Alvy Ray Smith 2:46
Well, it’s hard to even know where that beginning is. It’s far farther back than most people know, I suspect. I think of the beginning as the New York Institute of Technology on Long Island outside of New York City. Where Well, first of all, I was at Xerox PARC, where my best friend dick shop we talked about before had written a paint program. And usually what I thought were the first color pixels. And when I saw those color pixels and that paint program I said that’s me. That’s you know, I I learned how to paint from uncle named George gray Scott. And he I was a painter oils and acrylics and so forth. And I was a computer guy. And here it was the two things I was good at married together and I knew instantaneously that’s what I wanted to do. And I got hired on at Xerox PARC during it’s absolutely fabulous a day when the personal computer as we now know it was invented with Windows based operating systems and Ethernet and laser printer. You know, just just what we have here right in front of me right now. No zoom yet. But I got fired because Xerox PARC decided not to do color. They said, we’ll let you guys own it. You own it completely. That’s nuts. They said You may be right Alvey, but it’s a corporate decision to go black and white. silent. No. Okay, bye. And I had cast my lot with an artist friend named David DeFrancisco. too. In a in a proposal to the National Endowment for the Arts, the NEA. We in the idea of the proposal was to exploit this new art medium called raster graphics was what we called it at the time. And so he and I had our but we needed a frame buffer. We needed a pixel memory in other words, and Dick shop had the first one and I had just been fired from use of it. So our first goal was to get the next find the next frame buffer The next pixel memory. And we heard that they were building one at the University of Utah. Evans and Sutherland was building the next frame buffer. So we jumped in my car, Dave and I did, we drove out to Salt Lake. I’ve got hair down in my smaller my back. David’s got here out to here electric air. We tried to act like we weren’t artists. Because their defensive part funded, right they, they said, Well, we can’t we can’t do you guys here. But there was a rich guy who just came through Alexander Sure, from the New York Institute of Technology on Long Island. And he bought one of everything in sight. And I said, including the frame buffer. Yes, he bought the frame buffer. So that meant this guy was going to have the next frame buffer in the world. It turns out that Martin Newell of teapot thinks of teapot fame in computer graphics, the teapot as a holy object, as you probably know, because Martin Newell, an Englishman had a teapot and he entered its data into a computer at I think at the University of Utah and that database got passed around from group to group to group to try. We all tried our algorithms out on the teapot. Martin Newell, Martin Hill says I’m headed off to New York tech tomorrow to give the young fellow there who’s in charge Ed catmull. A some advice. I’ll call you and tell you what I see. When he called me a few days later, his advice was if I were you, I’d get on the next plane. And that’s what David and I did. We got ourselves out there. I mean, they don’t they didn’t even have any equipment yet. But basically, this is a rich man, a crazy rich man. But one of the unsung heroes I think computer graphics on the fabulous North Shore of Long Island. mansion after mansion after he had cobbled together four estates into his campus called the New York Institute of Technology. But the buildings on the campus were mansions. So, turns out the video mansion, video was in one match and computer graphics was in another mansion. My girlfriend lived in that third mansion, David and I lived in a fourth mansion. You know, I’d wake a kid from New Mexico, I’d wake up pinching myself is, this can’t be true. This this got to be a movie. And this guy was kind of crazy. But he was crazy. Crazy good for us. Maybe not for him, but crazy good for us. So one of the first things he did just to kind of give you a sense of this amazing event was he came to me one day and he said we’re the best graphics place in the world. Our weakness is Yes, we are. He says how do we stay that way? I said, Well, you know this, eight bit framebuffer you bought us 200 excuse me, 512 by 512 by eight bits for $80,000 $75.19 $75. If you buy me two more of those, I can gang them together into 24 bit pixels. And I tried to explain to him the difference between 256 colors and 16 million colors. Not knowing whether I was getting through to this guy or not. Because he did. He didn’t talk like you and I are talking right now is sort of an exchange. Somebody says something there’s a response was given a tape. He just came in talking. And I finally realized that the only way I could I didn’t know what to do. So I would just start talking to we’re