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Steve Jobs Pixar's Silent Leader


When Steve Jobs passed a few weeks ago, a lot of the talk was about the man as co-founder and head of Apple Computers.  After all, for the last 16 years, he was the very public face of the company.  All of the companies successes (the iPod, iPad, and iPhone) as well as their failures were attributed more to Jobs than they were the company itself.  When Apple released a new product, there was Jobs, showing us this new technology that we didn't know we needed, but soon would have no choice but to buy.  Job's name was almost as well known as the products he brought into the world, and the company he left behind may be the most well known brand in the world.  Yet, for all of his success at Apple, for how associated he was with the Apple brand and its products, Job's biggest success was at a company that he was not the face of, but one that may be just as well known.

It was 1986, and just a year earlier, Jobs had been forced out of the company he had helped create.  He had started a new company, Next Computers, but, as he did throughout his life, was looking for something new and innovative.  He found it at Lucasfilm, which had a small computer animation and software development department called the Graphics Group.  The group, run by Ed Catmull, created early computer generated special effects for films and commercials, as well as early computer animation software.  But Lucas soon found himself disinterested in this new technology, which seemed decades away from turning a profit.  So he decided to sell the group, and the highest bidder was Steve Jobs.  Jobs purchased the Graphics Group for $5 million dollars, then invested another $5 million more.  After the purchase, the group's name was changed to Pixar.

Jobs was initially interested in Pixar for their hardware and software development, but the demand for high priced computers with very specific use was limited.  There were multiple times when Jobs considered selling the company.  However, he also had an employee whose story mirrored his in a lot of ways.  John Lasseter was a young genius, who saw the future before others did.  He had worked at Disney in the early 80s for some of the master 2D animators, and had tried to get them on board with what he saw as the future of film animation.  The old timers, resistant to change anyway, were put off by this upstart who probably pushed a little too hard, and Lasseter was subsequently fired by the company he had always dreamed of working for.  He landed at Lucasfilm, and began to experiment with computer animation.  He created short films that not only showed what the software the company was developing could do, but also pushed the limits of what animators could do with computers.  After moving on to Pixar, he continued to create short film, but dreamed of something bigger, knowing that one day entire animated feature films would be created using nothing but computers.  Jobs was won over by Lasseter's passion and vision, and decided that Pixar would focus on making animated feature films.  Jobs sold off the hardware division of the company, and the rest is film history.

Toy Story, Pixar's first feature, would go on to gross over $200 million at the box office.  That was just the beginning for Pixar, as each of their films would become huge successes.  Each of these films would go on to spawn toys, amusement park rides, clothing, which would make the company billions...but when it came down to it, the most important thing at Pixar were the movies.  They didn't make movies to make money, they made movies because they loved making movies.  And whenever someone needed to present these films, to introduce new characters that we would fall in love with and new worlds for us to explore, our guide was not Steve Jobs, but John Lasseter.  This wasn't to say that Jobs was completely out of the picture.  He had some involvement in the operations of the company, and say in how it was run, but Pixar shows another side of Jobs that wasn't obvious from his work with Apple:  he knew when to get out of the way.  Jobs wasn't a filmmaker, and he knew it, so when he made the decision that Pixar was going to be a movie studio, he found someone with vision who saw the future like he did, and allowed that person to lead the way.  By showing tremendous faith in Lasseter, Jobs was rewarded.  And rewarded handsomely.  In 2006, Jobs sold Pixar to Disney for approximately $7.4 billion, and made Jobs the largest Disney shareholder.  When he passed away, he was worth more than $8 billion, much of that from his sale of Pixar.

It would have been an amazing life if "all" Jobs had done was co-found Apple Computers, a company that continues to revolutionize our lives.  But he did it twice, creating a movie studio that has yet to produce an unsuccessful film.  Beyond just money, though, Pixar is a place that revolves around filmmakers who love their work, who had faith in their talent and their belief, and who have succeeded beyond any of their wildest dreams.  It is their luck, and ours, that Jobs gave them the opportunity and space to create such timeless works, and another lasting legacy of  a man who saw the future as a giant ocean and dove in with no fear.