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How John Lasseter’s Characters And Steve Jobs’s Cash Saved Pixar From Death [Video]

Two iconic short films transformed a no-name tech company into a blockbuster machine.

Pixar, the juggernaut behind the Toy Story franchise and nearly every Oscar-winning cartoon of the past two decades, has eclipsed even Disney at this point: In the minds of millions, Pixar is synonymous with “animation.” But it wasn’t always that way. According to an illuminating blog post at Open Culture, Pixar almost died in its crib–in 1986, the company was in the enterprise hardware/software business (whaa..?), catering (poorly) to government and medical clients. It was on the verge of bankruptcy when a computer-biz washout named Steven P. Jobs became a majority investor. Jobs turned the company around by empowering another no-name dude named John Lasseter to make (of all things) an animated short film called Luxo, Jr. You may recognize it:

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Yes, that adorable scamp of a lamp is the very same one that now graces the Pixar logo at the start of every blockbuster film they release. What could have possessed Jobs and Pixar cofounder Ed Catmull to hang their floundering company’s fortunes on a whimsical two-minute cartoon with no direct revenue potential?

Even though Jobs had been ousted from Apple, if there’s one thing he understood more than anyone else, it was the power of delightful designs to reinvigorate brands, connect with new customers, and create whole new businesses. That’s what Luxo, Jr. was: a public service announcement saying “Hey! Computer animation is going to be big. Get in on the ground floor now.” When the film got an Oscar nomination and first prize at SIGGRAPH, the return on investment seemed clearer. It wasn’t just a delightful little entertainment, it was a buzzmaking bonanza for Pixar and its revolutionary rendering software.

But Luxo, Jr. wasn’t enough to really spark the tinder under Pixar. Jobs had to throw Lasseter another $300,000 to make a follow-up, to show the world that Luxo wasn’t just a flash in the pan, but a clarion call for the future of their company. The result was a five-minute short called Tin Toy, which again, may seem just a wee bit familiar to anyone who loves Woody and Buzz:

Yes, the CGI baby in this film looks horrifyingly crude compared to what Pixar turns out in 2011. But in 1988, Tin Toy was essentially a prototype for Toy Story–the proof of concept that computer animation wasn’t just a hobbyhorse for tech dorks and fractal fiends, but the future heir to Disney’s castle. In other words: a business with a future.

Indeed, when Tin Toy won the animated-short Oscar in 1988–the first computer-generated film to do so–Disney tried to poach Lasseter. But he stayed loyal to Jobs and Catmull, the guys who took a chance on him and literally banked the company on his creative instincts. The two companies met in the middle and partnered on Toy Story–and the rest is history. And to think it all started–and very nearly ended–with a little lamp hopping around on a ball.

[Read more at Open Culture]

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About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets

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