talking and and all sudden I hear my words come out of his mouth. That’s it. Oh, okay. The thought transferred. But you didn’t really know. Or, you know, did he really get the difference between 256 and 16 mega colors? Who knows? Well, a few weeks later, Alex, Uncle Alex, we call him showed up, like four in the morning and he said, You know what, I bought you five more of those eight bit thingies. So you’d have to have those 24 bit things. In today’s dollars, he just said I spent almost 2 million bucks on you just because you said so. Well. We have more memory. We had the first 24 bit pixels in the world and we went crazy. So that’s why this guy I think should figure out more than he does. And that’s where I met Ed catmull. ed catmull was already there. They didn’t have anything going. Alex sure had a had a cell animation studio on his campus. They were making Tubby the tuba the old fashioned way with being two lines on celluloid and opaque from behind and so forth. And is it this Evans is Sutherland salesman it talked satellites into believing that he just plugged in these computers he can fire all the people and dollars are just rolled out the other end and make his movie cheap. We said Please don’t say that Alex don’t say that we don’t know we can’t replace the art. There’s not we, we still can’t replace the art 2021 there’s, you can’t do that. But it was clear that our job was to figure out what the old fashioned animators did and somehow bring the computer into that world. So I wrote a paint program for the backgrounds. And they had wrote an inbetweening program. And let’s say I did a fill fill program, where you would choose a color and touch up an enclosed area, and it would just fill with that color. It’s the digital equivalent of vote baking, in the sell animation business. So we did all this. And luckily, we never got involved with heavy tube itself, which turned out to be a total disaster. Because, you know, I could go in great detail that basically, after four or five years of this amazing place is heaven on earth place, it became clear to us that Alex shear really didn’t have it. And by the way, watching these guys, these are all animators this when we got the idea that, hey, we can be the first people in the world to make a completely digital movie. That’s when we had the vision. So 9075 sort of not knowing, not knowing is going to take 20 years to get there. Toy Story came out in 95. So then there’s a lot that happened in between there, of course. But we we got our start is royal way. And then one day, I got a call from Francis copla. And the next day, we got a call from George Lucas. Now the guy representing from their people, not themselves, I was gonna say that’s a good call. Guy, the person representing Francis capilla, I had no respect for and I realized that if that’s the personnel he was using, then it was not going to work. Hmm. And sure enough, that team coked out later. But George Lucas seem to be a really sober person with his feet flat on the ground. He may not be as he was nowhere nearly as dazzling a director of courses Francis Gopal, but the he would we trusted that he would get there. So we, we asked them, we asked them to send a representative out secretly, because Alex shear was litigious. He had already gone after Jim Clark, who’s famous as the Netscape founder. And we knew that he would, he could be nasty. So we want to be sure that we did everything clean and by the book, and there was no ambiguity. So and we also wanted Lucasfilm to see what we were used to. We didn’t want to go
Jeremy Weisz 13:23
the lifestyle that we’re used to, so you better build some mission.
Alvy Ray Smith 13:27
We’ve got a mansion and you know, like, this is heaven. So we were going to insist on matches, but we just sort of wanted people to be aware that we, this is our we’ve got the best we don’t want to go down. Okay. So they say oh, yeah, we’ll be anonymous. They weren’t the the they sent out Richard Edlin, who’s the head of special effects that Industrial Light and Magic the special effects branch of Lucasfilm. He had a giant star wars belt buckle on just giant. Some secret right. So oddly enough, oddly enough, nobody picked up on that belt buckle yet and are sitting there just sweating bullets, right. And we, you know, had a great demo. And then I got invited out to Lucasfilm and LA. Were with so after their visit at NIH, first off, we went off campus we went and we rented this giant black those old cast iron typewriters, you know, that I learned how to type on because we knew there was a mole and New York tech. We couldn’t use a word processor like Jim Clark had done our be reported somehow. to Alex Sure. So we went off we rented this giant old typewriter went off to say was Ed’s garage, in and spent hours composing What we knew to be the letter of our lifetime, this is what we can offer data, data data. And unfortunately, we didn’t save a copy of that letter.
