Lawrence Levy on Pixar, Steve Jobs, and finding meaning

Pixar is a legendary success story: this failed tech company turned animation giant has been producing quality movies for kids of all ages for decades. Today marks the 22nd anniversary of the wide release of their breakout hit Toy Story.

One of the key people behind the transformation of Pixar is its former CFO Lawrence Levy, who gave an informative and inspirational talk at the Octavian Forum in October about how he and Steve Jobs pulled it off and what we can all learn about their secrets to success and to finding meaning. He also gave an amazing interview to our magazine — read it here.

ON THIS DAY IN 1995 . . .

Pixar began life in 1979 as a graphics company working within the folds of Lucasfilm; Toy Story did not come out until 1995. They worked on graphics and computers, but even when Steve Jobs came on as the chairman of Pixar in 1986 the future of the company was really up in the air. Times were rough; at any given moment, Jobs apparently considered selling the struggling company to Hallmark Cards, Paul Allen from Microsoft or even Larry Ellison from Oracle. But he decided to bet it all on Toy Story instead.

Consider how much pressure Pixar was under to make Toy Story work: they were flirting with bankruptcy, Disney would completely own Toy Story and its characters, Disney had the right to make sequels without Pixar, and, finally, Disney could cancel the whole project altogether with little penalty. It took a highly dedicated management and creative team at Pixar to bring their vision for the first feature-length film, made completely out of computer-generated imagery, into reality. Animating the main character of Woody, whose rag doll motions made for very complex motion controls, was an unprecedented animation nightmare on its own. But a $373.6 million box office run that began with the movie’s release on this day in history, November 22, 1995 — with only a $30 million budget — speaks for itself. Pixar, for all the internal troubles over the years, went from a desperate animation company heading into financial ruin to quintessential film icon; they would be bought by Disney for $7.4 billion just a little over ten years later.


If you haven’t seen the movie which singlehandedly set the course for both Pixar and computer animated feature films in general, please do yourself one favor and watch Toy Story as soon as possible. Watch it alone, or literally with anyone else you know, regardless of relationship. Pixar is renowned for putting together movies that resonate with viewers of all ages and interests, and Toy Story is no exception. The writing is fresh, energetic, and layered with amusement that covers the breadth of any given audience. The set pieces are not only fun and creative but truly thrilling. “To infinity and beyond” is an iconic catch phrase for many good reasons, not the least of which is Woody, the old-timey cowboy doll voiced by Tom Hanks, emotionally shouting those words as he races through the sky with the similarly iconic Buzz Lightyear, voiced by Tim Allen, to reunite with their beloved owner. It takes a lot for an animated film handling such a lighthearted topic as the secret life of toys to become renowned for a dramatic action scene, but hey, this is Pixar we’re talking about. Whether or not a we can ever forgive them for giving an entire generation of children the same nightmare from Toy Story about Sid’s house and his horribly modified toys is another story, though.


But if nightmares aren’t a problem and you feel fine taking a deeper look into the inner workings behind Pixar at its most critical stage of development under the leadership of a increasingly besieged Steve Jobs, check out Lawrence Levy’s To Pixar and Beyond: My Unlikely Journey with Steve Jobs to Make Entertainment History. It’s not often that you find someone in the world of high level business and technology who has such a gift for writing and creative expression, but maybe that’s just because companies like Pixar are one in a million. Levy left a prominent job at a stable tech company to join Pixar as the new CFO in 1994 at the behest of Steve Jobs. Remember, these were the dark days — Pixar wasn’t doing too well and Steve Jobs was quickly being regarded as a has-been now that he had been fired from Apple; in short, what Levy did takes guts.

The stories about debating everything from corporate strategies to eastern philosophies with Steve Jobs are the real charm of this book, even if you’re coming into it as a Pixar-junky hoping to learn more about your favorite classic animated movies. There is a lot to learn here about coming up from behind in the world of business, what it means to work as a team with someone as difficult as Jobs, and, on the whole, how to turn overwhelmingly difficult situations into opportunities — the prime example being Toy Story. Levy is no pushover either; once he realized what was next for him, he quit corporate life at Pixar to focus on a different interest, Buddhism. We’re sure people gave him funny looks for walking away from something as lucrative as the Pixar he helped create, but those were probably the same funny looks he got for signing up to join Pixar in the first place.