Steve Jobs: The Pixar Years

Woody and Buzz of "Toy Story." Pixar/Disney

The tributes pour in: Steve Jobs the innovator, the man who remade computing, communications, music sales, publishing. “#iSad” has been one of the most popular hashtags on Twitter, where he’s being remembered for the iPhone, the iPad and the iPod.

He was not just a tech guy, though. There was a period in his life when he was rich but perhaps a little lost, and he remade the movies in his spare time.

This is a story about his years running Pixar animation. In 1985 he had been forced out of Apple in a power struggle. In 1986 he bought the computer division of Lucasfilm, the production company started by George Lucas (“Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones”). Lucas’ business was in need of cash. The selling price was $5 million.

Pixar was really a hardware company at the time, selling graphics systems to medical companies and government agencies. One of its employees, John Lasseter, was making computer-animated short films to show off the capabilities of the company’s machines.

Pixar struggled. Its computers weren’t selling. Lasseter’s unit began making commercials to keep the company afloat. By 1990, the firm had to sell its original hardware business. It shrank from 100 people to about 40.

Jobs, at the time, was mostly concerned with NeXT, the computer firm he’d started after Apple ousted him. But slowly an idea began to take shape. If we can make cartoons about a desk lamp hopping up and down (Not instantly familiar? Read on.), then why not full-length films?

It was another case of “thinking different.” The major animation studios — Warner Bros., Disney (yes, that’s the parent company of ABC News) — had armies of very talented artists drawing cartoons frame by frame.

But Pixar made a three-film deal with Disney, and in 1995 released a feature film called “Toy Story.” The rest you know. Oscars, money and sequels followed. Pixar has won 26 Academy Awards. Computer animation looked crisper and cleaner than hand-drawn films. And the films were imaginative. Who ever thought that toys had feelings?

In 2004, I went to shoot a story at Pixar, where, at the time, they were working on their next film, “The Incredibles.” We were teamed with one computer animator who had devoted much of the previous year into creating a single shot. It showed Mr. Incredible lifting a robot’s foot. It would last on screen for a second and a half.

“Please don’t show it in your story,” he said.”It’ll give away the surprise.” It so happened the shot came late in the film.

In 2006, after years of off-and-on negotiations, Jobs agreed to sell Pixar to Disney. He became a billionaire, not because of Apple but because of Pixar. When the purchase was complete, Jobs became Disney’s largest shareholder.

Other films have followed — “WALL-E,” “Cars,” “Toy Story 3? (the highest-grossing cartoon of all time). Each of them begins with animation of a desk lamp hopping up and down.

On Wednesday night after word of Jobs’ death, John Lasseter, now head of animation for Disney and Pixar, put out a statement: “He saw the potential of what Pixar could be before the rest of us, and beyond what anyone ever imagined. Steve took a chance on us and believed in our crazy dream of making computer animated films; the one thing he always said was to simply ‘make it great.’”

The Pixar years had brought Jobs much more than money, as he said in his now-famous commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005.

“I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me,” he said. “The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter into one of the most creative periods of my life.”