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Steve Jobs (1955 - 2011) : The smart, stubborn guy who helped to make Pixar possible

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Steve Jobs (1955 - 2011) : The smart, stubborn guy who helped to make Pixar possible

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I was sitting at my personal computer, working on a story about Pixar (I was putting together a promo piece for the Cartoon Art Museum's annual "Spend the day at Pixar Animation Studios" benefit in December) when I learned that Steve Jobs had passed away. Which -- given that this one man played such a huge part in the development & creation of personal computing and Pixar  -- was doubly coincidental, don't you think?

Anyway ... Given that Steve had been battling pancreatic cancer for years now, this news wasn't exactly unexpected. Especially given Jobs' decision to step down as chief executive of Apple Inc. back in August, ceding control of the world's largest technology company to Tim Cook, his long-time lieutenant. But even so, this sad event still sent a seismic shock rolling through the technology & entertainment communities.

Over the next day or so, you're going to read a lot of stories about how this Silicon Valley icon help transform the world of personal computing and music by guiding the development of the iPad & the iPod. Not to mention turning the mobile phone into a genuine sort of status symbol with the introduction of the iPhone.

Steve Jobs (1955 - 2011)

But as for me personally, the thing that I'll remember most about Steve Jobs won't be for anything that he helped invent or design. But - rather - for the chance that he took.

To explain: Pixar Animation Studios actually started out life as the Graphics Group at Lucasfilm, that division of George Lucas' film production company which handled CG-heavy effects scenes like the Genesis Effect sequence in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" and the Stained Glass Knight sequence in "Young Sherlock Holmes."

But in spite of all the obviously spectacular pieces of computer animation that the Graphics Group had turned out since its inception in 1979, given the time & costs associated with producing computer animation back in the early 1980s, this division of Lucasfilm was something of a money pit. And since George Lucas was (at that time, anyway) dealing with some serious cash flow issues in the wake of his divorce from wife Marcia, he had no choice to but to try & find a buyer for the Graphics Group.

A copy of the $5 million cashier's check that Steve Jobs gave to George Lucas to purchase
Lucasfilm's Graphics Group

Enter Steve Jobs. Who - in 1986 -- not only paid George Lucas $5 million but also agreed to pump $5 million of capital into this fledgling computer animation operation. Which had recently been renamed Pixar, Inc.

But here's the thing. Steve didn't believe that he was buying an animation studio. What Jobs thought he was purchasing was this sort of high-end hardware company which was then supposed to sell Pixar Image Computers. But as the short films that John Lasseter & Ed Catmull created to help demonstrate what the Pixar Image Computer was capable of began to garner more & more attention on the festival circuit, Jobs suddenly found himself in the animation business.

To his credit, Steve stuck by John & Ed as their innovative animation operation produced several award-winning shorts while it also burned through tens of millions of his dollars. Some will tell you that Jobs only hung in there because he was looking to recover all of the cash that he'd poured into Pixar Inc. Which is why Steve would periodically try and find a buyer for this then-deeply-in-the-red operation.

But in the end, Steve didn't sell. Jobs hung in there for five very expensive, very stressful years until Pixar finally signed a $26 million dollar deal with The Walt Disney Company to produce three feature-length computer-animated films. Mind you, it wasn't 'til "Toy Story" opened in November of 1995 and then went on to gross more than $350 million worldwide that Jobs' patience (or was it stubbornness?) ultimately paid off.

It would be nice (at this point in the story, anyway) to say that Steve Jobs' relationship with the key creatives at Pixar was always pleasant & stress-free. But truth be told, Jobs periodically made life difficult for John Lasseter and Ed Catmull. Sometimes by insisting that they cut Pixar's payroll (which means that some pretty talented people were let go during the early, early days of this computer animation studio). Other times by giving John & Ed unwanted story notes when it came to "Toy Story" and "A Bug's Life." Hell, I've even heard that Jobs (who was known for insisting that the Mac, the iPad and the iPhone all have clean sleek looks) tried to give Lasseter & Catmull architectural advice when it came to the design & layout of Pixar's Emeryville campus.

But Steve ... He was also smart enough to recognize that when something ain't broke, you don't fix it. Which is why - as Pixar Animation Studios began cranking out hit after hit after hit - Jobs eventually stepped back and basically left Lasseter and Co. alone. Preferring by then to just bask in the positive recognition which came from being that smart, stubborn guy who helped to make Pixar possible.

And that - in the end - is how I'll personally remember Steve Jobs. Not as the man who brought simple, easy-to-use, well-designed computers to the world (which - trust me - given that I'm such a technological idiot, I really, really appreciate). But as the guy who hung in there. Who didn't cut and run when Pixar was bleeding money in the late 1980s.  

That took courage. The same sort of courage that Jobs showed during his very public battle with pancreatic cancer.

So let the others talk about Steve's legacy of innovation when it comes to technological breakthroughs. Me? I prefer to remember him as the guy who took a chance on Pixar, Inc. And then -- through smarts & stubbornness -- helped John Lasseter & Ed Catmull take computer animation to infinity and beyond.

The entire JHM staff wishes to extend its heartfelt condolences to the friends & family of Steve Jobs during their time of sorrow.

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  • Amen to that, Jim.  I felt much like you last night when similar words crossed my screen.  We've lost another giant, and Jobs' contributions to our entertainment through his contributions to Pixar cannot be calculated.

  • I appreciate that you laid out the TRUE story of Pixar instead of the FANTASY that the media likes to lay out. By making Steve Jobs out to be the "god" of computer animation, it obscures the MUCH, MUCH bigger contribution that John and Ed and the INCREDIBLE talent of Pixar made.

  • Updated "Think different" ad with Steve Jobs.  www.youtube.com/watch

  • Jim, thanks for he article.  I was shocked that no other Disney fan sites gave any kind of recognition to Steve Jobs for the great work he did in respect to Disney.  Thanks for shinning the light and keep up the good work.

  • I assume a lot of stuff is happening on a corperate level of Disney right now

  • Thanks for alerting me to the Cartoon Art Museum's benefit. I made sure to get my ticket asap (being 'frugal,' I went for the Fan Tour ticket). I have about 1 1/2 weeks of vacation still to use up this year before they expire, and I'm now planning Pixar Journey #2 (#1 was in 2010 when their exhibit came to the Oakland Art Museum, and I wandered around Pt Richmond over to Fenton's Creamery). This year, I'm going to also go to the Charles Schulz Museum, the Walt Disney Family Museum, and hopefully this time, eat at The Hidden City Cafe in Pt Richmond (they were closed the last time I was there).

  • First of all, I am sorry Mr. Jobs passed away.

    But I am curious to know if the oh-my-god-it's-pixar attitude will change now, the same way Disney lost its luster in the late 60s.

  • Nice article Jim, scary to think those wonderful films, and that future corner of California Adventure might not have come to be, had Mr. Jobs not persevered.

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