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Consuming the Apples: Steve Jobs and the Reality Distortion Field

May 2001

The director introduced me. “This is Bill. He’ll follow you wherever you go.”

The host nodded at me. No rehearsal, no fixed plan, just stay with him, shoot whatever he says, and always try to show where we were. I slung the Sony F900 HD camera onto my shoulder, and we rolled tape.

He stood in a pool of light in front of a black wall, smiled, and spoke to the camera:

Hi. I’m Steve Jobs, and I’m here at Tyson’s Corner Mall in Virginia, right outside Washington, DC. I’m standing in front of this wood barricade we’ve built in front of our first retail store, that’s gonna open in six days.

Now, nobody’s seen inside here yet, and I’d like to take you inside for a little private tour. So come on in.

He opened a door in the black wall, and I followed him into the first Apple Store, a week before its opening, gleaming like a bright new jewel with iMacs, PowerMacs, Titanium PowerBooks, iBooks, and no one but the two of us. A huge photo of John and Yoko was visible at the far end. Steve beamed a welcome to the audience.

“Now, this is our store. The store’s divided into four parts.”

Then, pointing broadly to his left, “The first quarter of the store has our home section, with great home and education products…”

He stopped and glared at me. “You’re supposed to pan over when I point there,” he said.

Great. There we were, barely a minute into the tour, and I’d already pissed him off.

I had discussed what to do about pointing with the director, Bill Couturie, and we had agreed that I would stay on Steve. Later in the day, after Steve left, we would shoot cutaway shots of the home area and the pro section and all the other places he pointed.

It was a long, awkward moment.

Then Bill C came out of the back room where he and the Apple people were monitoring my camera and the audio.

“I asked him to stay on you, Steve. We’ll shoot cutaways later.”

“He should pan over when I point.”

So we started again and I followed his points each time, then came back to him. He related easily to the camera and took us around the store with great pride. He had wanted to do it all off the cuff, without a Teleprompter, in one long take without a break, like a live performance. We came close to doing that, as he led us from one section to another. We did shoot cutaway shots of each area of the store later, and some were used in various edits of this piece.

Continuing his tour of the store at Tyson’s Corner, Steve showed off the children’s areas, the racks and racks of Mac software and accessories, and the Genius Bar, a place to bring a computer problem or a problem computer. Sales and knowledgeable service in one place. Genius.

I had worked for Apple for years on a variety of film and video projects, starting in the early 80s, with talk show host Dick Cavett promoting Apple II and Apple III products. On one setup we had Dick walking around a huge bluescreen set, where he was composited onto a VisiCalc spreadsheet. A later film had Cavett pitching the brand-new Macintosh, which sported “Lisa technology,” referring to the point-and-click interface pioneered in that Mac precursor. Cavett needed coaching from our Apple client on the correct pronunciations of MacPaint (mac-PAINT, not MAC-paint, or mick-PAINT) and MacWrite (mac-WRITE). Nobody knew from Mac-anything, and we all had to learn.

Dick Cavett on the set, with the author, left, and director Steve Michelson, 1983

In 1987, during the period of Steve Jobs’ exile from Apple, I shot the Knowledge Navigator video with director Randy Field. This prescient view of future technologies spawned a generation of “vision videos” through the 90s. Apple and many other high-tech companies produced grand visions, sometimes shooting 35mm film with union actors and mock-ups of wished-for devices and software interfaces in narrative, scripted films. A few years later I shot two half-hour films for Microsoft, a comedy and a murder mystery, one with a budget approaching a million dollars. The six-minute Knowledge Navigator video was widely distributed by Apple and then-CEO John Sculley.

I had been around Steve Jobs a bit, though I’m sure he didn’t know who I was. I’d filmed him briefly at Apple a couple of times, but most of the crew was either out of the room or behind a curtain while we rolled. I’d also waited all day for him to show up at the old CKS Studio across the street from Apple a couple of times, eventually wrapping and going home, having shot nothing at all. Some days, running two multi-billion-dollar companies (Apple and Pixar, where he was also CEO) was more important than whatever promo message we’d been preparing.

I’d also been around him the day before shooting the tour at the Apple Store, when I scouted the location with Bill C and the lighting crew for our film. Our immediate reaction when we saw the store was that it was overlit. The overhead fluorescent lighting wasn’t green or depressing in color, but the high-intensity tubes specified by the store’s lighting designer seemed very bright, with the white floors and walls. Worse, the computers were displayed on white tables and islands, and the intense overhead lights, to my eye, made the displays look dark. I was afraid they’d look muddy on video.

So we had experimented with removing the cover of one of the fluorescent fixtures and adding a layer of Opal Tough Frost, a light, white diffusion material we commonly used to soften lights. We wondered if anyone would notice the change when the Apple people showed up a bit later.

Steve noticed immediately and asked what had happened. Bill C explained it was an experiment, to soften and reduce the overhead lighting slightly, so the screens could pop out better when we shot the tour the next day. Steve was interested in the idea and asked if there were different stages of softening available, and we introduced him to the world of diffusions and helped him select with a Rosco swatch book. He asked what metric was used to quantify the light, and I lent him my Minolta incident light meter and explained how to read the scale.

“So, it’s logarithmic,” he confirmed, grasping it quickly.

