For Gainesville native Michael Rubin, one career just isn't enough Photos courtesy of Michael Rubin
Published: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 6:04 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 6:04 p.m.
It's meant to be a simple question, but when people ask Michael Rubin what he does for a living, he's never quite sure how to respond. There are plenty of honest answers: Author, video editor, photographer, entrepreneur. But none of them quite sums up Rubin's career.
"When people ask what I do, I kind of scratch my head. It's pretty embarrassing," he laughs. "You either look indecisive or pretentious, and neither one is good."
Rubin, who grew up in Gainesville, garnered national attention for his 2005 book "Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution," inspired by his tenure at Lucasfilm. The opportunity to work for George Lucas happened by chance: As Rubin was about to graduate from Brown University with a degree in neuroscience, he got the call that a contact at Lucasfilm — Rubin's former camp counselor — had succeeded in securing a job for him in the fledgling computer division. While "Droidmaker" is more of a comprehensive chronicle of the period than a memoir of his time there, Rubin says writing it let him relive the days when he had a front seat to moviemaking history.
"We were evangelizing the use of computers to the film industry, and it was a hard sell," says Rubin, 45. "People were very skeptical. Computers were expensive, and the people who needed to use them were typically blue-collar people who tended to be technophobic."
He spent 10 years editing films and designing editing equipment in Hollywood before switching gears to focus on Petroglyph Ceramic Lounge, a chain of paint-it-yourself pottery stores he founded with his wife, Jennifer. Ironically, it was a peak moviemaking experience — working on the 1990 Bernardo Bertolucci movie "The Sheltering Sky" — that helped Rubin realize he didn't want to edit films for the rest of his life.
"Working on that film showed me how good filmmaking could be, and how much bad TV and how many lousy movies I'd have to work on between great projects like that," he says.
By 2000, the Rubins wanted to start a family, but not in Los Angeles, so they settled in Santa Cruz, where they could commute to the Bay area and Hollywood as necessary. The cutting-edge editing tools that had once been met with such skepticism had by then trickled down to home computers, leading Rubin to write "The Little Digital Video Book" for amateur videographers in 2001. (The book's second edition came out last year.) And while he classifies himself as a "freelance guy," Rubin did try out corporate life when he became the Director of Community Experience at Netflix in 2006.
"Netflix combined my interest in film, the Internet and business. It was like the sweet spot where those things come together. Not many companies are like that," he says.
As one of the architects of the company's web site, Rubin specialized in social networks when Facebook didn't yet exist and YouTube was in its infancy. He enjoyed the job, but everything changed last February when he woke up and discovered half of his body was numb. At the hospital, Rubin found out he had had a stroke at age 44.
"It was one of those wakeup calls that you're mortal, like having a near-accident on the highway. It happens so fast and you're left thinking, 'I could have died,'" Rubin says. "After the stroke, I realized that commuting, going to an office every day, was not what I wanted to spend my life doing. I want to do stuff that's meaningful for me and my family. It was a gentle reminder to wake up and do some stuff I had been putting off."
Now Rubin is pursuing his interest in still photography, thinking about ways to take Petroglyph to the next level and developing a reality show he's been contemplating for years called "Making Movies with Mike." The stroke also prompted Rubin to lose weight and take up tennis.
"You realize your body is the only thing you've got," he says.
Rubin had been blogging daily when the stroke happened, and he kept it up in the ICU. His no-holds-barred musings on life and mortality — complete with brain scans and photos from his hospital bed — are posted on droidmaker.blogspot.com. It wasn't until after he recovered that he realized that his candor could be detrimental.
"I realized that if I was talking to someone about a business proposition and they read that, they might think, 'This guy's on death's door, I don't want to go into business with him.' For a while, I took down the more existential or scary posts, but I wound up putting them back later," he says. "My history is to be open and transparent. By not hiding it, maybe people won't put too much weight on it."
Rubin likens his career strategy to playing with Legos: "I keep finding things I like to do — speaking in front of audiences, writing, photography, business stuff, movie stuff, and putting them together to try to build something," he says.
Juggling a variety of projects doesn't stress him out — in fact, he'd hate doing the same thing every day, he says.
"Switching hats is pretty effortless for me. It's more of a restlessness. Switching around keeps things lively."
Rubin cites his parents, ophthalmologist Melvin Rubin, and Lorna, owner of Gainesville-based Triad Publishing, as major influences in his creative career.
"My parents have been incredibly supportive, which is weird, because it's hard on parents when their kids don't have a steady career. They have an amazing tolerance for some of the stuff I do. I'm 45, and I still call my parents all excited about a new idea I have."
His mother's passion for photography, coupled with her use of a computer for her publishing business before home computers were commonplace, were influences that shaped his interests," he says.
"Not many kids in the '70s had a computer at home," he says.
The effect rubbed off on all three Rubin children: brother Danny is a screenwriter who penned "Groundhog Day," while sister Gabrielle, a psychologist, is a visual artist.
"All three of us put a lot of value on creativity," Rubin says. "I guess you could call us practical artists."
Growing up, the Westwood Middle and Gainesville High School alumnus spent his free moments snapping photos and playing in the creek behind the home where his parents still live. (At Thanksgiving, he took his children, Jonah, 9, and Alina, 6, hunting for sharks' teeth in the creek just as he used to do.) When the young Rubin thought about what he wanted to do for a living, he vacillated between following in his father's footsteps in medicine and pursuing professional photography. He also planned to win a Nobel Prize, "I just wasn't sure in what," he laughs.
Today, his goals are equally wide ranging, blending his interests and aptitudes in different ways each day.
"For me, it's about finding something I like to do and seeing if someone will pay me for it," he laughs.
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