Jeremy Weisz 15:12
I was gonna say, you know, Lv, we’re saying before we hit record my pitch to you your next book, okay? So people should always check out a Biogrpahy of the Pixel, your next book should be the letter of our lifetime. And that’s the true story behind the story of Allie, Ray Smith, and Pixar,
Alvy Ray Smith 15:30
oh, this is all this is all in the biography of the pixel, a biography, the pixels, a large book, it’s not the story of Pixar, but the story of Pixar is in there. And that’s the author story of computer graphics. But the story of computer graphics is in there. Yeah. etc. So I had to the book is about digital light, namely, all the pictures made of pixels, for whatever reasons. It’s a vast field. In fact, all nearly all pictures in the world today, are digital, are part of digital light. Zoom is part of digital light. In fact, because of the digital explosion, nearly all pictures that have ever existed in our digital light. That’s the that’s the topic of my book. But it’s so large, I have to kind of, I had to build an armature, from which I could hang the pieces and the armature is the story of, of getting to the first movies.
Jeremy Weisz 16:28
Yeah. So what is ever the letter of our lifetime?
Alvy Ray Smith 16:33
So, so this letter worked. Edwin, it’s our plan was to get Ed hired in at Lucasfilm. We, David DeFrancisco. And I’m the artist friend that’s been with me all along. laundered ourselves. We called it to JPL Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. So that we could not be accused of having raided New York tech. So we did that got it in place, and Susie could be pulled us in from JPL made me the director of computer graphics. Meanwhile, he had was the head of audio editing, video editing, the whole thing computer graphics and a games project. Okay. We thought that George was hiring us to be in his movies. But that was a mistake. Somehow that Oh, yeah, we can build hardware and software for you. That’s, that’s the dues. We’re happy to pay. But we want to be in the movies. You know, we want to make pictures of the movies. So I started hiring like crazy, just the hottest talent in the world. And everybody thought that’s what we’re going to be doing it look so. So I got Lauren carpenter, and Bill Reeves and Tom Porter and Tom Duff, all these stars, these geniuses and was waiting for George to show up. And he didn’t. He never showed up. And also I went, oh my gosh. I guess I should say, you know, the first Star Wars had a piece by Larry Cuba, one of our colleagues, and it was black and white line drawing. But it was computer graphics. We thought George got it about computer grabbing. No. He didn’t get it. And it suddenly dawned on me, he didn’t get it. What are we gonna do? Well, that’s when Paramount came to the rescue. With Star Trek to the Wrath of Khan. They came and hired ILM, Industrial Light magic to do special effects for Star Trek to not Georgia Star Wars, movies, Star Trek franchise. And they wanted to put some this newfangled computer graphics in Star Trek to sell the guys at ILM. They were talking to say, well, we don’t do that. I think the I think the new guys next door, I think that’s what they do. So they call me over and explain to me this notion of all they wanted to call it the Genesis effect. It was the story element in Star Trek to an effect that caused death, death become alive, instantaneous. So they propose that we have a an aquarium with a rock floating in it that somehow got covered with moss and I’m sitting there going, What? And I said, Do you guys have any idea what we can do in computer graphics anyway? No. So I said, let me go home overnight. And I’ll design a shot for you that will satisfy your, your storyboard needs. And it’s actually something we can do. And they said, okay, and I walked out of there, you know about 10 feet off the floor because I knew I had just been given the chance to design a shot and a major motion picture that was going to be successful. So I was up all night, as you might imagine storyboarding. I had Lauren carvoeiro fractals. I had bill Reese on particle systems that Tom Duff on, but mapping and so forth. I just, I took this rock band, and I designed a storyboard that fit the Paramount needs. And with what we had, oh, by the way, before I left that room, I said, You know what, we can’t do movie resolution yet. This is the battle days, right? We can only do video resolution, they said, that’s fine. This is going to be a video demo. To Admiral Kirk. I went great, we can do that. And that’s what we did. And that’s the Genesis demo. So when I hold the team together, I said, you know, this is our big break, we’re finally going to have a shot