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Big Ideas

Pixar, U2, and the Horrific Feeling of Losing All of Your Work

We trust our hard drives and journals with our most precious creative output. This is what happened when Toy Story 2, U2, and John Steinbeck lost their work.


It will happen to you eventually. Your computer will crash. We trust these machines to handle so much of our cognitive load – projects, ideas, workflows. We know we should back it up regularly, but in the real world…we rarely do it as often as we should…if at all.

If your computer crashes and you’ve lost everything…you’re not alone. Creatives renown and unknown have all been there and all of us have found a way to move on.

In December of 1999, U2 frontman Bono lost a laptop containing the lyrics to all of the songs that would become All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Bono told the press, “Everything I’ve written since August was on this and I hadn’t backed up any of it – so I would really have been a goner. This is like my portable brain.” Fortunately, that story has a happy ending. Bono’s laptop was eventually returned by a fan, but many of us can connect with the despair of losing our portable brain.

In some cases, a backup isn’t possible. One quirky note from the career of John Steinbeck, Steinbeck’s dog actually mauled an early draft of his manuscript for Of Mice and Men, forcing Steinbeck to re-write the novel again from scratch. Steinbeck appears to have taken it pretty well. In a letter to his editor he wrote, 

“Two months work to do over again. It sets me back. There was no other draft. I was pretty mad but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically. I didn’t want to ruin a good dog for a [manuscript]. I’m not sure it is good at all.”
Steinbeck’s dog actually mauled an early draft of his manuscript for Of Mice and Men.

During the making of Toy Story 2, the folks at animation powerhouse Pixar held their collective breathe as they nearly lost it all. As Ed Catmull explains in his book, Creativity, Inc., one animator accidentally entered a command that signaled their computer system to dump all their files as quickly as possible. Animators through the building watched as elements of their work began disappearing, characters, landscapes, whole scenes just disappearing like a scene from Back to the Future. Catmull explains,

“Oren Jacobs, one of the lead technical directors on the movie, remembers watching this occur in real time. At first, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Then, he was frantically dialing the phone to reach systems. ‘Pull the plug on the Toy Story 2 master machine!’ he screamed. When the guy on the other end asked, sensibly, why, Oren screamed louder: “Please, God, just pull it out as fast as you can!”

Despite the best efforts of both, in a matter of seconds 90 percent of the film had vanished. Had it not been for a technical director working from home off of a copy of the master system, who knows what Toy Story 2 would have looked like?

Had it not been for a technical director working from home off of a copy of the master system, who knows what Toy Story 2  would have looked like?

On a personal note, I connected with Bono’s and Steinbeck’s emotions more recently. Instead of a missing laptop, the culprit this time was a slip of the wrist and a full 12 ounce can of soda poured all over my MacBook Air. After staring at the infamous question mark folder icon, and working on my wife’s computer to research my options, I took to the internet to research stories of losing, or nearly losing, it all. These are the stories I used to talk myself off the figurative cliff. 

Even the most professional among us have, at one time or another, felt the sting of a work in progress crashing before their eyes. If you haven’t lost it all yet, give it time. Then, regardless of the weight of your loss, get going on a backup plan. We can’t all rely on adoring fans and workaholic teammates to save us from the inevitable crash.

How about you?

Have you ever lost all of your work thanks to technology?

Comments (1)
  • eristdoof

    Aardman animations had a pretty much the whole script of a Wallace and Grommit was stolen from a car in the 90’s

    • http://LDRLB.co/ davidburkus

      I wish I’d heard of that story. I love Wallace and Grommit. Thanks!

      • I AM TROLL

        Bit of a fan myself.

  • http://www.shinyphoto.co.uk/ Tim

    No, because I’m neither stupid nor lazy. The notebook backs itself up to my server box every 2 hours which runs zfs with two separate zpools internally, and all my vital stuff is available on two colo-servers as well.

