of all time. I wish I had that unit now.
In 1984, the Olympic Games were held in Los Angeles.
One of the great things about working with Spielberg, was that I got to know Jane’s friends, Katherine Kennedy and her husband Frank Marshal. Kathy and Frank were very successful movie producers, Kathy had started on ET and Frank had produced the two first Indiana Jones movies. They were nice enough to let us stay with them and we spent four glorious days watching the competition. There is nothing like seeing it live.
Frank and I went out one morning and ran part of the marathon course.
I remember at the time they picked LA, everyone said it would bring the already bad traffic in LA to a standstill. However, they did something quite creative. For four days anyone with an EVEN number license plate could drive and the ones with ODD numbers on the other three days. It worked like gang busters. I have never seen LA freeways so open. Why they didn’t keep doing it I don’t know.
Jane and I had begun to feel the distance between us growing. Usually breakups are punctuated by heavy drama and anger. For some reason Jane and I were much quieter. I don’t mean we were not feeling deep heart break, I just think we didn’t know how to bridge the gap.
For example, we never went to therapy even though Marin County was the home of the latest therapeutic techniques. Certainly, Jane’s career at Lucasfilm became somewhat of an issue. We used to joke that she was married to George. It was an all-consuming job for her. In the beginning, I felt very much a part of it all, but as time went on and there really wasn’t anything more for me to do with Lucasfilm. I felt my future creativity was elsewhere. This wasn’t anyone’s fault, certainly not Janes. Life just unfolds that way sometimes.
The other thing that had happened was deeper. Jane was never supposed to have children. This was fine with me. I had no strong desire to have my own and certainly after Bruce and Jane did, I felt the family line was well taken care of.
Well, surprise, surprise Jane did get pregnant. I remember thinking why now, but also somewhat feeling curious about what it would mean to be a father. At this point in my life it was just a fantasy. I would get plenty of practice later, but I felt myself pulled back to us. Unfortunately, Jane aborted at 10 weeks. The exact time if something is to go wrong, it does. She had gone on a woman’s retreat to a spa called The Golden Door to prepare for being a mother. It was there she started bleeding. It was confirmed shortly thereafter that the baby was gone.
I wasn’t ready for how heartbroken I felt for both of us. The spa let me come down and stay with Jane for the rest of the retreat. There was not much to say. We just held each other. Life would go on, but something had changed. Jane mourned for quite a while. She would deal with her grief later by adopting Tibetan orphans. She really wanted the experience of being a mother. I also sensed her armoring up after the miscarriage as if she wanted to be pregnant. She sort of put up a protective field around her which was understandable, but difficult for me.
Sometime in there I rented a house in Marin that was owned by a Lucasfilm friend and moved out. I remember standing in the driveway at the Medway House with my car packed saying goodbye. It was like I was just leaving for a couple of hours. We were much more devastated than that, but I was simply, blindly pushing forward.
JD and I
So, here was the pattern again. I grew restless, longing for something more in my relationships. About the same time, Anita was getting married in Santa Fe to a wonderful man named Doug. Jane was buried in work so I offered to videotape the wedding and went off to Santa Fe by myself, but let’s back track for a moment.
While I was in LA the first time creating music, Anita had invited me to her family’s cabin in the Eastern Sierras. This was after our time at Cal Poly. It was an amazing place located up a glacial canyon accessible only by a foot trail. You had to hike in or ride horses to get there. The cabin had been built by Lon Chaney, the famous Hollywood horror actor. It was small, but functional and situated in the quiet beauty of the canyon. Anita’s family had bought it blindly at auction and although they owned the cabin, the Feds owned the land. This would eventually become a problem, but for now I was invited to get out of the smog.
As I arrived I was surprised that Joyce Donaldson, Anita’s best friend from childhood, was there as well. We had always called her JD. I felt that Joyce had always disapproved of my interactions with Anita, me being the rock & roll guy and all. She was naturally protective of her friend. She would come up to Poly sometimes with some poor lap dog in tow and we would tease each other a lot. I had run into Joyce in Aspen after college walking along the street. She had taken me home to meet her husband Kit Mason and her baby daughter Sevrin. I thought at the time she was so much more grown up than me.
The weekend at that cabin was filled with mostly just laying around, hiking and talking into the night. To my surprise, Joyce and I made a real connection. It was easy between us. We both shared cancer stories about our fathers, and she said later that it had meant a lot to her. The weekend ended and she was picked up by her husband in his plane. I do remember thinking what a free spirit she was.
So, here I was at Anita’s wedding by myself and so was she. Things with her husbank Kit were not good. There was now also a second child, Christine Claytie. The wedding was big and hectic, but we still found time to talk.
It picked up right where we had left off at the cabin. Now, remember I was only seeing her. The fact that she had two daughters was not really part of that picture. We again went our own ways, but she called me later and said she was coming up to Northern California.
Here was the moment. Without even hesitating I suggested we meet at my favorite hot springs at the Wilber Hotel not far from where she was. Joyce and I arrived at Wilbur Hot Springs and immediately fell into this very energetic dreamy field together.
After all the challenging times lately with Jane, this felt new and exciting. I went home to my rental house not knowing what to think other than I wanted to see her again.
Joyce and the kids came up a couple of times to my rented house. Even then I can remember the kids being confused. I don’t think we handled it very well with them, but we were young and in love pretty quickly. I visited Joyce in Southern California as well and meanwhile, production on Freedom Fighter was coming to close. The game was done, but we had no distributor at that point and everything else had dried up, Gary was restless and I just felt pulled south to whatever awaited.
