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Steve Jobs & Pixar…

A lot of people have already written a lot of very thoughtful and inspiring pieces about Steve Jobs, and what the inventor means to the world. Technology experts, heads of industry, world leaders, columnists, celebrities… everybody seems to have an opinion or an anecdote about the man who made Apple possible. I honestly don’t feel like there’s too much I can add to a conversation occurring all over the world about a man who revolutionised what we thought was possible in terms of media and connectivity through the iPhone and countless other innovations. Still, I can’t help but think of Pixar when I think of Jobs, and I think the animation studio stands as a testament to one of his innate abilities, one that was just as important as his drive for new ideas and his insights into technology: Jobs had that unique ability to spot and judge potential from a distance, and I think it would be unfair not to consider Pixar when discussing the inventor’s legacy.

After all, it seems odd to look at Pixar’s origins. It began under the wing of George Lucas, as a division of his multi-media empire. It’s a nice place to be, but it’s hardly a company you could see as becoming a major motion picture brand of itself. Spotting that sort of potential, the opportunity for growth and development of a company sheltered under the wing of a visionary and powerful director, isn’t something that a lot of people could do. Indeed, the company was a relative bargain when Jobs bought it off a financially-hurting Lucas for $5m. That might sound like a lot of money, but it has to be measured against the $7.6bn price that Disney would pay for it two decades later.

Even factoring for inflation, that’s an 86,000% return on the investment, which is phenomenal. It seemed almost impossible to fathom when Jobs initially invested his money. Jobs himself was beginning to feel doubt his own vision as the release of Toy Story approached, only calming down when Disney agreed to cover the distribution of the film. And yet, years later, Jobs would be the biggest stakeholder in Disney, his holdings eclipsing that of even Michael Eisner.

How the hell do you see something like that coming so far down the line? How can you bet a huge amount of money on something that has been tucked away in a massive corporate entity, and trust it to pay dividends when you release it into the wild? I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I do believe that Jobs’ insight was more than financial. After buying Pixar for $5m, he invested the same amount of money again, which shows an outstanding long-term commitment. I do think that it’s worth discussing the facts and figures behind Jobs’ impressive corporate empire, but I’d suggest the reason that people have been so struck by the death of the billionaire is the fact that his investments all meant something. They all made people’s lives better, if you’ll forgive the cliché.

Three years ago, I thought the iPhone was a gimmick. A flip-phone was the height of sophistication for me, and the iPhone was just something with a touchscreen. Now I can’t imagine what life might have been without it. It’s my map when I go somewhere I’ve never been before. It’s my music in work. It’s my entertainment on the bus. It’s my information when I need a news update before a meeting. It’s a diary when I need to check something.

It’s an incredible tool that might not save lives or revolutionise the way that anybody sees the world, but it does make my day-to-day living quite a bit easier. I can decide to see a film as I walk down the street, checking the times and the prices without breaking my stride. My better half can mention something in passing and I can confirm it in an instant. “Revolutionary” is hyperbole, but there’s no denying the sheer convenience that the device brought to its users. It’s not changing the fabric of civilisation, but it does affect how people interact with the world around them. I think I like it because, at its most basic, it makes everything easier.

Pixar’s appeal is something similar. It was computer-generated animation, but it never felt like a gimmick. It didn’t feel like the movies were selling themselves on the impressive rendering or the technical mastery – like less successful CGI efforts might (The Polar Express, for example, or A Christmas Carol). Instead, the idea was simply to make good movies. That was all. Beyond the use of computer-generated rendering, there was no real pattern to it, no core philosophy or single perfect approach. Some movies used recognisable actors, while others were almost without dialogue. Some movies featured far out monsters, while others settled for more conventional talking animals. Their leads included a desperate father feeling separation anxiety, a jealous cowboy, a culinary rat, a senior citizen, a garbage-collecting robot and an ant.

The one underlying ideal was simply to make the best movie possible, not to follow a pattern or a set of conventions that had been carved in stone. It was genuinely bold and innovative, and Pixar remains a company dedicated to new ideas and new approaches. And I think that’s the boldest part of the legacy that Jobs left the company. He will be missed.

4 Responses

  1. Fine tribute, Darren. Worthy of the man. Thanks.

  2. Nice column – shame the advert at the bottom was a wiggling WINDOWS error box saying

    “congratulations, you are the 999,999th visitor – click hear for your chance to win an IPHONE!!!”

    Good ol’ targeted advertising 😉

    Still can’t believe he’s gone – my Macbook is undoubtedly the best computer I’ve ever had. So many great ideas from one guy…

    • I love little moments like that. I think filtering for irony, sarcasm and social inappropriateness should be the next advance in targetted advertising.

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