Behind the Scenes with React.js: the Documentary
The first-ever documentary about the story of React has premiered on YouTube. I sat down with the movie’s creator, Ida Lærke, for a behind-the-scenes look at how the movie was made.
👋 Hi, this is Gergely with a free, bonus issue of the Pragmatic Engineer Newsletter. In every issue, I cover challenges at Big Tech and high-growth startups through the lens of engineering managers and senior engineers.
If you’re not a subscriber, you missed the issue Staying hands-on as an engineering manager, and a few others. Subscribe to get two full issues every week. Many subscribers expense this newsletter to their learning and development budget. If you have such a budget, here’s an email you could send to your manager.👇
Today’s Scoop is a little different and also lighter than usual. Instead of the usual news and goings-on from inside the tech industry, a filmmaker takes us behind the scenes of a new documentary which lifts the lid on the creation of React.
In this issue, we cover:
A brief history of React
The idea of making the documentary
Behind the scenes of the making of React.js: the Documentary
Premiere and reception
1. A brief history of React
React is the most popular web framework in use today. In the issue The State of Frontend 2022, I reflected on frontend frameworks:
“React is here to stay, and Next.js is on a meteoric rise. 76% of respondents said they used and liked React the past year, and 43% said the same about Next.js — whose framework is built on top of React. The popularity of Vue remains almost unchanged in this survey at 28%, compared to 29% years ago. Svelte seems to be becoming less popular, with 22% of respondents saying they used and liked it, versus 33% two years ago.”
React was created by Jordan Walke, a software engineer at Facebook. He built a framework called FBolt in 2011, and this project evolved into React, which was open sourced in 2013, at JSConf US. From then on, React’s popularity rose steadily.
As a proxy metric, here’s how the percentage of questions about competing frontend frameworks like JQuery, AngularJS, Vue.js, Ember and Svelte, have trended on Stack Overflow:
While the history of React is documented on sites like Wikipedia, there’s been few inside details on how the project came to be, unless you happen to know a React team member. But this changed on 10 February, with the release of React.js: the Documentary, available to watch for free on YouTube.
2. The idea of making the documentary
The documentary goes back in time, with team members from React’s early days sharing how the project evolved into what it has become. Voices include:
Adam Wolff – former director of product infra at Facebook
Andrew Clark – a member of React’s core team
Christopher Chedeau – frontend engineering manager at Meta, co-creator of React Native
Dan Abramov – software engineer at Meta, and co-creator of Redux
David Nolen – lead developer of ClojureScript
Lee Byron – co-creator of GraphQL
Michael Chan – host of React Podcast
Pete Hunt – formerly on the Photos/Video team at Facebook
Sebastian Markbåge – former frontend engineer at Facebook
Shane O'Sullivan – former engineer and manager at Facebook
Sophie Alpert – React’s first non-Facebook production user. Later, manager of React’s core team
Tom Occhino – former engineering director at Facebook
Tony Casparro – engineering lead at Netflix
So where did the idea of creating the documentary come from, and what did it take to make it happen? I talked with the woman responsible, filmmaker Ida Lærke Bechtle. Here’s what she shared, including the role played by Honeypot, a developer-focused job platform.
“We’ve been making tech stack documentaries and developer portraits for the past 4 years. Emma Tracey, one of the co-founders of Honeypot, has a journalistic background. She knew the creator of Elixir, Jose Valim. Emma and a former colleague of mine, Josiah McGarvie – also a super talented filmmaker! – made a short documentary about Jose Valim and put it on YouTube, called Elixir: The Documentary.
That movie was an experiment. It got positive feedback, so they decided to create more documentaries like it to shine a light on the people who contribute to tech, focusing especially on open source.”
In a clever introduction, the documentary opens with Chantastic, the host of the React Podcast - which is currently on a break. Chantastic is seemingly recording an episode of the podcast and setting the scene by taking us back in time:
“This is React Podcast. I’m Chantastic. Today we’re going back, way back. Back to the beginning of React. 10 years in the rear view mirror, it may feel like React was always going to succeed. That a framework by Facebook was too big to fail.
But this isn’t that kind of story. In fact, there were many times in React’s history when it seemed like it wasn’t going to succeed at all.
In the outside world, “Gangnam Style” has just been uploaded to YouTube, “Call Me Maybe” is topping the charts, and the freshest meme is “Overly Attached Girlfriend.” In internet years, it’s basically been an eternity.
So, strap in, enable that do-not-disturb, because this is quite the underdog story.”
From then on, we go back to the year 2010, as former React team members reveal how things played out, from the beginning.
