Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Toy story (1955-2011)

There has been an amazing output of praise and tributes to Steve Jobs over the past week. And, while he has been lauded in tech circles and in pop culture, it is not out of place to recognize him as well for his contribution to cinema.

Jobs, of course, had a huge impact on cinema. As the founder of Pixar, he can be credited with the advent of the fully computer-animated movie. As it happens, he has only one proper film credit on his record, that of executive producer on Toy Story, the first commercial feature film to be rendered completely on computers. But that movie was no mere technological curiosity. A co-production by Pixar and Disney, it is a beloved classic that has been showered with plaudits, including an ASCAP Award for Best Song (Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend”), a Special Achievement Oscar for director John Lasseter and no fewer than three Academy Award nominations (Original Score, Best Song and Original Screenplay).

Moreover, Jobs’s name has appeared in the credits of numerous other films, after the word “special thanks” or “very special thanks,” including various Pixar short films and the features WALL·E, Up and last year’s Toy Story 3. And, not surprisingly, he has been involved in films as the subject of numerous documentaries. But he has also been portrayed as a character on TV and in the movies. Though he never contributed his own voice, animated versions of him have appeared on South Park (voiced by Trey Parker), Robot Chicken (voiced by Sean Astin), Code Monkeys (voiced by Andrew Sipes), though surprisingly never on The Simpsons. Most notably, he was a character in a 1999 TV movie called Pirates of Silicon Valley, directed by Martyn Burke. Focusing on the legal tussles between Apple and Microsoft (and clearly taking Apple’s side), the film cast ER’s Noah Wyle as Jobs and Saturday Night Live alumnus Anthony Michael Hall as Bill Gates. It was a humorous and engaging take on the seminal years in the rise of the personal computer.

Clearly though, Jobs’s impact goes much farther than the rise of computer animation and being a pop culture figure. That impact is exemplified not only by the number of people watching movies that Jobs helped make possible but a good many of them, at any one time, will be watching them on devices that Jobs popularized. Personally, I am probably never going to bother watching Once Upon a Time in the West on an iPad, let alone an iPod, but there are many movies or TV shows that I would and do watch on such devices—and I know I’m by no means alone.

In many of the tributes to Jobs, he has been compared to Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, and that is not inapt. The essence of Jobs’s genius is that we actually take computer animation and iPods and iPads a bit for granted because, once we had them, it seemed as though they had always existed—or should have. It became hard to remember a time when things weren’t that way. To the extent that we feel the same way about light bulbs and mass-marketed cars, Jobs certainly belongs in Edison and Ford’s company.

I have written on this web site of my own happy relationship with my iPod Touch and iPad, but this is a state of affairs that did not come naturally to me. For decades, I always felt a bit removed from the Apple cultish bandwagon. When the Macintosh first came out, I couldn’t understand the attraction. Having familiarized myself with and mastered the command line interfaces of Unix, CP/M, DOS and even the UCSD p-System, I couldn’t grasp the attraction of icons and mouse pointers. Given the speed of CPUs and the typical amount of RAM available at the time, it seemed like a huge waste of computing energy. In a way, I was right, in that the early models of Macintosh never rose above a relatively small niche market, probably because of the wimpiness of the machines at the time. But Jobs’s business rival Bill Gates grasped the potential immediately and promptly licensed his graphical user interface (GUI) to use in Windows. It was the dispute over whether Microsoft exceeded the terms of that license that led to the years-long legal battle between the two companies. Nearly forgotten now is the fact that around the same time Xerox sued Apple for similar reasons. The graphical user interface was truly born at Xerox’s PARC research lab. But it took Steve Jobs to popularize it. And so, whether it is technically accurate or not, Jobs will always be remembered as the father of GUI.

As with the Macintosh, I was similarly slow to appreciate the iPod when it was introduced. I really couldn’t understand what the fuss was about, since personal digital music players had been around for some time. I had similar initial reaction to the iPad, since tablet computers had likewise been in existence, although none so elegantly designed as Jobs’s creation. And that was the key. Anything that came out under Steve Jobs’s auspices was impeccably designed.

The quality of design in his products won him not only fans but adherents, who sometimes approached religiosity in their devotion. It has always amused me that so many people have always seen Jobs as a white knight in the tech world, as opposed to Gates, who is often seen as evil. That is partly due to the quality of Jobs’s products but also because Apple was always in a distant second place to Microsoft when it came to market share in operating systems. People may decry Microsoft as a monopoly (personally, I’ve never believed that it meets any real world definition of the term), but unlike Apple, Microsoft never made computers. If Jobs had had his way, we may all have been forced to buy our software and hardware from the same company. But that never happened and, as Bill Gates himself has said, the competition between Microsoft and Apple made both companies better.

Jobs was a perfectionist to the point of being abrasive and abusive and, for a while, that aspect of his character caused him to wander in the wilderness for a few years, after being forced out of the company he co-founded. To his credit, he learned and grew from the experience, and mere mortals such as ourselves can only wonder at what the vindication must have felt like when he was called back in to save the company—and did it in such spectacular fashion. That, and everything else Steve Jobs did, is such a good story that it is inevitable that he will again be portrayed on the movie screen (probably sooner rather than later and probably more than once), as a fuller telling of his story is written—either adapted from his about-to-be-published authorized biography or from other sources.

I, for one, will definitely queue up to see his story.

-S.L., 13 October 2011

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