Left to right: Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs, John Lasseter. Image lifted from the Pixar website.
It's been a few days since Steve Jobs passed away and I've had some time to gather my thoughts. It occurs to me that Jobs was like Walt Disney in that they shared traits common to visionary entrepreneurs.
Walt Disney didn't create animation. He wasn't responsible for every advance that came from his studio. And while there were others in animation who broke ground, the public identified the animation medium with Walt Disney. Disney went through a bankruptcy and several setbacks (the loss of Oswald the Rabbit and the defection of staff), but still managed to overcome the problems and continue to pursue his goals.
Steve Jobs didn't create personal computers. He wasn't responsible for every advance that came from Apple. Certainly there are others who broke ground in computing, but Jobs was the very public face of computers as lifestyle enhancers. Jobs was tossed out of the company he co-founded with Steve Wozniak, but during that period, he bought Pixar from George Lucas and created a second success before returning to Apple, where his second stint may have been more influential than his first.
I don't doubt that somebody would have made a cgi feature had Pixar not existed, but as we can see from films like Beowulf, cgi films might have been extensions of the visual effects world more than the animation world. As there have been animated films in every medium that were duds, who knows if that first cgi feature would have had the impact on audiences and on the marketplace if the film hadn't been Toy Story?
Pixar was not a sure thing. There were many technical problems to be solved and it was uncertain how an audience would react to an hour and a half of computer graphics. Jobs supported Catmull and Lasseter's goals, resulting in one of the most successful animation companies in history. Jobs' importance to animation history is secure for that alone.
So Jobs, like Disney, pursued his goals though they were risky. They both overcame setbacks to innovate in several fields. They both enhanced the lives of their audiences and were feted for it. That last item is a key point. Business schools may one day examine the careers of Michael Eisner or Robert Iger and take lessons from them, but the public won't. Jobs, like Disney, worked on a public stage, combining vision with showmanship. There are many successful business people, but few have the vision of these two men and fewer still have a vision that the public willingly embraces.
Animation is lucky to have crossed paths with both men.
(One of the best summations of Jobs' career I've read is an obituary written by animation fan and technology writer Harry McCracken for Time magazine.)