3. Behind the scenes of the making of React.js: the Documentary
I asked Ida how challenging it was to fund the proposal for the React documentary, given it involved lots of travel for filming. Ida said:
“Honeypot funded the entire documentary, which is super cool. They really like the idea of giving back to the community and inspiring people. Honeypot is also a job platform for developers in Europe, so of course there’s also the hope people will remember us when they’re looking for new job opportunities.
People have been asking for the React documentary for years and years, so even though it was a big project to take on, we also knew that there was a lot of interest from the community.”
How did Ida decide whom to interview, and how to approach React’s story? She explained:
“I did a lot of research on React before starting. I’d been reading blogs, listening to podcasts and watching old conference videos and quickly found that the first few years of React were really interesting, from a storytelling perspective. I always thought React was a top-to-bottom decision within Facebook, so when I read that it was actually quite the opposite, it really intrigued me.
I started contacting the first React core team members. Christopher Chedeau was really the first person who was really interested in the idea. He helped me convince the others and set up interviews. From that, it was just doing a bunch of interviews and trying to figure out what the important points in the story were, and making sure that the stories aligned as it all happened 10 years ago!”
What goes on behind the scenes, for example organizing interviews and traveling to international filming locations? Quite a lot, Ida told me:
“I had a short trip to Dublin and London, and then I went back to London a bit later to interview Dan Abramov. Back then, I could tell that Dan was perhaps a tiny bit skeptical about the project, as it was in such an early stage. And I think it was only when he saw the finished result that he really realized what it would turn into.
After London, I had a two week trip to the US where I went to San Diego, San Francisco, Boston and NYC. It was really intense, since it was just me doing everything, moving around with a lot of gear and meeting all these super-impressive people.
Filming at Meta was surprisingly easy in the end. Christopher helped out quite a bit here and Meta’s open-source team was super helpful in helping the recording to happen. We had a “chaperone” with us throughout filming at Meta, but in the end there weren’t any issues or anything I couldn’t ask or film.”
4. Premiere and reception
Just a week before publication of this article, the documentary premiered in Amsterdam to an audience at the JSWorld conference. Ida said the premiere was always intended to be on a difference scale from previous releases:
“The documentary turned out quite a bit longer than I had planned, so I was still editing until the very last moment, right before the premiere! Normally, we put our content on Youtube right away and it’s rare that we have even a small screening. This time, however, my team went all out.”
So, how did the premiere go? From Ida:
“The premiere was at JSWorld in Amsterdam, in the same place where Josiah McGarvie premiered his Vue.js documentary, three years ago. It was really cool to be back at the location. Shane O’Sullivan, Tony Casparro and Dan Abramov all came and we did a little Q&A afterwards. It was really nice that they were also present.
After the premier, my team set up a few other cinema premieres in Berlin, Barcelona and Vienna. These were a bit more intimate and it was great to be able to chat with people and hear their feedback in person.”
With the movie quickly passing 250,000 views on YouTube within its first week of release, I asked what Ida made of its reception:
“So far, the feedback has been really good. People are writing plenty of nice comments and sharing the documentary with people they know.
For me, the reception of the cast has been the most important thing. I’m really thankful that they chose to trust me with their stories and that they like the end result. I think they’ve really enjoyed seeing people’s comments on YouTube as well.
React changed so many people’s lives and now we can more easily see the faces and hear the stories of those who really fought to get it out there, so I’m happy the team is getting proper credit for that!”
Our conversation closed with me asking Ida what she learned in making the film:
“This documentary is the longest one we’ve put out on our channel, so far. I’ll be honest, I was a bit worried people wouldn’t watch it because of the length. Originally, I planned for it to be shorter. However, once I was editing the interviews, I really felt like this was the story I wanted to tell. If I removed anything more, the story would have been missing parts that needed to be told.
In the end people don’t seem to be scared by the length of the movie, at just over an hour. We’ve gotten many comments along the lines “I didn’t even notice the time pass by!”
My biggest learning is that people will watch longer movies on YouTube, as long as the topic is on point and the storytelling is good.”
Personally, I very much enjoyed the documentary and can attest the viewing time flew by. Plus, after watching the movie, I now know how Jordan Walke – creator of React – answered the question, “What is the most difficult thing to do in the frontend world, right now?” in 2011.
As we wrapped up, I asked Ida how long the documentary took to make. She shared that preparations started in early 2022, filming took place during summer last year, and she then spent 3-4 months editing the footage down to a final cut.
Many thanks to Ida for sharing how the movie was made, and congratulations for creating it. It’s great that so many of the original React team took part.
I hope you enjoyed this article on a different topic within the tech industry.
I watched it what a quality documentary you get to understand the why of react in a fun way 😊
Enjoyed the article! It’s great to mix the pure Scoop with something else.