at the big screen. This is the first time out. Our group gets to be on this big screen together. And we’ll do a great bang up job for Paramount will make everybody in the theater happy. Make Paramount happy. But what this really is, is a 62nd commercial to George Lucas. So he’ll know what the hell he’s got. And I knew one thing about George, I can’t figure out how I knew this when I look back, but I knew maybe one of his dtds or Tamia. George never loses track of the camera. If you ever tried to watch a movie that way, basically, the directors failed. It means you haven’t been sucked into the Mo, if you’re following the camera, man, you’re not sucked into the emotion. Somehow, George, he must be able to do both do the emotion and track the camera as he always tracks him. Knowing that I said we’re going to put a camera shot in here that will blow his socks off. No, he’ll know that no real camera could possibly have made it. And it won’t be gratuitous computer graphics 101 Wow, he’s our mo it’ll make narrative sense to the Star Trek story. And that’s what we did. We designed this very elaborate camera, the cameras spinning, shirking and moving, whipping around going up. Sure enough, the day after the premiere, George stepped one foot into my office, kind of a shy guy in my opinion. And he said, great camera move. And he was out of there. He got it. And sure enough, he worked very slightly into return to the Jedi. And more importantly, he told his good buddy, Steven Spielberg about us and the word started to spread. So that, that that’s where we got the, you know, the group that became Pixar. That’s where we that’s that was our initiation into the big screen.
Dr. Scot Gray 23:10
So Alvy a quick question about that. Obviously, like, you saw the opportunity, you knew what to do. How did you learn storyboarding and how to do such a cool camera angle? Did you have experience and moviemaking or how did you know how to do all that stuff?
Alvy Ray Smith 23:30
Well, that’s, that’s interesting. Scott, nobody’s ever asked me that. I was a movie at it. Not knowing that it would matter later my life. As far as drawing I had been drawing and painting I told you about painting oils, and acrylics. And I was I drew, I knew how to draw. So I still have those original storyboards. I’ve been embarrassed to show them to you, but I could do the storyboards. And I did like, I think six panels for this for the Genesis demo storyboards. And it was sort of like, you know, zoom in on this planet. And the idea was a moonlight planet that would, we would throw something at it. And I use terms like something at it, chaos would happen, kind of fuzzy, whatever that was going to be. And with camera pull back with zoom out, revealing an earth like planet that was it was really crude. But I landed the job. So
Dr. Scot Gray 24:31
yeah, and you got George to pop in and say great job. I mean, that’s
Alvy Ray Smith 24:37
Yeah, it worked. It worked. Also, you just got to exercise this, this amazing group of geniuses that accumulated they’re all became Pixar, you know, that was that was that was the fundamental group. So we would have happily gone on there, I guess or who knows how long But we didn’t really add I had grown up with enamored by character animation. He and Utah and I in New Mexico would watch the the Walt Disney show and Walt will tell us how they do cel animation. So we were in a, you know, a character animation, not special effects, Genesis demo with special effects. That’s okay. But we want to do characters. So I remember we came back from the SIGGRAPH is the big annual computer graphics conference where we show off to all our peers and colleagues. And at the 1983. Coming back from the 1983 SIGGRAPH on the airplane editing, I decided the 1984 SIGGRAPH a year Hence, we would announce to the world that we did character animation. So I immediately on the airplane, pulled out my green engineering pad and started storyboarding again. And I storyboard it. What eventually became Andre and Walibi. Which tell you the truth. I thought I was gonna be the animator. I didn’t know yet that I wasn’t good enough. I thought if I can draw, I can make things move. I can add. No, it’s the animators are a class of their own. As I now know, well, but I didn’t know Well, then. And luckily, I got saved by getting the chance to hire john Lasseter. And then, yeah,
Dr. Scot Gray 26:46
I’ll be I know that during your time at New York tech, and some of the time of Lucasfilm as as Jeremy said, you know, I’m a big Disney guy. I I’ve read that you and I would take these secret trips to Disney. What are you guys trying to find out? Like, how did you meet? Like, how did that all roll into this?
