How Steve Jobs’s Passion Shaped Pixar Into An Oscar-Winning Studio

How Steve Jobs’s Passion Shaped Pixar Into An Oscar-Winning Studio

While Apple was Steve Jobs’ first professional love, the Pixar animation studio that he helped foster was far more than a mere pet project. As Pixar President Ed Catmull explains in his upcoming book,Creativity Inc, Jobs’ involvement with the studio proved a revolutionary experience for both parties. Here’s a brief look at the Steve Jobs most people never got to see.

On a Sunday afternoon in February 2007, my daughter Jeannie and I stepped out of a town car, onto a long, red carpet . . . and ran smack into Steve Jobs. It was a few hours before the 79th Annual Academy Awards, and to get to our seats, the three of us had to plow through the crush of people outside the Kodak Theatre in the heart of Hollywood. Cars was nominated for Best Animated Feature Film, and, like all award hopefuls, we had a few preshow jitters. But as the three of us jostled along, Steve looked around at the circus — the elegantly turned-out men and women, the scrum of television interviewers, the throngs of paparazzi and screaming onlookers, the line of limousines pulling up at the curb — and said, “What this scene really needs is a Buddhist monk lighting himself on fire.”

Perspective is so hard to capture. I worked with Steve for more than a quarter-century — longer, I believe, than anyone else — and I saw an arc to his life that does not accord with the one-note portraits of relentless perfectionism I’ve read in magazines, newspapers, and even his own authorised biography. Relentless Steve — the boorish, brilliant, but emotionally tone-deaf guy that we first came to know — changed into a different man during the last two decades of his life. All of us who knew Steve well noticed the transformation. He became more sensitive not only to other people’s feelings but also to their value as contributors to the creative process.

His experience with Pixar was part of this change. Steve aspired to create utilitarian things that also brought joy; it was his way of making the world a better place. That was part of why Pixar made him so proud — because he felt the world was better for the films we made. He used to say regularly that as brilliant as Apple products were, eventually they all ended up in landfills.

Pixar movies, on the other hand, would live forever. He believed, as I do, that because they dig for deeper truths, our movies will endure, and he found beauty in that idea. John talks about “the nobility of entertaining people.” Steve understood this mission to his core, particularly toward the end of his life, and — knowing that entertaining wasn’t his primary skill set — he felt lucky to have been involved in it.

Pixar occupied a special place in Steve’s world, and his role evolved during our time together. In the early years, he was our benefactor, the one who paid the bills to keep the lights on. Later, he became our protector — a constructive critic internally but our fiercest defender to the outside. We had some trying times together, to be sure, but through those difficulties, we forged a rare bond.

I’ve always thought that Pixar was like a well-loved stepchild for Steve — conceived before he entered our lives, maybe, but still nurtured by him in our formative years. In the decade before his death, I watched Steve change Pixar even as Pixar changed him. I say this while acknowledging that no segment of one’s life can be divorced from the rest; Steve was, of course, always learning from his family and from his colleagues at Apple. But there was something special about the time he spent with us — enhanced, counterintuitively, by the fact that Pixar was his sideline. His wife and children, of course, were paramount, and Apple was his first and most heralded professional achievement; Pixar was a place he could relax a little and play.

While he never lost his intensity, we watched him develop the ability to listen. More and more, he could express empathy and caring and patience. He became truly wise. The change in him was real, and it was deep.

In chapter 5, I mentioned that, at my insistence, Steve didn’t attend Braintrust meetings. But he would often give notes after movies were screened for Pixar’s board of directors. Once or twice per movie, when a crisis loomed, he would inevitably come in and say something that helped alter our perceptions and improve the film. Whenever offering a note, he always began the same way:

“I’m not really a filmmaker, so you can ignore everything I say. . .” Then he would proceed, with startling efficiency, to diagnose the problem precisely. Steve focused on the problem itself, not the filmmakers, which made his critiques all the more powerful. If you sense a criticism is being leveled for personal reasons, it is easy to dismiss. You couldn’t dismiss Steve. Every film he commented on benefited from his insight.

But while in the early days his opinions would swing wildly and his delivery could be abrupt, he became more articulate and observant of people’s feelings as time went on. He learned to read the room, demonstrating skills that, years earlier, I didn’t think he had.

Some people have said that he got mellower with age, but I don’t think that’s an adequate description of what happened; it sounds too passive, as if he just was letting more go. Steve’s transformation was an active one. He continued to engage; he just changed the way he went about it.

There is a phrase that many have used to describe Steve’s knack for accomplishing the impossible. Steve, they say, employed a “reality distortion field.” In his biography of Steve, Walter Isaacson devoted an entire chapter to it, quoting Andy Hertzfeld, a member of the original Mac team at Apple, saying, “The reality distortion field was a confounding mélange of a charismatic rhetorical style, indomitable will, and eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand.” I heard the phrase used fairly often around Pixar, too.

Some people, after listening to Steve, would feel that they had reached a new level of insight, only to find afterward that they could not reconstruct the steps in his reasoning; then the insight would evaporate, leaving them scratching their heads, feeling they had been led down the garden path. Thus, reality distortion.

I disliked the phrase because it carried a whiff of negativity — implying that Steve would try to will a fantasy world into being on a whim, without regard to how his refusal to face facts meant that everybody around him had to pull all-nighters and upend their lives in the hopes of meeting his unmeetable expectations. Much has been made of Steve’s refusal to follow rules — realities — that applied to others; famously, for example, he did not put a licence plate on his car. But to focus too much on this is to miss something important. He recognised that many rules were in fact arbitrary.

Yes, he tested boundaries and crossed the line at times. As a behavioural trait, that can be seen as antisocial — or if it happens to change the world, it can earn you the label “visionary.” We frequently support the idea of pushing boundaries in theory, ignoring the trouble it can cause in practice.

Before Pixar was called Pixar, it was devoted to accomplishing something that had never been done before. For me, this had been a lifelong goal, and my colleagues at Pixar — Steve among them — were willing to make that leap, too, before computers had enough speed or memory to make it a reality. A characteristic of creative people is that they imagine making the impossible possible. That imagining — dreaming, noodling, audaciously rejecting what is (for the moment) true — is the way we discover what is new or important. Steve understood the value of science and law, but he also understood that complex systems respond in nonlinear, unpredictable ways. And that creativity, at its best, surprises us all.

There is another, different meaning of reality distortion for me. It stems from my belief that our decisions and actions have consequences and that those consequences shape our future. Our actions change our reality. Our intentions matter. Most people believe that their actions have consequences but don’t think through the implications of that belief. But Steve did. He believed, as I do, that it is precisely by acting on our intentions and staying true to our values that we change the world.

© Disney Pixar – Design by Andy Dreyfus

From the book, CREATIVITY, INC. by Ed Catmull, with Amy Wallace. Copyright © 2014 by Ed Catmull. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House. All rights reserved. Creativity, Inc. is available on Amazon.