2017 has been a year marked by self-discovery, sweeping changes, and stabilization. My list for 2017 turned out a bit shorter than expected, but I think the list adequately captures this past year.
Creativity, Inc. is a book by Ed Catmull, one of the original founders of Pixar, and the current President of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. It recounts the path to Pixar’s success, from his early childhood dreams all the way to the current state of the animation studio. Partly business oriented, partly autobiographical, Creativity, Inc. describes in detail the company’s growth over the years and the mistakes they made, breaking them down into concrete lessons learned around preserving a creative and innovative culture. For the Pixar fan, it also contains numerous behind-the-scenes stories and tidbits of the inner workings of some of the most beloved films of our time.
Catmull breaks his book down into four distinct parts. The first, titled “Getting Started”, goes over his days in university and the jobs that led to the initial graphics group at LucasFilm, the eventual acquisition by Steve Jobs, and the establishment of the early team at Pixar, as well as some of the crucial tenets of Pixar’s identity and company culture. It’s a fascinating introduction that delves deep into the history and personalities behind the company’s formation, and speaks at length about the creative film-making process in some of Pixar’s earliest hits.
Part two is titled “Protecting the New”, where he begins to dig into the importance of building a culture of honesty and boldness, instead of one paralyzed by a crippling fear of the unknown. Catmull adds illuminating anecdotes throughout the entire book, but this section was definitely one that I found most personally relatable and very applicable in daily life. Its insight into human tendency and the subconscious is a healthy reminder to fight against our natural propensity for the familiar.
In the third section, “Building and Sustaining”, Catmull outlines some of the practical steps that Pixar took as a company to constantly change and improve Pixar. It contains some personal descriptions of the creative psyche from some of the directors and writers responsible for the most famous films from the studio, and examines the importance of our own mental models and how they shape the perceptions of the world we find ourselves in.
The fourth and final section is titled “Testing What We Know”. A detailed account of the Disney + Pixar acquisition process, this part of the book recapitulates the ideas gained over the course of Pixar’s success, but applies them in a completely new context — the revival of Disney Animation Studios.
My goal has never been to tell people how Pixar and Disney figured it all out but rather to show how we continue to figure it out, every hour of every day. How we persist. The future is not a destination — it is a direction. It is our job then, to work each day to chart the right course and make corrections when inevitably, we stray.
- Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.
The book ends with an afterword by Catmull describing the Steve Jobs he knew and worked with, and the changes he saw in both Pixar and Jobs himself, over the course of twenty-six years. It’s a touching description of a man who changed the world and helped shape the future of Pixar, and you can see the profound respect Catmull and the rest of the lead executives at Pixar had for someone who so deeply shaped their lives.
I’ll end my description by saying that while this book is commonly marketed as a “business” book, I found that I gained more insight into my mental model of the world despite reading the book through the lens of someone more interested in the stories than the business aspects. If you find this interesting, or are just a fan of Pixar in general, you might also be interested in this Pixar documentary.
I’m not a boxer, and my knowledge of boxing is extremely limited, but this year I looked into one of the most illustrated figures in the history of boxing and his impact on the world: Muhammad Ali. Ali was a boxer by profession, but he was also an entertainer, activist, and a worldwide cultural icon throughout his boxing career. He was incredibly witty and had an almost poetic skill with the spoken language that he flaunted heavily in his interviews, often running circles around the hosts whose sole job was to speak. Though some of his ideals might not hold up in the 21st century, he showed tremendous depth and insight into many of the problems with society in the 60’s and 70’s. His interviews are funny, charismatic, and insightful, and his ability to communicate and command attention is incredible.
I often wonder what it was like to live in an age without internet, discovering things by word of mouth or in print, in the presence of the giants in history. What it’d be like to grow up listening to the Beatles, recorded second hand on a cassette player, or to be alive during the midst of the revolutionary African American Civil Rights Movement and witness history in the making? Or in this case, to have grown up watching Muhammad Ali dominate the world of boxing to the point where he was a household name across the entire globe? What would it have felt like to have such a large part of the western world united under a single front, despite being completely bereft of the tools we take for granted today? Even now, what will we look back at in thirty or forty years, to reminisce about the overwhelming effect of something or someone that changed the world forever?
