Pixar: Steve Jobs' Greatest Accomplishment

Last Updated Oct 6, 2011 7:21 AM EDT

For a moment, let's set aside all the talk of Steve Jobs as the man who brought us the Mac, iPad and iPod, and who shocked Apple back to life. Let's remember him as a man who brought joy and great art to the world through a little side-project of his: Pixar Studios.

In 1986 -- nine years before anyone had ever heard of Buzz and Woody -- Jobs bought what was then known as the Graphics Group from George Lucas' Lucasfilms. At that point in time there was little reason to think of this purchase as anything more than quixotic. Pixar was in the hardware business, selling high-end computers to the U.S. government and Disney Studios (DIS).

Its animation work started as an attempt to sell those computers. John Lasseter, today recognized as one of the great movie makers of all time, was hired to create short animations that would demonstrate the machines' abilities. These were premiered at SIGGRAPH, the computer industry's largest convention, to amazing responses.

In retrospect what was most interesting about the reaction from all these alpha geeks was that they were far more impressed by the stories than the technology. After the first showing of Luxor Jr., a charming story of two anthropomorphicized desk lamps, Lasseter says he was bombarded with questions about whether one lamp was mother or father to the smaller lamp.

For a while the company did computer graphics work for other movies, but that didn't really make a lot money. Jobs then realized he shouldn't be in the hardware business (that's pretty much the story of his professional life). So in 1990 Jobs sold sold Pixar's hardware division, including all proprietary hardware technology and imaging software, to Vicom Systems. Shortly thereafter Pixar signed a three picture deal with Disney Animation Studios. In 1995 Toy Story hit the screens -- kicking off the most amazing run of success by a movie studio EVER.

In the past 16 years Pixar has produced 12 feature films -- all them box office smashes. The $602 million average gross of their films is unequaled in movie history. Six of them -- Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall*E, Up and Toy Story 3 -- won Oscars. The last two are two of the three only animated movies ever to be nominated for Best Picture.

While Pixar's work is clearly among the best animation ever produced, you can make a very reasonable argument that they are also among the best movies ever.

In 2006 Disney bought Pixar for $7.4 billion, making Jobs Disney's largest shareholder.

Jobs wasn't the story teller who created Nemo, Woody or any of the rest. He was the man who saw what was needed to make those stories possible. Pixar clearly didn't end up as what Jobs thought it would be when he bought it. His ability to see the opportunity as it evolved is yet further proof of what a singular man Jobs was.

Ars longa, vita brevis


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    Constantine von Hoffman is a freelance writer and writing coach. His work has appeared in outlets such as Harvard Business Review, NPR, Sierra magazine, Brandweek, CIO, The Boston Herald, TheStreet.com, CSO, and Boston Magazine.

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