I clearly remember the day the workplace changed when we got our first color-display, Mactintosh II desktop computers. The graphic designers I worked closely with in those days in magazine publishing were at first deeply resentful and then, in a complete turnaround, just as deeply besotted with their new digital tools. It was a time, thanks to Steve Jobs, when technology, communications and the finer creative arts began their synchronized weave into the richly textured braid it is today.
Jobs often said he lived at the intersection of art and technology. You saw it back then, in his early professional products and you see it now, in his vast consumer product empire. And as Pixar’s founders put it in this just posted tribute on their home page
, that vision will also “forever be a part of Pixar’s DNA.”
During his 2005 Stanford commencement address, Jobs said you can’t connect the dots looking forward—you can only connect them looking back. When he bought the Lucasfilm Graphics Group in 1985 he couldn’t see the full implications of a digitally animated future. But he seemed to understand then that Ed Catmull’s engineering brains and John Lasseter’s gift for visual storytelling would lead to great things. And he believed 100% in their creative drive, probably because it matched his own. It took nine years to make Toy Story
, the world’s first fully CG feature length animated film. Many, short on cash and patience, might have given up. And Jobs almost did: On the eve of Toy Story
‘s release in November 1995, when the company was at its financial worst, Jobs apparently considered selling Pixar to Microsoft.
So you have to wonder: Would Pixar have had the same success and earned as many creative and technical Academy Awards had it gone that route or stayed at Lucasfilm? Probably not. George Lucas was ready to sell the division in 1985
, so in this alternate universe, it’s conceivable this other-Pixar would have found another buyer and gone on to make popular, effects-heavy films. But we certainly would not have seen the singular entertainment—and gold standard in filmmaking and refined storytelling—that Pixar is known for today.
In hindsight, it’s clear that without Jobs, Lasseter would never have been a part of Pixar’s story. He’d spent only one short month in 1984 working in the Lucasfilm department. He only returned after Jobs had liberated the group and rechristened it Pixar.
It’s also clear that without Jobs’ stewardship, Pixar would never have given us RenderMan, either. It would have likely remained an amazing but proprietary render engine owned by the wrong corporate parent. Astonishingly, before Jobs came along, Lucas considered selling to divisions of General Motors and Philips. It was Jobs who encouraged the team to develop and sell its own software (after divesting the limping Pixar hardware business to Viacom). RenderMan sales helped fund Toy Story
‘s extended production schedule.
When those software sales weren’t enough, Jobs averted his ill-conceived Hail Mary pass to Microsoft by finally wearing down Disney, whose cash and marketing muscle came to the rescue. That early partnership was a big reason Toy Story
finally say the dark of theaters everywhere and found a permanent home on even more television sets and devices. (This article in Slate echoes working parents everywhere who have long regarded Pixar DVDs as soothing, if not inspired babysitters
Long before he sold Pixar to Disney for that unbelievable sum, Jobs also reconfigured one more crucial element of its success: He convinced Disney to shift Pixar films’ release dates from the holiday season to the much more lucrative summer months.
I, for one, am grateful Jobs connected the dots the way he did for Pixar, bringing Catmull and Lasseter and, by extension, every Pixar director, animator, modeler, writer, storyboarder, TD, designer, engineer and intern since into the picture. They seem to feel the same way about his role in their very satisfying story so far.