Videos of Muhammad Ali’s many interviews can be found all over Youtube. Over forty years later, the insight and entertainment they provide continue to speak to his tremendous charisma and lasting impact on the world.
Departures (titled Okuribito in Japanese), tells the story of Daigo Kobayashi, a cellist who is forced to move back to his hometown and ends up finding himself working as a nokanshi, an encoffiner that conducts final rituals to prepare dead bodies for their funeral. The film follows Daigo’s journey in overcoming the heavy stigma behind his new job, and the effects of death on human life.
Departures is above all else, a look into one of life’s greatest motivators, yet one that people rarely stop to think about until it’s already upon them. There’s a stark humanity behind death, and each encoffening ceremony Daigo performs is a poignant reminder that even in passing, the weight of our lives continue to stay with those around us.
I’m not Japanese, and am unfamiliar with the ceremonies held, but the language the film speaks around death is universal. There’s something heartbreakingly breathtaking about the cinematography behind the rituals. Every shot and every pause feels precise and deliberate, and every facial expression in every close-up pulls at your heartstrings despite being a stranger to the characters. The writing is quiet and succinct, and the film lets the music and camerawork show what goes unspoken.
Departures was directed by Yōjirō Takita, and won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009. It is a film that says a lot with very little, about something as important as, yet far less observed than, life. If you enjoyed the film and are looking to widen your perspectives further, I also highly recommend reading this article by the New York Times about “Lonely Deaths” in Japan.
In a vastly more uplifting tone, my next pick talks about the importance of mystery in video games and its role in shaping the early days of the games industry. And no — I’m not referring to the Holmes-esque genre here, I’m talking about the inexplicable feeling of curiosity, the struggle of the journey of discovery, and the serendipitous satisfaction when you finally uncover something remarkable. At an age where information is cheap and cynicism runs high, those moments of “childlike wonder” seem few and far between, but in the 80’s and 90’s, the gaming community gathered around rumored secrets, urban legends, and mysteries in video games.
“Rediscovering Mystery” is expertly shot, and features interviews with arguably some of the most influential developers responsible for kick-starting the recent rise of independent video games. Jonathan Blow created Braid, which is commonly considered one of early pioneers for the indie game community. Derek Yu developed Spelunky, which revolutionized the rogue-like genre by combining it with the platforming genre. Finally, Jim Crawford created Frog Fractions (and its subsequent sequel), a game that while superficially may seem quite strange and esoteric, embodies the sense of wonder and intrigue that so many other games miss.
I highly recommend giving the documentary a watch, if you’re at all curious about one of the many reasons why video games are so compelling. If you find the topic interesting, I highly recommend the rest of the series, as well as this talk by Jim Crawford on Preserving a Sense of Discovery in the Age of Spoilers.
Silver Spoon (Gin no Saji)
Silver Spoon(titled Gin no Saji in Japanese) is a slice of life anime created by Hiromu Arakawa, whom some of you may know as the creator of the much lauded shōnen series, Full Metal Alchemist. With Silver Spoon, she takes on a completely different tone, dropping her traditional shōnen action for a slower, heartfelt, coming of age story packed with character development and a humbling examination of the human experience.
In classic Japanese slice of life fashion, Silver Spoon tells the story of Yuugo Hachiken, a high school boy who escapes to Ooezo Agricultural High School, to avoid the expectations of his family. As he befriends the students around him, he quickly finds himself surrounded by people who seem so sure of their goals and dreams as he struggles to find his own meaning in life.
Arakawa’s masterful storytelling shines in Silver Spoon’s deliberate pacing and poignant dialogue, and the use of anime as a medium delivers an experience that balances silliness and depth in a way that few others could. The story examines themes that bring humanity and seriousness into an oft-discounted medium, touching upon the struggle between dreams and reality, the overwhelming pressure of societal and familial expectations, and the constant struggle to find one’s place in the world.
