Book reviews: To Pixar and Beyond, 4th Rock from the Sun, Night Trains
Image credit: Pixar
The story behind how some of cinema’s best-loved characters reached movie screens is among this month’s pick of new books.
To Pixar and Beyond: My Unlikely Journey with Steve Jobs to Make Entertainment History
By Lawrence Levy, £18.99, ISBN 9781786070814
The feature films churned out by Hollywood studios today are a far cry from the pioneering motion pictures of the late 19th century. Technology is often highlighted as a key driver for innovation and in no sector is this more evident than in entertainment. Whether you want to look at improvements in video-capture devices, or changing film-editing processes and software capabilities, developments across film and entertainment are largely driven by developments in technology.
The story related in ‘To Pixar and Beyond’ is a perfect example of the relationship between technology and innovation. While the majority of people will have heard of Pixar, and know of the company’s wide success in the film industry, few may be aware of its surprisingly humble origins. Written by Lawrence Levy, the former chief financial officer of Pixar, this book tells the tale of how a tiny, struggling start-up went on to revolutionise the animated film industry.
The story begins with Levy, a Harvard-trained lawyer and Silicon Valley executive, receiving an unexpected phone call from Apple founder Steve Jobs attempting to persuade him to join his latest venture, which at that point was on the verge of failure. This small, little-known software-development firm had begun creating computer-animated short films to advertise its work, and was now working towards creating the first ever computer animated feature film – a family-friendly adventure featuring toys that come to life. Levy recalls being struck by an odd mix of excitement and scepticism at hearing Pixar’s story, feelings that were all the more confused by a visit to the company’s dingy headquarters next to an oil refinery in Richmond Point, San Francisco.
Levy compares Pixar to the native Ohlone tribe, who roamed the land where Silicon Valley resides long before business took ownership of the area. Traditions capable of sustaining a tribe for thousands of years had been swept away by a wave of innovation. In the modern day, Levy says, those who can’t keep up with progress go the same way, becoming artefacts left behind. Outwardly Pixar had the appearance of a company that could be easily outstripped by its competitors, but among the rickety armchairs and stained ceiling tiles was a company that harboured a wealth of creative talent.
Of course, we know how the story pans out. There will be few people who have not heard of the first film to emerge from Pixar’s humble offices. In fact, ‘Toy Story’, as it came to be called, was not just successful, it went on to be the biggest film of 1995 – a feat virtually unheard of in the animated film world – and, at the time, became the third biggest grossing animated film of all time. A generation of millennials have now grown up alongside Toy Story’s beloved characters Buzz and Woody and will no doubt have shed a tear when the final film in the franchise was released in 2010.
Regardless of what you know about Pixar’s journey and subsequent success, though, Levy manages to make the story legitimately exciting. Joining the Pixar team was a huge decision, but this was really just the beginning. Once on board Levy and Jobs had a mountain to climb, in committing to transform Pixar into a company focused solely on animated feature films, and leaving behind the software sales and other piecemeal activites, which just barely kept the corporation afloat.
This book, like Pixar’s story, is truly remarkable. At times it reads like a novel, but informs like a documentary, advises like a self-help guide and inspires like any unexpected success story. Above all, the story is inspirational and should serve as encouragement for people wanting to innovate. Pixar’s story is rare, but not impossible. Innovation is out there, waiting to be discovered. As Levy says, creativity is a “dance on the precipice of failure”. There are no shortcuts, no formulas and no well-worn paths to victory, but the results speak for themselves.
4th Rock from the Sun: the story of Mars
By Nicky Jenner, £16.99; ISBN 978147292249-6
If ever a planet could be flavour of the month it would have to be Mars. On BBC Radio 4, programmes on Mars are almost as common as the shipping forecast. The audience of one live feature had no difficulty identifying the vegetable grown by Matt Damon’s character in ‘The Martian’, which suggests that Mars is truly part of our culture (or that Radio 4’s audience is mainly gardeners!).
But ‘the story of Mars’ has fascinated audiences for more than a century now, since Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli thought he saw ‘canali’, or channels, on the surface. Unfortunately, a mistranslation led American astronomer Percival Lowell to think that ‘canals’ implied intelligent life... and the rest is history. Indeed, Lowell could almost have been a publisher’s agent, considering the cultural impact across the years from ‘The War of the Worlds’ to ‘Spiders from Mars’.
In ‘4th Rock from the Sun’, we have a cultural compendium of our continuing fascination with Mars. It begins with an analysis of ‘Mars Fever’, asking “Why do we want to visit Mars so badly?” and “Is Mars really so special?”. The author, who calls herself an “avid wannabe space explorer,” begins by explaining why Mars is so hostile to humans and wouldn’t make much of a holiday destination. “The trip there would be thumb-twiddlingly boring,” she says. But she quickly regains her ‘wannabe’ stance with the observation that Mars is potentially the best place to find extraterrestrial life.
One chapter covers the colour and name of Mars in society, mythology, astrology, palmistry... and pretty much anything else that ends in a ‘y’. We all know that the colour red is “often naturally linked to sex”, but did you know that Mars is named Mangala in Hindu astrology “after their flame-red god of war” and that Mangala rides on a ram, the zodiacal Aries “ruled by the planet Mars” and associated with fire? It may be a long way from potatoes, but it shows how long we’ve been hooked on Mars.
