“The best scientists and engineers are just as creative as the best storytellers.”
If we were to say Pixar in 1996, not too many in the business world would have paid attention. But Steve Jobs did. He understood this was no technology company, that they were in the business of entertainment, and worked hard at helping the company bankroll itself while hatching its first success.
Since Snow White was released in 1928, says Jobs, every single major studio has tried to break into the business. Disney had been the only studio that had made a major blockbuster —at the time, we were talking more than 190 million USD in domestic sales at the box office. Until Pixar became the second studio to do so.
It's quite interesting to hear Jobs talk about the three-movie deal with Disney and how much the company enjoyed its partnership right after talking up Pixar's ability to deliver. Looking back, we can see how he was starting to lay the foundations for selling to Disney. Twelve years later, Disney bought Pixar for $7.4 billion after co-financing and distributing its animated films and splitting the profits. It was Chief Executive Robert A. Iger to seal the deal with Jobs.
Highlights from the 1996 conversation with Rose:
- Still about story and character development —When we talk computers as part of a process, we think it's going to take less time and cost less, or it's going to replace something. When photography was invented, people thought painting was going to be replaced, that it was going to go away. John Lasseter talks about computer animation as part of the creative process. The keyword is “animation.” At the time, Lasseter had worked on Toy Story for four years with a production of two and a half years. It took fewer people to do, yes, and it looks different. Pixar is about putting story into the culture.
- A team sport —Whether we talk about technology or creative work, it's still about collaboration. Steve Jobs first heard about Pixar when George Lucas wanted to sell the animation studio that was part of Lucasfilm. That's when Jobs met Dr. Ed Catmull who said the idea, the dream, was to make the first computer animated film. This was beyond anything Jobs had seen on the Macintosh. He bought the company, and it took the team ten years to bring that vision and dream to life. Creatives want to work at Pixar because they can work on a project they can be proud of, have creative ownership, and a lot of fun, says Lasseter.
- In animation every frame has to count —Which highlights the importance of story boarding. Once the story is down, once the frames are drawn on pieces of paper and ordered in the sequence that makes the story work, then technology is useful to put it together in story reels to see from the sketches if it works or not. In other words, they beta test the story before they commit to creating it frame by frame. This is totally different from live action film.
- Technology lasts longer when in service to story —Something we may not think about much, but the story part of the creative process outlives the technology part. While a piece of technology may live for ten or fifteen years, a good story may live for sixty or even a hundred, like Snow White, for example. Jobs says another benefit in this business is that Pixar is not competing with Microsoft, the competition is against making a great film that people love. For example, political satire doesn't last as long as good story with universal characters.
Toward the end of the interview, Rose asks Steve Jobs about Apple. “It's hard to predict these things,” says Jobs talking about how the events unfolded. When looking at the computer business, he says he looks at it from his current vantage point at Pixar.
As Charlie Rose says, Jobs understood marketing very, very well. That was his genius at Apple and in the beginning. But while Rose talked about the promotional aspects of marketing, as in getting the word out, Jobs moved the conversation to the product —people will see Pixar's product and get it, it's a movie studio, and not a technology company.
Jobs' point of view was longer term. Films may take four years to make, but the story lasts for sixty years. He did take notice of the technology when he first went to Lucas, but he was listening when Lasseter talked about the storytelling. At the time of the taping, it had been ten years since Jobs had been with Pixar, putting $50 million of his own money in the company now worth a lot more. “I tend to stay with a business until someone kicks me out,” says Jobs.
Jobs did not see himself as “a guy who founds high-tech companies and tries to make another billion.”
Watch the 1996 interview with Charlie Rose below.
Ten years to get to the success of Toy Story. Connecting the dots by looking back, by the time Jobs helped seal the Pixar deal with Disney, another ten years after the interview with Rose, he was back at Apple. The iPod, iPhone, and iPad conceived as ways to enjoy entertainment.
[image above Getty Images]