New book paints intimate portrait of Steve Jobs at work [Review]

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To Pixar and Beyond by Lawrence Levy
In To Pixar and Beyond, Lawrence Levy offers an insider look at Steve Jobs' early struggles at the animation studio.
Photo: Lyle Kahney/Cult of Mac

After his death, Steve Jobs became mythic. He’s remembered as an asshole and a technology seer: a Tony Stark-like figure who could uniquely divine the sci-fi future, conjuring magical products from whole cloth almost single-handedly.

He’s also seen as infallible: a business and technology genius with powers of divination beyond those of us mere mortals.

But To Pixar and Beyond, a new book by Lawrence Levy, the former CFO of Pixar, paints a very different picture.

Available Tuesday, Levy’s book offers a detailed and fascinating peek behind the curtains at Pixar before it became one of the most successful film studios in history.

When Levy joined, in 1994, Pixar was on the ropes. Jobs was an absentee owner, the company was adrift, and Pixar appeared not to have much of a future.

To Pixar and Beyond details how Levy, a former corporate lawyer, was recruited by Jobs to help turn Pixar into a successful animation studio and take it public. This laid the foundation for Jobs’ immense personal fortune when Disney bought it a decade later.

Steve Jobs at work

Lawrence Levy
Lawrence Levy, former CFO of Pixar.
Photo: Lawrence Levy

The book paints an intimate portrait of Jobs at work.

At first, Jobs has almost no involvement in the day-to-day operations of Pixar beyond writing a personal check at the end of every month to make the studio’s payroll.

Jobs, tired of propping up the company, becomes keen for a comeback. His other company, NeXT, is also floundering. So he hires Levy, the successful CFO of another Silicon Valley company, to help turn things around.

Levy agonizes over the decision. His first impressions of Pixar are not good. The company was dabbling in four areas — selling its RenderMan animation software, making short films and animated commercials, and it had just embarked on its first full-length feature film, code-named Toy Story (the code name stuck).

None of these efforts were making much money. The early Toy Story footage looked amazing, but it remained far from a finished product.

Ultimately, Levy could not resist the challenge and the opportunity to work with a legend like Jobs (even one whose star was severely tarnished). He’d soon regret this decision.

Pixar looks like a flop

After joining Pixar, Levy discovers things are much worse than he initially feared. Much, much worse. The first half of To Pixar and Beyond has a tragicomic quality as Levy discovers the depth of the company’s problems.

The Pixar crew are hostile to Jobs and fearful he will finally become actively involved in the company and mess with it. The book neither pulls punches nor tries to sugar-coat the situation — Jobs was not liked or respected by many of the Pixar staffers.

Levy’s main directive from Jobs — to take Pixar public and alleviate him of the burden of propping it up — looks utterly hopeless.

One of the biggest problems is that neither Levy, Jobs nor anyone at Pixar, had the slightest idea of how the movie business worked.

Hollywood is obsessively secretive and Levy finds it impossible to get a grip on how Toy Story will make money from the many revenue streams — box office, DVD sales, licensing, merchandising and so on.

But figure it out he does, and it’s all detailed in the book. Low-key and methodical, but oddly fascinating, this is the first book I’ve read that devotes an entire chapter to a whiteboard meeting.

To Pixar and Beyond reveals nitty-gritty details

Levy lays out exactly how Jobs and the crew at Pixar figured out how to make the company into a blockbuster factory.

The surprising thing is that there’s no magic. There are no sudden flashes of genius, no amazing, unexpected breakthroughs.

Pixar’s success came through careful consideration of the problems the company faced, and analysis of the different things they might do.

To Pixar and Beyond paints a very human portrait of Jobs, one at odds with more facile accounts of his career.

It’s all very relatable. Pixar’s success was the product of many meetings, a lot of discussion, and careful, considerate planning. Jobs comes across as intelligent and rational (and a bit greedy and self-interested) but there’s nothing particularly mysterious about it.

Steve Jobs: Calm and rational

Jobs would debate endlessly every issue, big and small. When disagreements arose, and Levy stuck to his guns, Jobs wouldn’t impose his will. They’d just keep going until they found a path they both agreed on.

“Time and again, I saw how Steve preferred that we come to a mutual resolution, marching forward together, rather than acting on an outcome that he imposed,” Levy writes. “Years later Steve told me he felt the business and strategic choices we made at Pixar were neither his nor mine but the product of just this process.”

It’s this process that’s missing from most of the Steve Jobs literature.

To Pixar and Beyond is not a hagiography. It lays out the good and the bad. Half the book is devoted to a disastrous contract with Disney, which Jobs negotiated and Levy slowly realizes is potentially calamitous. At one point, Levy can hardly believe Jobs signed such a contract, and thinks he was grossly negligent at best, and self-destructive at worst. (Levy eventually concludes that Jobs knew it was a horrible contract but had no other choice. Without it, Pixar was toast).

How Pixar is like Apple

There are lots of parallels to Apple. They aren’t made explicit, but students of Apple will see the similarities. Both companies were built (or rebuilt) by relatively small teams of trusted lieutenants. They relied heavily on process — namely, constant iteration and refinement.

And unlike the rest of Hollywood — and the technology industry — Pixar focused on making one product at a time and making it as well as it could. By contrast, most Hollywood studios crank out a dozen movies a year, knowing the majority will bomb but hoping there will be a couple of hits to make up for the rest.

The book quotes Pixar President Ed Catmull explaining how Pixar was different.

“In animation there is much more control,” he says. “We iterate on the story over and over again, though storyboards, character modeling, animation tests and other processes. If the story or a character isn’t working, we can change it. Live action doesn’t offer the flexibility. Once the film has been shot, you’re locked into using the footage you have. This is why so many films don’t quite hit the mark. It’s not that the filmmakers want to make films that fall short; it’s that they have to make the film from the footage they shot, and sometimes it’s not what they need.”

Pixar’s movies, on the other hand, are constantly altered and refined, just like Apple’s major products — the iPod, iMac, iPhone and so on. Like Pixar’s movies, most of Apple’s major products get rejiggered and sometimes restarted until they get done right.

The result was an unprecedented string of hits — at both Pixar and Apple.

Along the way, Jobs become something rare in Silicon Valley: a tech CEO who understood the entertainment industry. It served him well later at Apple when dealing with the music and movie industries.

He also earned something else. Levy writes: “After a rocky relationship with Pixar that had lasted the better part of ten years, Steve had gained something that was sorely missing when I joined the company: respect.”

To Pixar and Beyond

To Pixar and Beyond: My Unlikely Journey With Steve Jobs to Make Entertainment History by Lawrence Levy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Price: $17.32

Buy from: Amazon