Steve Jobs’s Movie Legacy: Pixar and the Technology That Freed Indie Filmmakers

By  · Published on August 25th, 2011

In 1985, the Graphics Group in LucasFilm’s Computer Division was on the chopping block. As Robert Sutton relates, George Lucas wasn’t confident that computer animated films had much of a future, and as a result, department heads Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith (two pioneers of extreme importance) were being pressured to fire some of their workers. Instead, they offered up their own names to be culled, which saved the entire division. At least for that moment. It’s unclear what fate might have fallen on the Graphics Group had the Computer Division not been purchased in 1986 by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs for a tidy $5m.

Of course, we know this department by another name: Pixar.

Jobs put his money down on a company he believed in, and the result stands currently as 26 Academy Awards, an absurd amount of box office money, a legion of fans worldwide and nearly complete animation dominance in the movie world. In 2006, Disney bought Pixar at an evaluated worth of $7.4b, making Jobs the largest Disney shareholder. He is stepping down as Apple’s CEO today, and even though it’s hard to say what kind of effect that might have on the film world, Jobs’s legacy already extends far beyond Pixar and beyond The Mouse.

It’s tough to know how Jobs directly impacted the worlds of Pixar and Disney, but it seems a fair assumption that Pixar’s success (at the very least) was due in large part to how Jobs allowed the company to be run. Creativity was and is king. He essentially created the modern Pixar by allowing it to breathe and by giving the inmates the keys to the kingdom. He had just as profound an impact as Catmull and Smith; it just took a different, less obvious shape. It also wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that without Jobs, Pixar probably wouldn’t exist.

That impact is enough to make his resignation from Apple worth talking about for movie fans, but it’s also Apple technology that has changed the face of filmmaking and film watching in our time.

Take for example what the Spierig Brothers did on Daybreakers using “a very basic Mac desktop.” Or consider Rian Johnson editing Brick “using Final Cut Pro on a Mac, in [his] bedroom.” How many other upstart filmmakers use their macs at home running Final Cut to create films that were far better than what could have been done years prior? Some of the software Jobs and Apple created helped usher in the world of filmmakers coming out of their bedrooms rather than film school.

In a sense, Apple erased the need for an Avid workstation. It had a revolutionary effect on how indie filmmakers are able to make their art. It put that art within reach.

Then, of course, there’s the iPad and the iPhone, two devices that have changed the way millions of people consume media. We now stream Netflix from just about anywhere, we take digital copies of movies with us on long road trips, we use apps to buy movie tickets on the way to the theater. More so than that, the iPad is helping Hollywood combat piracy. With Netflix, iTunes, cloud streaming and digital copies with DVDs, people can so much more easily get movies for a few dollars than have to risk the FBI showing up at their door for downloading the latest Jack Black movie.

For film fans, Jobs’s is a legacy worth talking about, because Apple, aside from being a marketing and business savvy machine that has meticulously amassed a brand that has more money than the US government, is a company that loves giving people the tools to create and consume artistic media ‐ from music to photos to film. “Creative people use macs,” has been the calling card for so long, but it wasn’t that way without their co-founder and CEO. Now, at least that chapter of influence, is closing.

A member of Disney’s Board of Directors, the former CEO of Pixar (and the company’s savior), and CEO of a company hugely responsible for a new wave of technological advancement for filmmakers and film fans, Jobs has touched movies in a way few can even dream about.

And if that weren’t enough, he, of course, was also immortalized by Noah Wyle in the 1999 TV movie Pirates of Silicon Valley.

With his departure as CEO of Apple, it’s important to pause and reflect on Steve Jobs’s significance to the world of movies and to look ahead to what the future (whether it be more Pixar films or a young punk in high school messing around with Final Cut) might be like thanks to a man whose influence on that world might not always be apparent.

Related Topics:

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.