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Steve Jobs Helped Revolutionize Animated Movies


While Steve Jobs name is practically synonymous with Apple, there's another company that bears his unmistakable mark. It also revolutionized an industry, it is known for polished exceptional products that meld technology and art, and is incredibly successful. That company is Pixar.

To talk to us about Steve Jobs' role in that animation studio is NPR's movie critic Bob Mondello.

Good morning, Bob. Good to have you with us.


NEARY: So tell us, how did Steve Jobs get involved with an animation company?

MONDELLO: You know, it actually wasn't all that strange. Steve Jobs resigned from Apple in 1985 and bought Pixar from George Lucas, the guy who made "Star Wars." And Pixar at that point was a lot like Apple. It was an animation company, but what it actually sold was high-end computers that did the animation. They sold them to government agencies and medical labs and things like that.

And they weren't selling very well. So some of their guys designed something to show off what their computer could do. That familiar Pixar logo. You know the sound right? It's with that lamp chasing the bouncing ball. And when they showed at a computer graphics convention the whole industry went just wild.

Now, it was kind of an accident, but it was also what the guys at Pixar really dreamed of doing. They wanted to create the world's first totally computer animated feature-length film. And as Bob said – as Jobs said in a documentary about Pixar, he bought into that dream, both spiritually and financially.

NEARY: Well, you know, it's hard to imagine now, because it is so successful, but Pixar really struggled in the beginning. So this was not a sure thing investment for Jobs.

MONDELLO: Oh, no. Actually, Jobs lost more than a million dollars a year for the first five years. But he was in it for the longer haul, and it paid off, eventually. As late as ten years after he bought it he was still considering selling. And then they released the world's first fully computer animated feature, which was their dream, "Toy Story."


TIM ALLEN: (As Buzz Lightyear) To infinity and beyond.

MONDELLO: And it went just about there. "Toy Story" went on to make an astonishing $362 million worldwide, becoming the highest grossing film of 1995. And it also earned a special Academy Award for scientific and engineering - Scientific and Engineering Academy Award for digital scanning. Because of the deal Pixar had with Disney, however, Disney saw the lion's share of the profits.

NEARY: And what did Jobs do to change that?

MONDELLO: Well, Pixar realized that in order to really become a proper studio it needed a lot more money. So just a week after "Toy Story" was released, Steve Jobs took it public. It became the biggest IPO of the year. Jobs raised $140 million. And if you remember those days, it was the same year Netscape went public. Pixar's IPO was bigger.

Pixar was finally acquired by Disney in a deal that made Jobs the biggest shareholder of that company. So he owned a lot of Disney.

NEARY: Well, of course, Pixar and Apple are these wildly successful companies, but beyond that, you know, what do they share – what do they share that reflects the DNA of Steve Jobs?

MONDELLO: Well, Steve Jobs invested in a vision for both companies. For Pixar, that pushed not only the artistry of animation but the technological aspect of it, too. If you look at Apple's achievements, there is something similar between those two. Pixar likes to think it releases no film until it's perfect, just like Apple with the computers. And Pixar employs the best artists, the best scientists.

NEARY: When Jobs is involved things seem to get distilled until they're in their perfect form, whether you're talking an iPad or an iPod or an animated story like "Finding Nemo."

Bob, thanks for being with us.

MONDELLO: It's a pleasure.

NEARY: NPR film critic Bob Mondello.


NEARY: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.