Why you should care
Because the Oscar for the entire history of film goes to …
Just as Maleficent morphed from a lovelorn fairy into a fiery villain, the computing wizardry behind each flap of her mighty wings helped transform Hollywood films into today’s biggest money-making hits. A look at the top 10 grossing films of 2014, from The Hunger Games to Guardians of the Galaxy, reveals that the trash-talking critics’ favorites and brainchildren of mega-corporations have each grossed at least $200 million. And they’ve all got Silicon Valley — the techie equivalent of Oz — running through their veins.
They were all filmed with the help of computer-generated imagery (CGI), which was developed by a handful of firms located in the wind-swept flatlands between San Francisco and San Jose. “To say Silicon Valley was absolutely crucial to the film industry is an understatement,” says Tom Schatz, the director of media studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
It all started in 1993, on a tropical island near Costa Rica. Millions can remember sitting inside 4x4 jeeps in the pitch black, a torrential downpour making it nearly impossible to see out of the windows. The faint, faraway thumps slowly got louder and closer. Then we saw it — a 20-foot-tall T. rex that broke through the electric fence separating us from him and unleashed an earth-shuddering roar. The goosebumps we got from watching Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park were real, because that dinosaur looked so damn lifelike.
But for all the on-screen magic, the Valleywood connection hasn’t been just a one-way street.
But defying extinction demanded more than directing prowess; it required Bay Area and Valley entrepreneurs. Industrial Light and Magic, a ragtag team of graphic nerds then based in the north San Francisco Bay Area, convinced a skeptical Spielberg and producer Kathleen Kennedy to use CGI instead of stop-motion animation. The computers they used came courtesy of Mountain View-based Silicon Graphics Inc.
Then, of course, G.I. Joe marched to the rescue, with Pixar picking up the mantle to produce the first-ever all-CGI film: Toy Story. It wasn’t exactly based in Silicon Valley, but it was just a few miles off after the animation studio spun off from Lucasfilm. At the helm? Primary funder and majority stockholder Steve Jobs, of Apple fame.
Next came the not-so-jolly green giant, Shrek, to break the dam. The ugly-but-lovable ogre captured a princess’s heart and put another Valley-based firm, Pacific Data Images (later part of DreamWorks), on the throne.
But for all the on-screen magic, the Valleywood connection hasn’t been just a one-way street. Back in the 1930s, two young college grads were making gadgets in a Palo Alto shed, one of which became a resistance-tuned audio oscillator. The Model 200A, as it was called — even though there were no previous models — caught the eye of Walt Disney, who was in the process of making his third feature film, Fantasia. A deal allowed the two young men to incorporate their business, calling it Hewlett-Packard — the former won a coin toss — which raked in more than $110 billion in revenue last year.
“Silicon Valley didn’t make Hollywood, but the other way around,” says Howard Suber, the founding chair of UCLA’s Film and Television Producers Program.
So the home to Google and Facebook should really thank its Hollywood stars for the push that helped it fly — alongside many a fairy’s wings — onto today’s silver screen.