  • http://rawilco.tumblr.com Richard Wilcoxson

    If you’re on a Mac there’s only one word you need to know: Backblaze
    Look them up, sign up, stop worrying, say thank you.
    (also Dropbox, so make that two words).

  • http://yourauthenticweb.com/ Louis Novick

    I personally utilize an external HD for my backups as well as Dropbox.

  • Linda

    If anything, this is more a lesson in the importance of backups, something they often preach in security classes for IT. I am not sure I understand why no one seems to do this, although maybe it’s the whole “it could never happen to me” mentality. It surprises me that even Pixar would not be regularly backing up their systems, ESPECIALLY if they have some magic “self destruct quickly” button just hanging around for someone to accidentally push.

  • Susie

    Have I lost my work to technology? Yes! You deleted my comment after pointing out a typo and deleted it without any mention. What bad form.

  • http://erniecordell.wordpress.com Ernie Cordell

    Good backups, or real backups are not as easy as they sound. People think of a backup as a “copy” of some particular thing. When we worked on mainframes we had backups because we paid an operations staff made up of people who would lose their jobs if data were lost. “Home” computers or various forms of “portables” have no around-the-clock staff and no production routines to keep data safe. I likewise express amazement of Pixar’s slipshod way of doing business, but maybe they were young at the time.

    I think of a backup as at least three things: (1) An “image” or complete detailed state of the principal data store in some “original” state — not in a “wiped” state, but at a point in time when it’s all ready to do the work the user (community) has in its charter.

    (2) a periodic, slow/off-production “full backup” of the state of used “writing space” (like Microsoft’s old familiar “C:” drive) — a “down time” (when not much is changing) accumulation of all that has changed in that interval (e.g. 24 hours). (3) Incrementals, which are stored throughout the production period to record the working space contents so that they may be restored to a particular point in time. Also, each backup should have a copy in the event there is some failure during the backup event itself.

    Remember, “your computer” in the terms in which you are accustomed to thinking of it, consists of not only a “hardware unit,” but an operating system and the myriad systems settings, configurations files and application data files — all squirrelled away secretly while you work unmolested on your Magnus Opus. You could take a brand new machine with a fresh install of your customary operating system and drop your backups on it — but it just wouldn’t look and feel the same — which is a crucial element to reproducing something like the raw Toy Story2.

    My previous paragraph is a good argument for a good backup, but it has more to do with reproducing _everything_ than it has to do with preserving that Magnus Opus. That’s more of a matter of Configuration Management. Tools have improved over the years from the brute force copies that we made of everything (which are still useful in a real crisis — no operating system, a destroyed disk and data in an unknown and unrestorable state, short of calling CSI).

    Two tools come to mind: Git and Mercurial — both are distributed systems, so that with the proper discipline (which is what a big part of this article is all about), they can be used collaboratively without a “central repository.” There does have to be an “authoritative repository,” though, not something that you see advertised a lot. This should be “the good copy” of the distinct work that makes up your product. If you’re dealing with processed (e.g. “rendered”) binary data — really we have to go back to the backups. This doesn’t save Toy Story2, but it might save settings, direction and script that can be saved in keystrokes. But text is generally composed of a smaller “character set” so it can be restored more easily by “guessing patterns.”

    I work with program source code, so naturally my focus is on preserving ASCII text — but I understand the heartbreak the authors, photographers and cinematographers have when the baby isn’t in the crib. There are many situations where we say, “I could piece it together from the reports,” adding sadly, “but they just aren’t _there_.” Enemy of the embezzler, recording “deltas” to the configuration just may give you those reports from which it can be pieced together. These are separate sorts of concerns, but they are the reason that people want to keep backups.

    Either way, structure has to be there in the backup and configuration management tools and at least a little discipline has to be there in the form of that little voice that says, “I’d better back this up.” or “I’d better check in this module,” or you’re going to lose your data, because as devices get smaller and hotter, we’re headed in a direction of less stability and not more.