Alvy Ray Smith 27:10
So we were we were always Yeah. And I made trips to Disney pilgrimages as well, how I think of them to to the you know, the the holy spot all through New York tech and Lucasfilm days, because, especially at New York tech, we so why is this? Why are we here? I mean, this is beautiful and luxurious. But this, this is no, this should be Disney doing this, right? And we would go out there and show him the latest stuff that we knew how to do. And basically Sorry, guys, Aren’t you interested in this? And every year we got sort of the same thing. It was like some VP would come in who didn’t have a clue. And he was say, can you boys do bubbles? No, we not that year, we couldn’t do bubbles. I mean, they didn’t get up, get the notion that computers can do anything, right? You just have to wait for them to get fast enough. So but even though we got blown, I mean, this is when Disney was being run by a football player. Married to Walt Disney’s daughter, and that management level just didn’t have a clue. Now the technical level knew exactly who we were and what we had to offer. We made friendships during this period that lasted forever. And you know, eventually paid off by us becoming part of dizzy took way.
Dr. Scot Gray 28:40
Did you get to meet guys like Frank and Ollie and the nine old men and yeah,
Alvy Ray Smith 28:45
Frank. Well, Frank and Ollie. Yep, absolutely. To be frank and Ollie, he was talking about being in a suit to yokels from the southwest. At this day, we got to meet these guys. And they they were they we showed him our 3d stuff. It blew everybody’s mind to see these 3d renderings, but they didn’t know what to do with them. And we the computers weren’t fast enough to have done anything really exciting yet. But the young the youngsters could see there was something in there right. And that they they also expressed excitement about the 3d, you know, the 3d models that were being rendered. And Frank and Ollie By the way, Frank and Ollie remained friends until their deaths and their 90s with with with me and with with with it. Wonderful, wonderful two gentlemen. Yeah, I’ve got there personally sign your art of Disney book here. It’s just oh my gosh. They’re there. They’re special. They’re special. But nothing ever happened there. Although I remember people said you have of AI works is still here. You guys have been in a moment. So we learned right away that of AI works. Just like a secret God at Disney. I sense in my book, I point out that I think, basically was, should be given more credit at Disney than he gets. So I try to fix that a little bit in my book. So, during the Lucasfilm days, we he was still go down there. And one of these that because he just you know, we wanted them to be aware of what we were doing. And so let’s see things. Well, what I wanted to get out with john last year we, we had one of these visits. We met this kid, john Lasseter. He was working at Disney. And he excited, it turns out it and I had met him twice before, but we didn’t remember him at all. It was this particular visit at Disney where he hauled john haul me down into the Disney archives and said, What do you want to see? And I said anything? He said, Yeah, anything. I said, Well, I’d like to see the dancing Hippo for vim. dasia Preston Blair. He says, okay, and he goes over and he looks up on a chart and goes over pulls out this manila envelope, and thumbs through press and blurs original pie since the hippo dancing. I was all Kevin. I taught myself from Preston Blair’s book out I enemy. Then he said, What next? I would anything. He said Shelby, anything I said, Okay, the the peak alpha seed from Dumbo like that we’re starting to bond here. So, but we couldn’t touch john because he was working for Disney. A couple of months later, Ed calls me he’s the Queen Mary. Now doctors a convention center in Long Beach, the old Queen Mary. And we were having our daily business meeting and he said, Oh, I just chatted with john Lester. He’s He’s not a Disney anymore. I said, get off the phone right now go hire him. immediately knew that was the right idea. And of course did just that. And so that’s how we got john Lasseter, Jonathan fire. But he was he was so embarrassed. He never told us. We didn’t care. No, he was yours is world class animator. And he said, yeah, we thought we couldn’t hire him because George didn’t believe in it, that we could do animation. So we hired him as a user interface