Headlands Center for the Arts
During that period I was also involved in birthing the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin County. I had a group of friends and creative colleagues that had been involved in creating the first urban park at a Fort Mason in San Francisco. The Army had turned this pristine property by the bay over to the GGNRA. (Golden Gate National Recreation Area.) No one knew what to do with these buildings. They had been built like bunkers in the 30’s, served their time as depots in WWII and then mothballed. It wasn’t just the original park at Ft. Mason. It was a bunch of prime property around the Bay the Army had owned and built Forts on since the late 1880’s.
Fort Mason was the first and was seen as the natural home for non-profit groups. There were big piers that could serve as theaters and fair space. And lots of studio and office space as well in the barrack buildings.
The place gradually became a popular destination, but one thing really put it on the map. Fort Mason was a bit out the way for normal foot traffic along the bay. The new organizations were struggling to attract audiences. That was until a vegetarian restaurant run by the SF Zen Center opened at the end of one of the piers. Spectacular views and great food. The crowd arrived to eat and began to take notice of all that was going on at Ft Mason and put it on the map.
The next forts in line to be converted were Ft Barry and Ft. Cronkite. They were located in a beautiful valley behind Sausalito running down to the sea. Fortunately, the Army held on to them until the 80’s or they would have been built up with homes. We actually saw the models of those communities that were never built.
Ft. Barry was located about half way down the valley on a circular drive built around its own parade ground. There were two very large barracks buildings (3 stories and a basement) and about five officers houses built around the drive.
We artists looked at them and thought, an artist’s retreat. Studios in the barracks and accommodations in the homes. The youth hostel had taken another house up the hill so this seemed perfect. Only issue was that they were in serious dis-repair. Although the basic shell structure was sound, the insides were trashed, toilets and water didn’t work etc. Where was the money going to come from to rebuild them, let alone run the program?
If you remember, my Inflatable Learning Environments had been funded by the small, regional San Francisco Foundation. However, one of their donors left them some oil stock in their will. At the time, it was worth 10 million dollars. Not bad, but by the time the Foundation got the funds, the stock was worth 300 million dollars. It was accompanied by the stipulation that it all was to be spent in Marin county, one of the richest counties in California. You can imagine the uproar. Law suits were filed, but as it wound its way through the courts, the Foundation had to find big projects to fund. Well we had one.
The repairs/renovations to the buildings were in the multi-thousands of dollars alone, so a group of us formed a work group to shepherd the Art Center into being. The group was led by a guy with museum experience that had been a leader in the Ft Mason effort. The rest of us were new to this, but I knew how to organize budgets, put artists together etc. We wrote it all up and it got funded!. While Ft Barry was being renovated we would have temporary housing at Ft. Cronkite.
Now, Ft Cronkite had history in our family. When my grandfather married my grandmother he was a very young officer in the Coastal Artillery. The Army had built these huge underground fortifications at Ft. Cronkite to house these giant coastal guns to defend the Golden Gate. As a kid, my grandfather had brought me here and toured me through what was left. I felt his presence as we set about building the Artists in Residence Center.
I won’t go into all the drama about what happened next, but suffice to say somewhere in that first year it was discovered our vaunted leader had been living illegally at Ft. Cronkite and there were some additional questions about where some of the money had gone. I had been around big budgets before with movies, but this was something different. The Foundation threatened to pull the plug until me and what was left of our group convinced them to give us a second chance. And guess who was put in charge… me as acting director.
This began a long process of renovating Ft. Barry. Our artist’s council suggested we handle the renovations like an art project from the inside out. We used stuff we found in the building and scrapped layers of paint off to show the history instead of getting rid of it. The bathrooms, which had been built for men, became an artwork in themselves when we were done. The barracks rooms were natural studios AND we had learned that food was important, so we put a bakery in the basement. When they had those ovens running the whole place smelled like fresh bread.
Our little group got it up and ready to open, but we reasoned we needed professional art folks to run it. We reached out to the National Endowment for the Arts. Now that we had it going, they were more than happy to jump in. I had never dealt with large federal programs before and I had heard the criticism by conservatives about the Endowment being a waste of money. Being a progressive I didn’t believe them until… it became apparent to me that the Endowment ran on a kind of nepotism structure.
Now, being in the media business, nepotism was always around. Someone’s kid with no talent would get a plume assignment because his father was head of the studio. But here it worked a different way. The board of artists that decided on who got grants would basically fund their friends and then their friends would get on the board and return the favor.
The Endowment people swept in and really pushed those of us in the original group aside into an advisory group. After all the time we had spent it didn’t seem fair, but we didn’t want to run it either. They did hire a good director and the program took off and to this day runs artist in residence programs in the buildings we recovered. As the center opened a founders stone was laid by the front door with all our names on it. To this day my name is in there somewhere and I consider the Headlands Center for the Arts to be one of my most interesting community projects.
We also had a new addition in our immediate family. Jane and Bill had a son and named him Ridge. He was a very sweet boy and soon showed he had lots of capability that continues to this day. Even though I didn’t see him a lot, I had my “uncle” moments with him that were a blessing. Another outstanding individual to carry on the family DNA.
Back to It
The Center was running, Freedom Fighter was completed and Joyce and I wanted to be together. It seemed that it made sense that I would pull up stakes and head south to Del Mar California where she lived with Sevrin and Christine Claytie. I arrived not knowing what I was going to do for work. I spent a bunch of time on the beach staring at the ocean. I also had my first real experiences of being a step parent. Seemed to me like I could do it.
While I was wondering, an arcade distributor in LA bought Freedom Fighter and made big plans to release it. I was really the only one of the production team left, so I met with Malibu Games and agreed to help them get the game into production while I tried to figure out what else was next.
A whole new chapter was dawning, but again it had just barely begun to show its face...