Lights, Camera, Action

Silicon Valley filmmakers Michael Schwarz and Kiki Kapany are placing the spotlight firmly on science, technology, and culture.

  • Category
    People
  • Written by
    David Needle
  • Photography by
    Trisha Leeper

Hollywood may not feel threatened by Silicon Valley, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have some great filmmakers here. Case in point is Kikim Media, the documentary film studio in Menlo Park headed by husband and wife Kiki Kapany and Michael Schwarz. The company is renowned for intelligent, thought-provoking documentaries. Its most recent films include Silicon Valley: The Untold Story and Look Who’s Driving (about autonomous cars) with another one, The Ornament of the World, coming to PBS on December 17.


David Needle: How did Kikim begin?

Michael Schwarz: Kikim started in 1996 as an LLC. I left my position as a producer at KQED to join Kiki (she is the majority partner – you notice those are her four letters in the company name, I only got one!). She had been practicing law in Marin and moved the practice here, which worked out well because I needed help with the legal and financial aspects of running the company, so it’s a good division of labor. She’s more organized than I am.


You need funding for most, if not all of these film projects. A key early backer was The Sloan Foundation?

MS: Yes, the Sloan Foundation, which funded Paul Ehrlich and the Population Bomb at KQED, was looking to do new films about technology in the 20th century. Basically, they offered us a pick of different projects based on several books and we chose Naked to the Bone, a history of medical imaging technology. We started with the Sloan Foundation in 1996 and they are still our longest and most significant relationship. We’ve done about 10 projects for them over the last 23 years. The most recent one was Silicon Valley. We feel very fortunate to develop that relationship that grows deeper over time. I should also mention Ending AIDS and The Botany of Desire.


Kiki, you grew up here in Silicon Valley. How has that informed your projects?

Kiki Kapany: Yes, my parents live in Woodside; Dad is still alive. I went to Selby Lane Elementary, Castilleja, and U.C. Berkeley. I met David at a bar, I think that’s why he stayed in the Bay Area (laughs). Many of our documentaries are related to science and technology. My dad (Narinda Singh Kapany) was one of the inventors of fiber optics in the ’50s and he was recently nominated for a Nobel Prize. When he came to the Valley he hired Tom Perkins (of famed VC firm Kleiner Perkins) to be his vice president of marketing. Hewlett-Packard invested in his company. It’s been helpful to be here near the pulse of everything. Last year, we completed a three-hour documentary for the Science Channel on Silicon Valley (Silicon Valley: The Untold Story).

MS: We had a great relationship for many years with the Skoll Foundation (the Skoll Foundation was founded by former eBay President Jeff Skoll). We did 27 films on social entrepreneurship.

Michael Schwarz and Kiki Kapany

Michael Schwarz and Kiki Kapany

What made you create the film Silicon Valley?

MS: We realized we had never seen a comprehensive story about how and why this place became the way it is. We talked to the Sloan Foundation and they wanted to do it.


What was the inspiration for doing the film on self-driving cars?

MS: When we were making Silicon Valley, we talked to a lot of young entrepreneurs starting companies. Y Combinator let us follow one of them, Kyle Vogt, who had been involved with Justin.tv, but his real passion was self-driving cars. He wanted a car to be able to drive itself from San Francisco to Mountain View to the Computer History Museum. He wanted to be able to retrofit any car with a kit for $10,000. We shot him just as he was starting out. His company, Cruise, started as so many Silicon Valley start-ups have – with three people in a garage. By the time we finished filming, Cruise had been purchased by General Motors for over a billion dollars. Kyle is their main self-driving car person.

Our film Look Who’s Driving focuses on what it’s going to take to make self-driving cars safe. It looks at some of the claims in a realistic way. What are the really significant technological and engineering challenges that need to be solved?

Right now there are roughly 35,000 deaths a year from car accidents, not quite as many as guns, but a lot. Ninety percent of those are due to human error and they say they can eliminate those, but there is no evidence they can. In theory, if they can do everything perfectly, they can. There is basically about one death for every 100 million miles human drivers drive – that’s pretty safe. To teach a computer to do that is incredibly hard.


Kiki, your background is not in film, but in law. Is that part of what you bring to the party?

KK: I love what we do. There’s a lot of contracting and negotiations, archiving, and a lot of (content issues) in the way things are released, such as public domain and fair use, so I come in that way. I keep the doors open and boss everyone around, but it’s not hard when everyone is so brilliant (laughs).

MS: She’s very much of a problem solver and often brings more of a positive energy, which sometimes I have in short supply.


How has filmmaking changed?

MS: The fundamentals of finding and telling a good story haven’t changed. The technology has changed dramatically. Now you can make films pretty inexpensively, but to develop the craftsmanship that we like to think goes into making the kinds of films that resonate with audiences, takes a longer of period of time.


With YouTube and attention spans in general, the trend is to make things shorter?

MS: There are more short films, but at the same time you have binge viewing, eight hours, 10 hours. I don’t buy that people only want to watch short stuff.


Your film Ornament of the World is a departure from your science-focused projects. Tell us about it.

MS: The Ornament of the World will air on PBS on December 17. We started this project in 2003.

KK: It would have gone quicker with more funding.

MS: Also, 37 minutes of the film are animated and that took four years to do; it’s a slow and complicated process. The story covers a period of 800 years at multiple locations, so doing dramatic reenactments would have been an exorbitant cost. We didn’t realize how long the animation would take, but it’s beautiful.

KK: It’s gorgeous and it’s a good time for it to come out.


Why did the funding take so long to obtain?

MS: If you’re doing something involving relationships among Muslims, Jews, and Christians, it’s inherently controversial because someone is always going to say it’s too soft on one religion or another. Most of the funding came from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and obtaining that grant involved a rigorous scholarly process. Ultimately, there were four different grants.


What’s next for Kikim?

MS: We are doing another project for Nova on consumer DNA testing.

No controversy there (all laugh).

 

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