Most of us would be able to conjure up a handful of cultural Martian references – from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Captain Scarlet – but you’ll find your memories revived by the fire-hose volume of examples in this book. For me, the book represents an eclectic mix of Martian memories, from science and technology to science fiction and belief.
Having hooked her audience in the early chapters, Jenner gets down to the serious science of Mars and its moons and our continuing exploration of them. The chapter heads – such as ‘Robot Cars on Mars’ – may be sensationalist but the content is engaging and accessible. It’s not a serious academic source, but it’s high on the list of ‘first books to read about Mars’.
Night Trains: The Rise and Fall of the Sleeper
By Andrew Martin, £14.99, ISBN 978 1781255599
This book is a delight. Partly because it deals with one of life’s great pleasures – a night on a sleeper train, and partly because it is written by an extremely talented and prolific writer, whom I would call Britain’s national railway treasure.
Andrew Martin is the author of the authentic-sounding Jim Stringer series of train-related retro thrillers (my favourite is ‘Necropolis Railway’) and a number of equally engaging non-fiction books. Irrespective of the genre, Martin remains one of Britain’s best literary stylists. His sentences are colourful and succinct to the extent that one is tempted to recite them like poetry. ‘Night Trains’ is Martin’s description of a midnight stop at Vallorbe station on the French-Swiss border on the sleeper train from Paris to Venice: “There was a white station building and a white swirling snow. Muffled men walked up and down, and the train jerked about. They were changing the engine.”
“I practically grew up on a train,” Martin says in an earlier book, ‘Belles & Whistles’. Indeed, his father was a British Rail official in York and a compulsive traveller – a member of the British Railwaymen’s Touring Club, who often took his children to the Continent by train, triggering Martin’s passion.
In ‘Night Trains’ we learn about the fascinating history of the Wagons-Lits company and its founder George Nagelmackers, who first started running the trains where “passengers could sleep through the night” as the sleeper ran through border controls, “as if the Schengen agreement already applied”. The trains, where every little detail was taken into account, included a “little hook on which to hang your watch”.
For over a century, night trains inspired authors from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky to Agatha Christie and Arthur Griffith, the all-but-forgotten early-20th-century writer of ‘sleeper thrillers’: “The Rome Express ... was approaching Paris one morning in March, when it became known to the occupants of the sleeping car that there was something amiss...”
Travelling by sleepers was not just exciting, but often dangerous. The first Orient Express passengers were advised to carry a teapot and a revolver in their luggage.
Sadly, the last 50 years saw the disappearance of many iconic sleepers, whose names are reflected in the titles of the book’s chapters: The Blue Train, The Orient Express, and so on. Each chapter constitutes a warm, humorous mini-travelogue in which Martin tries to retrace the itinerary of now-defunct famous sleepers by using the train’s equivalents. For example, he has to take three different sleepers to recreate the original Orient Express route.
There are lots of revelations in ‘Night Trains’. For example, it was fascinating to discover that fairly recently Britain came close to having its own “sleeper trains of true glamour”. When the Eurostar was launched in November 1994 there were serious plans for the ‘Nightstars’ – sleepers that would travel to Paris directly from Scotland, Wales and the North West. The designated day and night carriages, and a special service depot in Manchester, were built. But the idea was promptly killed off by low-cost airlines, and the rolling stock was eventually sold to Canada. What a pity.
And yet it is nice to know that, despite a huge decline in numbers, some night trains are still running along European tracks. The March 2017 edition of the ‘European Train Timetable’ lists at least 50 of them, with names like Chopin (Warsaw-Vienna), Lusitania (Lisbon-Madrid) and Metropol (Prague- Budapest). I had the thrill of trying the latter recently – the 23:58 from Prague to Budapest. And what an amazing journey it was: smooth, comfortable and properly soporific. The bed linen was super-fresh, the attendant efficient and polite, and the train arrived in Budapest right on schedule at 8:37 the following morning.
My only regret was that I didn’t have a copy of ‘Night Trains’ with me. Perusing it on my gently rocking berth, before switching off the lamp and drifting off to sleep, would have been a truly sublime experience.
From the IET Archives
The London Association of Foremen Engineers
The IET Archives recently received a fabulous donation from the Chipping Norton Museum of two photographic albums and an album of signatures, in a beautiful presentation box, which cover the history of the London Association of Foremen Engineers from its formation in May 1852 up to 1939.
The Association was created when five men who felt that other engineering organisations did not adequately cater for foremen met in the upper room of ‘Old George’ Inn in Borough, then the heart of London’s manufacturing industry. The Association became a forum for foremen to discuss a variety of topics. After London’s example, similar organisations were established in Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Middlesbrough, Newcastle and the West of Scotland. Having changed its name to the London Association of Engineers in 1934, the organisation was finally dissolved in 1985.
The two main items in the box are a collection of photographs of presidents and chairmen taken at anniversary dinners and a second album with pictures of distinguished guests, both covering the period up to 1939.
While there are many gaps, the pages feature many hugely influential and well-known individuals, including politicians and engineers. For example Thomas Sopwith, the English aviation pioneer, was the chairman of the 1920 anniversary dinner and Sir Herbert Austin, founder of the Austin Motor Company, was the chairman of the 1931 event.
If you have any material relating to the London Association of Foremen Engineers or the London Association of Engineers that you would like to donate, please contact the IET Archives at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More at bit.ly/IET-Archives