John Lasseter’s Personal Tribute To Steve Jobs

Today sees the release of Pixar’s bright and charming Brave, a wonderful fable about some small, intimate character moments against a typically gorgeous visual backdrop.

We’ve already talked about the film a fair amount, and we’ll be talking about it plenty more as the day and week go on, but I thought it might be nice to start with a tribute to Steve Jobs, one of the men who made Pixar happen, from one of the others, John Lasseter.

Lasseter was speaking in Edinburgh earlier this summer, during my trip up to meet and speak to several of the people behind Brave. While Lasseter had plenty to say about that film in particular, for now, here’s just his tribute to Jobs, the impact he had on Pixar, and just a little, how the company returned the inspiration in kind.

Pixar Animation Studios wouldn’t exist without Steve Jobs. It’s pretty remarkable to think about what he gave us.

When he bought us he had just left Apple. He had just started to form his company NeXT and he bought our group from Lucasfilm, when there were only about 40 of us.

In the beginning Pixar was a computer company. We did hardware and software. It was a very high-end computer, it was way ahead of its time so frankly there was no market for it. It was very expensive. Steve was trying to figure out a way to sell it and market it. He had been used to the consumer computer world but this was more of a professional world.

There were four of us doing computer animation research at Pixar in the beginning. I was the only animator there, I was the first traditonally trained Disney animator to actually animate in computer animation.

Steve was always very supportive of letting us continue the animation research. He really started seeing seeing the potential of the evolution of Pixar, from a computer company to an animation studio. And then he saw the vision of us doing a feature film with Toy Story. He kept guiding us.

The recent book doesn’t portray him during this chapter in his life in the right light, it portrays him still as this Mercurial guy who gets mad at everybody and we never saw that with Steve. He drove us to create.

The only thing he ever asked for me was to make it great. The famous term he used was “make it insanely great.” That’s what he strove for us to do. Always. And he loved the fact that we were doing things that nobody else had ever done.

Two things I remember him telling me. One was how important quality is to what we do.

He said that “The way that the audience feels about your brand is like a bank account – you can either make deposits or you can make withdrawals.” Deposits are of course making something great that everyone really loves. A withdrawal is putting out something you know isn’t very good but you still put your name on it. He refused to ever do that.

That was so vital to him, how people cared about our brand and it really permeated into Pixar. There are 1200 people at Pixar now. If you ask anyone of them “What’s the most important thing to you?” In most of Hollywood “What’s in it for me?” At Pixar, all 1200 people would answer number one Pixar, number tow the movie you’re working on and down the line they’d get to themselves.

The other thing he said to me that I’ll never forget was when we were working on Toy Story, before he went back to Apple.

He and I would talk all the time. We became like brothers. He would stare off sometimes and just start thinking. One time he was doing this and he said “Back when we were making computers at Apple, the lifespan of these computers were three years, in five years you’d have a doorstop. You do your job right and these movies can last forever.”

And in animation we have that opportunity. Name another movie from 1938 that’s seen as much today as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. That simple statement has kept me focused on the right thing when making our movies – the stories and the characters.

Steve always drove us to get to the higher level. It’s great for business, right, and we’ve been very successful with our films. But it’s because of the quality and Steve always pushed for that, quality in every way.

The influence that Pixar had on Steve was that, maybe when he was at Apple before, he could look at everybody and say “I could do their jobs better than them” but when he got to Pixar and he saw the amazing artists working, he’d say “There’s no way I could do that.”

It’s one of the big changes in Steve Jobs. He grew to have such tremendous respect for the talent of others. When he went back to Apple I think that was one of the big changes.

That all flowed from Lasseter, straight from the heart, not prepared or rehearsed or written down and edited, and it was obvious, watching him, that Jobs did in fact mean a lot to him, and had taught him a lot about how Pixar might work.

Brave is a wonderful demonstration of these principles in action, putting aside big genre flashiness for something driven by theme and ideas and character. You can see it in UK cinemas from today.