I was first introduced to the series several years ago by recommendation of a friend in university, but I re-watched it this past year, after a recent conversation with a friend. I found myself just as much attached to the characters as my first watch-through, if not more, and I expect to continue to re-watch it from time to time as I grow older. You can watch Silver Spoon on Netflix, and if you find yourself enjoying the series, I would highly recommend checking out Mushishi, Studio Ghibli, Makoto Shinkai, and the other slice of life recommendations I made in 2016.
Diggin’ in the Carts
Probably my favorite pick of this year, Diggin’ in the Carts is documentary by Nick Dwyer detailing the origins and evolution of music in video games, from its humble beginnings in the 8-bit NES age to its eventual global adoption and appeal in the modern era.
The series begins in the early 1980’s, when composers were simply engineers, building chips, hand-drawing individual waveforms to create sounds, and piecing them together into what would eventually become 8-bit video game music. It goes on to follow the progression of the technology in video games, coupled with the transformation of the accompanied music. Entire companies would drive hardware breakthroughs, taking bets on investing in music as an extension for completely changing a game’s experience. Dwyer interviews some of the most influential composers and video game developers throughout the past three decades, highlighting their musical influences, their triumphs, and their lessons learned.
You can find the rest of the documentary here. If you’re completely new to video game music, composers derive their work from a large variety of influences from more mainstream musical genres, whether that be rock, metal, classical, jazz, funk, or something altogether different. If you’re interested in hearing some of the original 16-bit music that opened this world up for me, here are some of my fondest soundtracks from childhood:
- TLOZ: A Link to the Past
- Super Mario World
- Donkey Kong Country (The sequel, DKC 2, has what I might consider one of the greatest video game soundtracks, though I didn’t play or hear it until I was far older!)
- Super Mario Bros 2
- Super Mario Kart
- Street Fighter 2
- TLOZ: Link’s Awakening
Strong Woman Do Bong Soon
Yes… a Korean drama made my list this year. Strong Woman Do Bong Soon is my guilty pleasure of the year, and while I normally hesitate to introduce these to most people I know, I decided there was enough here that might pique the interest of someone unfamiliar with the genre. I’ll start off the introduction saying if in your mind, Childhood Love + Evil Step-family + Car Crash + Amnesia + Cancer = KDrama, you’re still living in the stereotypes of the early 2000’s, and can rest assured that this is definitely not one of those melodramas.
This drama is about a particularly strong woman name Do Bong Soon. Riveting and informative, I know… but I’m not here to feed you some bullshit analysis about how this show is a work of art or how its story will blow you away, because frankly, it isn’t, and it won’t. The show is full of plot holes, is incredibly predictable, makes use of many a deus ex machina, and has enough fan-service to sink a boat. However, it’s an incredibly fun mix of zany and adorable with a nice dollop of romantic comedy, and fun enough that it still somehow made this list. Its silliness is self-aware in its cinematography and writing, with antics and effects highly reminiscent of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The female lead also just has some great lines in the show.
Even when compared to more recent dramas that don’t follow the melodrama equation mentioned above, I found Strong Woman Do Bong Soon unexpectedly refreshing, with the strong female lead breaking a lot of the mind-numbing tropes around gender roles and societal standards common in the genre (and country?), staying honest to the premise throughout the show. Many instances where other shows might have back-pedaled on character development with contrived plot-lines or unnecessary fan service, Strong Woman Do Bong Soon pleasantly surprised me by sticking to the lead character arc it set up.
At the end of the day though, this is still a Korean drama, and despite my praise, if you are not at all interested in romantic comedies, you should definitely run away as far as possible. You can watch Strong Woman Do Bong Soon on Viki, Netflix, or Dramafever, and if you find yourself having fun, you should just watch any of the other highly rated Korean dramas, you’ll probably enjoy those as well.
It’s been a very long but kind year, and I’m looking forward to having everything that I’ve gained be challenged to its core in 2018. If you’ve stuck with me through the end of this list, I hope you’ve changed just a little bit as well! If you want to see more, you should check out my list from 2016.
See you in 2018!