In the end, I think he had my lighting crew install Hampshire frost over the light fixtures, the very lightest diffusion available at that time, practically transparent. But when Apple rolled out the first few stores, the lighting looked just as bright as it had started out.

Apple was still just a computer company then, but they were already showing an awareness that the computer would soon be the hub of the digital lifestyle now so deeply engrained in our culture. Though the iPod was still just a twinkle in Steve’s eye, the new Apple Stores sold digital video cameras and other-branded MP3 players. iTunes was already widely available, but only as a handy jukebox program for music you ripped from your CDs or downloaded from Napster.

My cousin worked at Apple at the time, and my uncle, a venture capitalist, wasn’t sure if the stores were a good idea. There were many doubters in the business community. Business Week even ran a commentary that week titled “Sorry, Steve. Here’s Why Apple Stores Won’t Work.”

But I was already an Apple fanboy. I loved their stuff, and I knew it could be difficult to see the new Macs, except in a few specialty stores, and software and accessories were not widely available. It all made sense to me. And now ten years later, Apple stores are by far the most profitable retail real estate in the country, generating $5625 in sales per square foot each year. This compares with Tiffany second at $2974, Coach third at $1820, Game Stop fifth at $1009, Best Buy tenth at $831.

The week after the shoot at Tyson’s Corner, I was shooting the grand opening of the new Apple Store at the Galleria in Glendale, California, another upscale mall. The Mac faithful came out in force. Hundreds of people were lined up hours before the place opened at 10 am, and thousands waited on line all day to pass through and ogle the new store and all the product.

In the next couple of years, I shot a slew of projects with Bill C, which Steve showed during his keynotes at Macworld Expo in San Francisco just after New Year’s each year, or at Apple product roll-out events in Cupertino. We interviewed Jonathan Ive (Apple’s Vice President for Industrial Design) a number of times. We also interviewed U2’s Bono (in Dublin), Aaron Sorkin (in his office at Warner Bros.), Annie Leibovitz (in her New York studio), Francis Ford Coppola (at his winery in California), Seal (in his LA home studio), Wynton Marsalis, Alanis Morrissette, Elijah Wood, Tony Hawk, Sheryl Crow, Drew Carey, Moby, and Steve Harwell from Smashmouth. Dr. Dre stood us up three times.

U2′s Bono, center, with engineer Jim Rolin, left, and the author (in a Jimi Hendrix tie-dye T-shirt) after our interview in Dublin, Ireland

We showed them the iPod; asked them about iPhoto, Garage Band, and the iTunes Music Store; and revealed the new swing-arm iMac to them, by pulling a black drape off the computer on camera.

When we showed the guys from the band Bare Naked Ladies the swing-arm iMac, though, they thought it was funny and bobbed its head up and down as they made up words for it. Apparently Steve hated that, because the week before Christmas, the Apple folks had us fly down to LA for an elaborate, substitute Sunday interview setup in a recording studio there, hoping we could persuade Seal to drop by and talk on camera for a few minutes, on his way through town between vacations in Canada and Mexico.

“Steve would want us to do this,” said an exec from Apple, and eventually that evening Seal did come by and gave us some great reactions as we pulled the drape from the iMac. He loved it.

The old hands at Apple, the ones on the original Macintosh development team, referred to Steve’s legendary charisma and powers of persuasion as the Reality Distortion Field. His powerful genius attracted many creative artists and persuaded them to become a part of Apple’s legend and legacy. Annie Leibovitz told us he had called her himself to ask if we could film her, and Francis Coppola seemed genuinely surprised that Steve hadn’t come to Sonoma County with us for the interview.

I rarely saw Steve Jobs again, but his legend loomed ever larger, registering huge successes with each new product release. He led the charge into the digital lifestyle as Apple evolved into the multifaceted consumer electronics, music, movies, books and software giant it is today, the world’s most valuable company.

The Other Costs of Technology

I gaze about at my Apple orchard, present and past, and warmly recall the bounty of Apples I’ve consumed over the past 25 years: MacPlus, Quadra, Duo, PowerBook, PowerMac, Macbook Pro, and all the iStuff: iBook, iMac, iPod, iPad, iPhone, iTunes, iPhoto, iDVD, iMovie, iChat, iWeb, iCal, and iWork.

I love my orchard, I love all my iStuff.

But I’m aware that all this great stuff comes to us at a price. Much of it is produced in China at Foxconn, under horrible working conditions with little corporate responsibility. I was very moved recently (as was Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak) by Mike Daisey’s dramatic monologue, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. His show recently opened in New York. I recommend it heartily to anyone else concerned about the human cost of the high-tech revolution.

Article first published as Consuming the Apples: Steve Jobs and the Reality Distortion Field on Technorati.


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1 comment to Consuming the Apples: Steve Jobs and the Reality Distortion Field

  • Nathie Tieman

    Wow, where do I begin? This amazing article details so many different things. Of course, it’s a perspective on Steve Jobs but it so much more. It gives a real insight into Apple and some of Steve’s thinking. The detailing of your “Apple Orchard” reminds us of some of the many products Apple has produced and the video itself showed so many of their early products. It was good to understand why the video of the first Apple Store was so light. I also enjoyed the Knowledge Navigator video which shows incredible technology. It’s always nice to see the “hippie” Bill Zarchy and the current Bill Zarchy. Thanks for another winner showcasing your OUTSTANDING writing skills.

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