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Pixar History Revisited - A Corrective

Apparently for marketing purposes, the history of Pixar has been misrepresented for years (and still is - on its website, for example). The intent seems to have been to make it appear that Steve Jobs was the creative genius behind all aspects of Pixar, that it was a single, clear vision of his that he founded and funded without stint through thick and thin, putting the people together, forming the relationship with Disney, and even naming the company. The following six myths, which have been repeated hundreds of times in the press, cut to the heart of the matter. I step through each one carefully, citing source documents as evidence of the arguments made against each myth:

Myth 1. Steve Jobs bought Pixar from Lucasfilm

Myth 2. Steve Jobs co-founded Pixar

Myth 3. The movies were Steve Jobs's vision

Myth 4. Steve Jobs named Pixar

Myth 5. Steve Jobs ran Pixar

Myth 6. Steve Jobs's investment saved Pixar

A summary of the history revisited is this: The "group now known as Pixar" came together in about 1975 on Long Island and had the original vision then to make the first completely digital movie. They changed their name several times (NYIT, Lucasfilm, Pixar) but held to the vision through three wealthy patrons (Alexander Schure, George Lucas, Steve Jobs). They spent the years from 1975 to 1986 learning animation from masters, hired their first animator and made their first animation with him, and established a strong relationship with Disney by digitizing its cel animation process. Then in 1986, Steve Jobs came on the scene, providing the investment money so that they could form Pixar as a spinout corporation from Lucasfilm. While waiting for Moore's Law to drop the price of computing a movie into a reasonable range (1986-1991) they manufactured high-performance graphics equipment AND did short animations, winning an Academy Award. In 1991 Disney finally approached Pixar to make the first movie, Toy Story. Steve Jobs stepped in to run Pixar (Ed Catmull had run it from 1986-1994, and from 1974-1994 taking the pre-Pixar history into account) at the completion of Toy Story in late 1994. Jobs took the company public, a spectacular business move for a company with almost no income, and negotiated movie deals with Disney, and the purchase of Pixar by Disney, and became a billionaire from Pixar. In short, the look and feel and vision of Pixar all came from inside and predated Jobs by at least a decade. Steve Jobs was a crucially important money man for the company, and later a business dealmaker of the first order for it. He was responsible for the look and feel and vision of Apple, but not of Pixar. The marketing message seems to have been crafted to make it seem that what was true for Apple was also true for Pixar - one genius fits all - but that was not the case as the details make clear. The actual story is still an amazing one for Steve Jobs, without ignoring credits for the dozens of people who actually created and implemented Pixar's vision.

A history (written by an historian, not a journalist [1]) of Pixar already exists, which has the story right: The Pixar Touch, by David Price. Also excellent is Droidmaker, by Michael Rubin. The recent biography, Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson, while written by a journalist, does a fairly good job, surprisingly, of getting the story right, with a few major exceptions. Its biggest error is underplaying the role of Ed Catmull in the running and inspiration of Pixar, from its earliest days on Long Island until today.


[1] Historians inspect the record for factuality. Journalists almost never do. They instead interview the players, who often contradict one another and have agendas, leaving the journalist the job of guessing what might have been the truth. The written record, if inspected, can actually decide these issues in many cases.