The Cinematic Legacy of Steve Jobs

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On Wednesday, 5 October, Steve Jobs passed away aged 56. The visionary CEO of Apple has left a lasting impression on the way we view and use technology in 2011, helping to bring both the smartphone and tablet computer to the mass market, as well as completely revolutionising the way we consume and purchase music with the iPod and iTunes Store.

Those who question the direct influence he had on his company’s products and services need only look at the numbers. As the New York Times noted, ‘Only nine Microsoft patents carry the name of Bill Gates […] and little more than a dozen Google patents carry the names of co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin’; the United States Patent and Trademark Office attributes 317 of Apple’s patents to Steve Jobs.

But while Apple was the company he built from nothing, and the focus for much of his innovation and passion, Jobs has also left an indelible mark on cinematic history, through his crucial involvement with what is now one of the most consistently brilliant film studios in existence: Pixar.

Originally an internal division of LucasArts, responsible for creating computer graphics software for animators, a downturn in the business’ fortunes meant that there was no longer room in George Lucas’ production empire for the team headed by Ed Catmull. A buyer needed to be found for ‘The Graphics Group’ and Jobs, recently relieved of his duties at Apple, snapped up the small company for just $5 million, investing another $5 million into the newly founded Pixar Animation Studio.

This was 1986, and though the graphics and animation software, along with their powerful Pixar Image Computer, were still the focus of the fledgling studio, Catmull had sold Jobs on his dream: to make the world’s first computer animated film. Under his watchful eye, Pixar began to create short films, invariably overseen by employee John Lasseter. While ostensibly just demonstrations for the software the studio was selling, the quality of Lasseter and co.’s output was already extremely compelling; not only in terms of technology, but also direction, storytelling, humour and charm. It’s almost twenty-five years to the month since Pixar’s first short Luxo Jr. was produced and it’s everything that the studio’s features are today, compressed into a little over two minutes: heart warming, beautifully animated and funny. We’re still reminded of these humble beginnings every time we see a Pixar production, as the titular Luxo lamp hops across the screen.

Further success with short films such as Tin Toy and Knick Knack convinced Jobs that Catmull and Lasseter’s dream was achievable and, in the early 1990s, he helped oversee the sale of Pixar’s hardware division, and the signing of a monumental deal with Disney to produce three animated feature films.

With the release of Toy Story in 1995, the studio’s vision, which Jobs had bought into nearly a decade earlier, finally came to fruition.

The rest is history. Pixar have since gone on to become one of the great film studios in cinema history. They’ve produced, in my opinion, the greatest movie trilogy of all time, won six Academy Awards for Best Animated Film and their work consistently performs outstandingly at the box office.

So how much of this success can be ascribed to Steve Jobs? Well, in a sense, all of it. Investing $10 million of his personal wealth into a young, relatively unproven company, operating in a field that didn’t even exist yet in its current form, showed incredible vision and belief.

That, combined with the support and patience he gave the creatives such as Lasseter, allowed Pixar to flourish and produce the high quality films it has become known for today (Cars 2 notwithstanding).

However, the significance of Jobs’ contribution to Pixar is best judged by listening to those at the studio who worked closely with him from the beginning. Following his death, Lasseter and Catmull, now Chief Creative Officer and President of Pixar respectively, paid their respects to a ‘very dear friend and the guiding light of the Pixar family’. In their words, ‘[Steve] saw the potential of what Pixar could be before the rest of us, and beyond what anyone ever imagined… He is why Pixar turned out the way we did and his strength, integrity and love of life has made us all better people’.

It’s these same qualities that live on in all of Pixar’s work. Steve Jobs may now be gone, but his ethos, his industry and his vision will endure, through the films of his company, for decades to come. That is his cinematic legacy.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great article, very well written. The only debate remains whether the Toy Story trilogy outshines Peter Jackson’s three Lord of the Rings epics. Whatever the views, both are brilliant in their different ways.

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