|Photo by Kathleen King|
Since leaving Pixar in 1991—just before Toy Story revolutionized animation forever—Smith has been on a mission to tell the world about his role and deconstruct the legacy of the late Steve Jobs at the company. It was to this that our discussion quickly turned.
“I’ll certainly cop to ego,” Smith says. “I want my credit back.”
Although Smith has talked to journalists before (e.g. David A. Price based his book The Pixar Touch in part on interviews with Smith), rarely has his point of view come through as loud and clear as in our conversation.
“Ed and I had a difficult time funding [Pixar],” Smith began. “As you probably know... we went through a dozen or so venture capital firms without a fit, and then we went through about as many strategic corporate partners including, in particular, Ross Perot’s EDS division of General Motors, which came almost to completion.
“Steve stepped forward as our money just as we thought all options were closing. For that I, of course, think highly of him. In fact, in general, he was a great money man for us. He was also a great money man for my second startup too. And late in the Pixar story, Steve did wonderful negotiations for us.
“He was scary in the negotiating room. He came through for Pixar in the IPO ... movie negotiations with Disney, and finally the buyout of Pixar by Disney. Like I said he was a great money man and I respect him highly for those skills.
“But then we get to the aspects of him that I don’t like at all. He took his marketing skill to the hilt in designing and selling his own story. And since that story departs from the truth, my final analysis of him is not high.
“He marketed [that] Pixar was his idea, making the movies was his idea, that he ran the company, that he bought the company from Lucasfilm, that the company was on the wrong track and he saved it.
“In short, he manufactured the story that Pixar was another one of his great creations – all his idea, executed by people he hired to do so. None of these is correct. The extent to which they are still believed is a measure of his marketing skill.
“What he did dishonorably was to deny me my co-founding credit for Pixar, and further to claim it for himself. I believe it is still true today that the Pixar website has been scrubbed of my name.
“It’s the website omission that has disturbed me the most for years, and still does”, he later told me. “That’s where people go look for details. I shouldn’t even have to be saying any of this. Why do you think I am having to?
For this, he lashes out at Jobs: “Basically people tell a tyrant what he wants to hear. But the tyrant is gone now.” As if excusing his choice of words, he adds: “You know, Mike, Steve Jobs was just another guy.”
“Steve Jobs did not lead Pixar”, Smith had written earlier, in all caps. “The founding of a company is the idea of it, the vision of it. Steve came along in the process much later than that. The amount of ownership by the funders does not grant them cofounding status. He did not claim cofounder status until after I left and Toy Story was known to be a success.
“Steve financed the spinout corporation. This is standard practice and does not make him in charge of Pixar or its cofounder. It makes him Pixar’s money, its venture capitalist, its investor. Standard practice and terminology. Only in the case of Steve Jobs do the meanings get lost. I claim this is his self-marketing. Boy, lots of people bought it!
As our conversation progressed I asked whether he has ever raised the issue of recognition with the studio, perhaps with Catmull personally. “Of course... loud and clear, and in writing with Ed and the others ... I got pissed. I’m also interested in Ed’s getting his full credit.”
Through it all, though, he insists that he’s on good terms with Pixar, and is interested to see the films when they come out. “I especially love [Brad Bird's movies]. There’s something about his wit that hits me between the shoulder blades.”
“[I've visited] the Emeryville campus. It’s just down the road from my house. Not often... I don’t know hardly anybody there anymore. When I left, Pixar was, oh, about 200 people, maybe. Now it’s over 1200! Probably larger.”
Does he regret leaving Pixar when he did? Emotionally? Financially?
“Emotionally, I would probably still be at Pixar today, about to retire, if I hadn’t been bullied by Jobs, but once that happened so ferociously I was happy to be rid of him and haven’t looked back.
“I was the first of the original Pixarians to make my fortune. Steve, again as a financial person, helped me get there.” He points out that even as he was leaving Pixar, Jobs actually helped him by acquiring a 10% stake in his image software startup Altamira, which was acquired by Microsoft in 1994.
“I want to emphasize that I did not leave until I was sure our 20-year dream of making the first digital movie was underway and would be done. Ed finished negotiating the contract with Disney.” He adds: “Ed, not Steve”, using the Latin abbreviation n.b., nota bene, or 'take special note'.
“I am extremely proud of my baby Pixar.”