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How Steve Jobs changed movies

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steve jobs pixar TRUE STORY: Through his efforts at Pixar, Steve Jobs helped computer animation grow up and gave us the marvel of 'Toy Story.'

ONE IS torn between applauding the genius of Steve Jobs and lauding his business methods, which could be ruthless. A great visionary can be vague on the details. Dreaming of a world of potential for the hungry and the foolish can also mean buying into our valley's most common delusion. Writer Thomas Frank summed that delusion up in a few words: "The fantasy of frictionless labor."

Nevertheless, one of the smartest things Jobs ever did—and one of the moves that made him so very wealthy—was financing the rise of another local success besides Apple.

Have a look at producer Pierre Lachapelle's Montreal-made short animated film "Tony de Peltrie" from 1985, easily found on YouTube. The six-minute cartoon is the lament of a piano man on the skids. His complaints about time passing him by seem appropriate for this early humanoid CGI figure: "I was the best, I was the craziest"

He was at the time. But today, Peltrie's massive heroic chin, meant as the background to show off the tricky-to-render mouth, looks like a goiter. I am not beating up something archaic out of pure sadism. "Tony de Peltrie" is the "Steamboat Willie" of 3-D animation. It was a shocking surprise back in its day. And Pixar CEO John Lasseter rightly called it "a landmark" at the time.

Watching this short today allows you to glimpse something that's not otherwise easy to understand in 2011: that is, how risky and unfeasible computer animation might have seemed once upon a time.

Pixar is our local success story. Its history is encompassed within a 100-mile circle of the San Francisco Bay. It began in a San Anselmo Victorian as "Lucasfilm Computer Division." Then it was bought by Jobs in 1986 from Lucas for $5 million. Twenty years later, Jobs traded the company to Disney for $7.4 billion in stock.

In its first 10 years, Pixar was fiscally ailing despite successful work in commercial animation. Almost immediately, though, the company showed great artistic promise. "Tin Toy," from 1988, is still one of the most insanely great animated shorts: a wind-up toy pursued by a drooling gargantuan infant who wants to do it harm. It's of course a preamble for Toy Story, made seven years later, with that film's message: "We toys can see everything. So play nice."

Director Lasseter creates an indelible image of the huge and hazardous task of entertaining children. But he does it through Warner Bros.–style rowdyism. What Toni Morrison called "a baby's venom" is seething in this monster.

With Jobs' capital, Pixar created an extraordinary string of artistic and financial successes. Even this decade was marred by business squabbles with Disney—there were huge disputes with The Mouse over what Pixar longtimers always call the toughest film they made, Toy Story II.

Lasseter and president Ed Catmull's official statement on the passing of Steve Jobs claims that "the one thing Jobs always said was 'Make it great.'"

Beyond that, Jobs' impression upon Pixar is as hard to grasp as the precise way to follow that motto. Brad Bird's Chuck Jones–worthy facility with a gag, musician Randy Newman's sarcastic populism, Lasseter's love of '50s Americana or Andrew Stanton's ace command of storytelling structure: all of these people left more visible and audible imprints on Pixar's success.

Was it the way Jobs anthropomorphized objects that helped make Pixar great? The same technology that gave computers faces, that caused them to give you a smile when you flicked a switch, might have been partially passed on to Pixar's living, breathing Luxo lamps, toys and cars.

In any case, Jobs' nerve in hanging on during the riskier years exemplifies his strengths as a businessman. And in weathering financial flux, Jobs was as steadfast as Disney himself. So if he wasn't the only pioneer, Jobs is one of the few who deserves to be called the father of digital animation.

The availability of affordable and—this was Job's gift—unintimidating computers made animation available to all. As Stephen Cavalier put it in The World History of Animation (UC-Press): "Francis Ford Coppola once stated that the next Mozart might be a little fat girl in Ohio with a camcorder. Give her a computer, and she could be the next Disney, too."