Celebs flock to Apple's digital hype fest

Douglas Adams, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Donald Glaser visit Cupertino to make digital movies.

Published December 2, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Donald Glaser, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, is hunched over his iMac, puzzling over a film clip of waves breaking over a tranquil beach. Sitting at the iMac next to him is the hulking TV star Sinbad, equally absorbed in editing a video of basketball players. On the other side of Glaser sits astronaut Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, manipulating pictures of African art. Across the room, sci-fi legend Douglas Adams breaks into a laugh so loud that it startles almost everyone in the hushed room. Even actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, engrossed in her work, looks up.

Apple, long the rock star of computer companies, has a long and loving relationship with celebrity -- from Steve Jobs' high-profile work with Pixar to that ubiquitous Think Different campaign to the appearance of stars like Gregory Hines and Jeff Goldblum in iMac advertisements. This week, as part of the two-and-a-half-year-old AppleMasters program, Apple invited a roomful of bona fide celebrities to visit its office and learn how to create a digital film.

"We don't like to call them celebrities," says Kanwal Sharma, the AppleMasters program manager. "More like 'leaders in their fields.'"

The AppleMasters program was founded in 1997 with the aim of showcasing how great visionaries do their work with Apple technology. Or, as the AppleMasters Web site more grandly envisions it, "Astronauts. Photographers. Authors. Filmmakers. Physicists. Entrepreneurs. The AppleMasters Program recognizes a handful of extraordinary people who use Apple technology to help change the world."

Nearly 75 of these visionaries have visited the Apple offices in the last two years to attend training classes. During the intensive two-day sessions, notables as wide-ranging as Bryan Adams, Muhammad Ali, British artist Damien Hirst, scientist Richard Dawkins, Tom Clancy, Tracy Ullman and musician and physicist Fiorella Terenzi -- even dolphin researcher Louis Herman and his so-called "superdolphin" -- have tackled geek tasks including digital photography, digital music and Web publishing.

This week, the topic was digital film: Each AppleMaster was given a Canon digital camera, an iMac and training on how to edit his or her material into a film. The results -- which ranged from humorous interludes to serious short films to visual ruminations -- were screened privately on Wednesday, and will be released on the Web later this week.

Besides the "leaders," Apple also invited a group of nine local schoolchildren, ages 8 to 12, to participate in the program. In a much louder and more raucous room down the hall from that of the celebs, bright kids were making their own digital films, focusing on their bedrooms. "The whole idea is that these are young minds -- show them how to do something and then stand aside and see what they do with it," explains Sharma. "The magic is giving them the skills."

The results? Masterpieces like "Nick's Room," by Nicholas Barbara, who queries his mother about her thoughts on his bedroom to a Metallica soundtrack. "It's a pit," says Mom. Ten-year-old Eve Wheatley composed a minute-long film about her doll collection -- impressive stuff for a girl who hasn't outgrown Barbie yet. "It's easy to learn," she shrugs.

When both the kids and adults are finished with their masterpieces, they'll walk away with not just the knowledge of how to create a digital film, but the Canon video camera and the iMac to boot. While the kids will bring the equipment to their schools to train their classmates, the celebrity AppleMasters get to keep the bounty for themselves -- despite the fact that many of them could afford roomfuls of iMacs. Of course, it's money well spent for Apple if these celebrities will use the machines in a creative, high-profile way.

"I'll use it for home; I'm sure the grandkids will love it," smiled Glaser as he waited for his three-minute film to download. He paused and added, "I'll also use it to create computational models of the human visual system, making simplified movies to be used for testing how signals move through the brain ... This is perfect for me."

That must be music to Apple's ears.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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