designer. And he said, He’s, and meanwhile, I’m starting to work on laundry and Walibi with my my crew storyboards that he takes a look at him, he says, Can I give you a suggestion? I would, john, that’s why you’re here. Absolutely. Well, he basically turned it around, made Andre a much nicer character that I added, added the Walibi character and you know, basically made it and animated and turned it into it’s still it looks really crude these days. But it was a leap up. nobody’s seen anything like that. It was kind of the first time out on full 3d rendered animation with a with a natural born animator at the helm instead of a guy like me, who just thought I could animate
Dr. Scot Gray 33:28
that window. Join you guys. What year was that? Well,
Alvy Ray Smith 33:31
I was 83 I believe at Andre Wally became 84. He wasn’t there in 82 when we just Genesis demo, so I’m guessing 83 Okay. So there we had it. We are missing ingredient. Finally, we had all the technical stuff. We had the artistic stuff now. And we could start dreaming big. I mean, meanwhile, George and Marshall Lucas, get divorced. And talk about a monkey wrench. Jimmy. We had always been working in a research lab for the man right? We weren’t. We weren’t business types. We didn’t think about money we got Alex Sure. What do you let us see the money. We had no idea where the money was coming from that New York tech. I still don’t know where that money came from. Even though I even though I tried to find out for my book. I found out a lot but not that. Well in California community property save half the fortune goes away overnight to each spouse. Overnight George, so I went into it. I said, Yeah. George is going to fire he can’t afford us anymore. He just lost half his fortune. He never really understood who we were. He’s he’s gonna have to fire us or let us go and and Ed grew up religious and I grew up religious. I said it would be a sin. Let this world class group of talent disperse. Let’s start a company. Now this is to nerd stocking, right? Let’s start a company to give them a home. So we’ve got to hold this group to get even. Even though we weren’t ready to make movies yet, computers weren’t ready yet. Moore’s Law wasn’t there yet. And they had a grade and we went across the street to a bookstore in Marin County, called a clean, well lighted place for books, and bought for how to start company books. I bought to add bought to the damn thing is it? It worked, didn’t it? But it took a lot of luck. It took. So we wrote up a week. I guess, I should tell you that. The reason we knew at this point that and by the way, Lucasfilm was all for starting this company, because they would get a piece of it. And they, you know, that’s one way of unloading the computer division, part of the computer division. So Meanwhile, a Japanese firm, this is one of the parts of the story A lot of people don’t know, a large Japanese printing company called sugar con, came to approach me to make the first digital movie. Our dream is based on the Monkey King characters, that I don’t whether you’re familiar with the Monkey King stories, but most children in Asia are raised on these stories. hundreds, if not 1000s of stories about them, the Monkey King who’s like, he’s like a God, but he’s not old enough to really be wise enough to be a guy. So he’s always screwing up. I mean, that’s the basic gist of the stories. Well, I had been turned on to, to the Monkey King stories at New York tech years ago, years earlier, by my good friend, Lance Williams. And then I went to China in 1978. and came back loaded with Monkey King books. I had I brought back 12 books, I think, stories and artwork based on the Monkey King, I was a total addict. So when this so when this printing company came to me, and wanted to make the first movie, based on the Monkey King, I said, Oh, this is one of those cases where I’ve been grabbed by the neck. This is where you’re going next buddy. And we started to work on storyboards, marketing, certain marketing reports, holding meetings with the Japanese at fancy resorts in California. JOHN started doing character sketches, character sketches for the Monkey King hero. Finally, it came to the point where I said, Okay, Alvy, you got to figure out how much to charge these guys. No one had ever costed a animated movie before, right, this kind of animation. So I sharpen my pencil, I sat down, and I’ve calculated everything I now knew. And came to the miserable conclusion that Moore’s Law wasn’t there yet. We needed another. My version of Moore’s Law, by the way, is everything good about computers gets better by an order of magnitude every five years? 