  • Wendy Kelly

    Weird — I’m not super uptight about typos, but, like Susie, I did notice them & am hoping they’ll be fixed soon — I want to share this article on a client’s social media channels, but not with typos. I don’t want to seem super uptight or critical, but it is stopping me from sharing an otherwise awesome article! Thanks!!

    • Sasha

      Hey Wendy! Thanks for the head’s up, we’re always grateful for anyone that catches the errors that sometimes sneaks pass us. Can you be more specific about what typos you see?

      • Wendy Kelly

        Hi — They aren’t major & there are just a couple that I saw —
        “I used to talk myself off the figuratively cliff.”

        “Fortunately, that story has a happen ending”

        Like I said, they’re very human mistakes — I easily could have made them myself. Still, they made the article a little clunky to read & I hesitated sharing it on a client’s channels. I hope you understand — Thank you!!

      • Sasha

        Ahh, I see! Thanks so much, Wendy! If it’s okay with you, once fixed I’d like to delete this thread so it doesn’t take other readers’ focus away from the content itself in the discussion. Let me know if you would prefer otherwise.

  • timothybasil

    I filmed a documentary for a non-profit. It involved two months of shooting interviews. Each interview was a 2-camera setup (one primary angle, and one B Camera, getting a side angle), shot at 1080p. There were 7 interviews shot at different locations. The average length was 95 minutes per interview. The company was relatively small, and hadn’t yet invested in enough hard drives to make duplicates of everything.
    The interviews were shot. I put a timecode stamp on all of them, and emailed low-res versions to interns who transcribed all of them for a paper edit.
    And then the hard drive failed. For no apparent reason. I worked with the computer department, we purchased data recovery software, we tried everything. We were only able to read the file names, but not actually recover any useable data from them. It was a 2.2TB external drive that bricked.
    In the end, I contacted one of our interns who had compiled a short montage of the footage. I’d given him the main angles from all the interviews. He happened to still have them, so I bought another hard drive, and transferred the footage from his drive to mine. I don’t have the B Camera angles any more, but I have the most important part.

  • William John

    My entire career is based and stored on my laptop. One morning rushing, i placed the laptop on the roof of the car to open the door. Jumped in, sped off, only to hear a loud crashing sound. Thinking i had somehow damaged the car, came out only to see my laptop rolling down the road. Horrified i walked towards it knowing the value of its contents and knowing i couldn’t afford to replace it, i gathered what i could and just drove to work. Upon inspection of the laptop, i was sure it was over, but having no option, i plugged it in just for trying sake. Alas! it powered up! banged up and all and still work. Boosted my moral for the rest of the month, knowing that like my laptop, i should never give up. That being said, it is that same laptop, that i type this message. Long live Lazarus! (my laptop’s name of course)

  • http://artloder.com/ Arthur Loder

    This reminds me of Guillermo Del Toro’s leaving four years of work behind in a British cab. The notebook he left contained his notes and drawings for Pan’s Labyrinth. Luckily it was returned and he then directed the movie, one of the best of the 2000’s! (http://www.express.co.uk/news/showbiz/369514/Guillermo-Del-Toro-left-filmmaking-notes-in-London-cab)

  • Grace Wang

    use Carbonite backup!

  • Wonderful Wanda

    I forget things all the time. My first tech mishap was when jump drive came out. I liked mine so much, I put everything in it. Then, i left it plugged in the library. It was at the time my best English work.
    I lost/got stolen several phones. My 1st computer crashed.

    Yet, even now, i don’t back up my stuff. I tend to save what I Want to keep for years.
    I don’t want to be a horder who has a hard time getting rid of stuff.

    I guess that’s why i don’t back up and my upset period is very short. I always feel that enjoyment of college, every year was a reset.

