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Silicon Valley Through the Lens of London

Steve Jobs is famous for his impatience with questions about the past; he prefers to focus on the future. That may be a healthy attitude for the CEO of Apple, but luckily for those of us who weren’t in the heart of Silicon Valley during the early days of the computer revolution, there are plenty of people who are happy to talk about how things used to be, including Steve Wozniak, Guy Kawasaki, the late Jef Raskin, John Warnock of Adobe, and Tim O’Reilly.

All of them, and others whose names may be less familiar, appear in a new 55-minute film about what makes Silicon Valley tick, called “In Search of the Valley.” Subtitled “Three friends’ journey into the psyche of Silicon Valley,” and directed by Steve O’Hear, the documentary is part history, part industry analysis, all wrapped up in a minivan-enabled road trip. O’Hear and his friends clocked over 3,000 rental car miles during September 2004 while driving around Silicon Valley to interview numerous luminaries about their experiences growing up and working in Silicon Valley over the last 30 years.

Overall, the film is technically well done. Perhaps it seems odd to mention that, but I had somehow acquired the impression the entire project was the work of relatively low-budget amateurs (i.e., normal people taking advantage of Apple technology to produce a high-quality result), so I was somewhat more impressed than I might have been with something that had already aired on TV. I learned afterwards that the entire film was indeed edited on a PowerPC G4-based iMac. The only glitches were some scenes that were likely shot in too-low light and suffered from graininess when their brightness levels were brought up.

But realistically, no one’s watching “In Search of the Valley” for the cinematography. It’s all about the interviews, and that’s where the producers score. Steve Wozniak and Andy Hertzfeld were their usual open and insightful selves, Guy Kawasaki exudes his trademark enthusiasm, John Warnock manages to combine the roles of elder statesman and engineer gracefully, and Tim O’Reilly is at his opining best. The people I don’t know – Lee Felsenstein, interface guru Brenda Laurel, Apache developer Brian Behlendorf, Craig Newmark of craigslist, and others – also offered insight into their parts of the industry, and Marc Canter, one of the founders of MacroMind, even contributes a raunchy blues riff at the end.

What’s odd is that the film is very much talked about as a “personal journey,” as is the “stranger in a strange land” aspect of a couple of Brits making a film about the most American of success stories. And yet apart from a few references to the fact that several of the filmmakers are from London, there’s little musing about how it must have felt to watch the rise of Silicon Valley from afar, or if it had to have been a peculiarly American story. Similarly, the director, Steve O’Hear, is in a wheelchair, and although he appears in numerous scenes, there’s no commentary about how the technology developed in Silicon Valley impacted his life. Indeed, at one point, the filmmakers are on the Apple campus, where Steve O’Hear is mistaken for the British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, but the event is discussed only in the film’s accompanying blog.

Another slight oddity is that the film seems as though it should be current, but since it was filmed in September 2004, there are topics, such as the rise of Google, that feel glossed over simply because of when the original footage was shot. Two years is a long time to go from shooting to final product, even given the 30 hours of original footage and the busywork of sourcing archive photos and obtaining all the necessary permissions; perhaps that was the real mark of the filmmakers’ inexperience, even if the end result turned out to be extremely well edited and produced.

Extras include 30 minutes of additional interviews (with Andy Hertzfeld, Guy Kawasaki, John Warnock, and Sandy Miranda), a set of animations that were originally intended to separate segments of the main film, a photo slideshow, and the original Web trailer. The photo slideshow is particularly notable, since it gives much more of a feel of what the filming was actually like; it’s rougher and less formalized. There’s also a touching clip of Steve O’Hear playing a piano duet with Jef Raskin.

The DVD costs $20, but is currently available for $18 for early adopters. If you’re the sort who watches documentaries about the early days at Apple or reads books about the history of the industry, you’ll find “In Search of the Valley” highly enjoyable.

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