10x every five. It’s an awesome law. Okay, it’s the Dynamo behind the whole modern world. We is another order of magnitude out of Moore’s law. In other words, we didn’t know that five years. So what are we going to do for five years with our company? Because we can’t make movies yet? Well, we have built a computer called the Pixar image computer for George to simulate the optical printer, that was one of our tests for him. So we had a hard, we had a prototype, and it said, What shall we do? So the only thing that makes any sense at all for 40 people, which is what we were, is to turn that prototype into a product and sell it. That’ll be our company. It’ll be a hardware company. Now, I look back in total, this belief that we got to that conclusion, we didn’t know a damn thing about right. Hardware, sales, manufacturing, none of that we did. We just do sort of research department level versions of that. And here we were. So we went out and tried to raise money on this idea. We talked to 45 different outfits. 35 venture capital firms and investment banks turned us down. We were lucky because since we were Lucasfilm and you’re kind of sexy, and they would let us in the door to give us give a spiel, but they all said, This doesn’t make sense to us by
Jeremy Weisz 40:20
because you’re ahead of your time. I mean,
Alvy Ray Smith 40:22
well, it was more like, we didn’t fit their idea of a seed startup, right? We had 40 people, we had a prototype already built it. And they couldn’t see where it was really gonna go, even though we tried our damnedest to sell it. And we were also inexperienced, right? We were. We weren’t business guys. So So then we decided to talk to that. We’re being advised all along by Lucasfilm business people, because they get a piece of whatever happens. And so we started talking to, we decided we would do we would form a strategic partnership with some large corporation. Well, a lot of those. We talked to 10. Eight of them blew us away. But General Motors did not. And Philips of the Netherlands did not. And the two of them almost closed the deal with us. almost closed the deal with us. We got so close that we were we were up above Grand Central Station in Manhattan. I think it was in the Philips building. Are you know, they’re 20 people around the table in the stressful days in my life. For parties at the table have lawyers are future on the line? By the end of that, that stressful day? Everybody’s say yes. Shaking hands. Normally in the business world, that’s a done deal. The law is right up what’s just been agreed to and you sign a paper you’re done. But in this particular case, all right. We were dealing with the branch of General Motors that was run by ah ross perot remember this character? Yeah, Ross Perot. Okay, ah, Ross Perot. electronic data systems have been folded into General Motors. And that was the division that was getting ready to fund us. Along with Philips of the Netherlands. The day that we had this successful meeting in Manhattan, I think a day or two earlier, ah, Ross Perot had uptown in Manhattan at the GM building, blown away the board of directors by insulting them of General Motors by insulting them accusing them of being stupid by investing $5 billion in US tools, as I recall. Basically, that news broke overnight and the Wall Street Journal and it was clear that anything having to do with General Motors, and ah, Ross Perot was dead. And of course, our deal was right there in that crack. Wow. So overnight. what we thought was our last great hope got tossed in our phrenic at this point, right, we’re out of options. Lucasfilm is just sick to death of this whole thing. They’re about ready to close us down. So what we have this, this idea in the limo, Kelly bathroom in here, going to the airport for this meeting in Manhattan. We had this idea of a hail mary. Ideal. Let’s call Steve Jobs. So I should back up just a little bit. One of the financial people we had talked to Steve Jobs, he had been fired from Apple. And he called me and our CFO down to his mansion near Woodside, California, I remember sitting out on the grass. And he presented this notion that he would buy us from Lucasfilm and run us as His next company. And we went No, we don’t want to run our own