  • I AM TROLL

    Being a troll I quite often lose alot of my work. I’ve been blocked from 6 sites so far, some of them had substantial amounts of comments on them by me. All gone in the pressing of a button by an over zealous censor. Occupational hazard I suppose.

  • Michael

    Long ago I suffered the “blue screen of death” on a PC…a project I had been working on for months gone in the twinkling of an eye, and since it was over Christmas, I knew I had something to dread! So ever since then (fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me) I backup with reckless abandon! I even backup the backups! Now the “issue” facing me is which backup is the most recent…but that is small potatoes compared to complete data loss. I use the backup feature of Mac’s to backup to the 3 TERABYTE Airport, I also back up to DROPBOX, and Carbonite, and I back up really super critical stuff to removable hard drives (a very limited amount there). It only takes a few clicks of the mouse to prevent unbelievable pain later.

  • Lancia Smith

    I’m feeling some of the same pain with you, David. WordPress did a routine “update” and the result was effectively deleting my website – theme, format, etc… Sigh. The discouragement and disappointment is breathtaking. Then as I pray, eventually I remember some perspective, regroup, offer thanks, and then trust that what needs to be reclaimed again will be. What is not needed is not really much of a loss – except maybe to my ego or insecurity – and I can let that rest today with God. My website is still not restored so I certainly feel some of the loss with you. I can assure you I am much more motivated now to do other backups! 🙂

  • QA36

    So the laptop containing the lyrics for All That You Can’t Leave Behind was …left behind?

  • http://yourauthenticweb.com/ Louis Novick

    It is essential that we put our hard hats on whenever we work. Nobody is going to do it for us. Keeping backups of everything you work on should always be an integral part of the process.

  • http://blog.terakristen.com/ Tera Kristen

    I have been writing 1,000 words most days for the past 3 months. More than once the Open Office Writer program has crashed, erasing most or all of my 1,000 words.

    Even though I’m just writing journal entries, the sting of losing my work, which is the evidence of my commitment to writing, burns badly. BUT, it’s been a great lesson in learning to love the process. Is it really all for naught if my words have disappeared? No, because the act of writing them continues to provide me with the mind-easing benefits.

  • http://www.essential-business.co.uk Julie Stanford

    Oh yes, indeed, I have (and it still makes my blood run cold to think of it).

    Back in the olden days, we used to archive and back up all our clients’ files (original Quark docs, images, fonts, etc) to dat tapes. Thousands of files over a number of years.

    I thought we were being very clever by having all manner of duplicates, and on- and offsite backups, added to which, dat tapes were cutting edge, then! (Floppy disks, zip disks, CDs, external drives, cloud — I’ve used them all.)

    Imagine my horror, then when our tape machine failed and we couldn’t read any of our tapes on the replacement machine provided as an emergency by our supplier. Not one tape!

    My supplier was completely mystified and I was starting to feel that creeping dread…

    It turned out that the original tape machine had been recording the tapes with its spindles set slightly off the vertical, so the tapes were unreadable on any other (exact same) machine. Who would have ever thought that could happen? So all my duplicates and different backups were useless.

    Amazingly, though, we never had call for those archived files. If we had, I have no idea what I would have done.

  • Bonovox

    Bono also lost his lyrics for the October album when his briefcase containing the notebook of lyrics was stolen at a concert in 1981

  • mark steinberg

    I hate the smell of Napalm in the morning.
    Time to bring in the Navajo Code Talkers.

  • mark steinberg

    Hi David,
    Lend me your ear’s
    I remain perplexed.
    One click away for the entry level programmer within the company team to RIP.
    From a Chevette to a Corvette. From a Private to a 4 star General.
    One click away.;
    The Cyborg now has your data base. Not cool.
    Help me get thought the pain.
    Bioemetrics?? YES??

    PS;99U.journey.fantastic.com

    Thank You
    mark

    Technology
    What about the Human Element..
    Trustworthy. Right??

  • Vanesa Gallego

    I’m “timemachining” now.

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