company, but we’ll accept your money. And he said, Okay. And he went to Lucasfilm and proposed a level of capitalization. It was about a half of what General Motors and Philips were proposing. Now General Motors and Philips looked like it was a done deal. Lucasfilm basically laughed him out of the office. You know, not really but they paid him. No, my So, okay, that deals fallen through the General Motors deals falling through that narrow Franek crease. Let’s call George, let’s call Stephen just say make exactly the same offer, again, the one at half the valuation of the General Motors seal that and I didn’t care, we just want to be funded, right? We think Lucasfilm is at the end of their tether, and they’ll go for it. Well, that’s what happened. And that’s how we got Steve Jobs as our venture capitalist. He did not buy us that was part of the Steve Jobs. And he never bought us, he funded a spin out company, of which he owned a majority. And the employees on the rest. And we were egalitarian, every employee owned a piece of the rest. So he had an ISD, where the board of directors of this company, and pretty quickly we learned never to let Steve in the building because he just blew everything apart. He he he, he has this charisma as everybody knows. And basically, it’s a it’s a nice way of saying you can just lie through his teeth and and people just believe it’s true. And he does it such a classy way that. So the first time I got a sense of this was the Pixar his first meeting, right? We hauled all the employees in, we bring in the chief investor. And Steve gives a talk. And also I look at my employees, and they’re all looking up at him with this love in their eyes. And I’m going oh my god, what’s going on? That’s, that’s weird. Yeah, he’s great. He’s grabbed their soul somehow. So it actually left it took like two weeks or ignite to go around and get every bite back into the real world. My engineers, these hardcore engineers that said, you know, it’ll take us a month lb to build this board for the pics or the, you know, the manufacturer version of the Pixar image computer. Well, they thought they could do it in a week, as Steven said, so I said, Can you do it in a week? Well, no. I said, Please, tell us your best. Forgive what that guy said, Tell us your best stuff. It’s your math, right? He says yes, it’s a Please come. So it took like two weeks. So we just said no, don’t let us go into a building. He screws everything up. For we don’t know what purposes, you know, his own, whatever. glorification is what it seemed to me. And luckily, he had started Next by them, hour and a half away. So and I made sure that all the meetings were held at Next. So, you know, we happily go there to keep him out of our building. So, you know, in the sense of the true story of Steve’s version, all this is what he he saw the struggling hardware company and saved it. No, he didn’t. He was a hardware guy. He invested in a hardware company. He was a board, he was on the board. And he could not say, our hardware company, we would have failed three or four times if we had any other investor. But Steve Jobs, we ran out of money. classic version of failure, Steve would come in and just tear me apart. But he would always write a check. He did not want to be embarrassed that the second thing he did after Apple was a failure. So bottom line is, for all the wrong reasons, he kept us alive. His version is that he had that vision all along. It’s gonna be this movie. He never had that vision. He never taught movies at all. He was a hardware guy. He would have, he would have sold us to anybody for 50 million bucks just by the way, he eventually put 50 million in, which is sort of half of his Apple fortune to keep us alive, but we were failing still. What saved us was Moore’s law came along, gave us that extra order of magnitude. Right on key right on cue. Disney knocks on our door and says let’s make that movie you guys always wanted to make. We’ll pay for it. Disney save Steve Jobs is saved him. And Steve, for his part, did a brilliant thing. I mean, he was a businessman. He realized that he could take Pixar public on just the promise Toy Story. Even though there’s no money in the bank at all. He could use his skills selling stories, which he’s really good at, to take Pixar public and he did that and became a billionaire overnight. So it looks like a really genius move. But it was sheer luck, frankly, that saved all along. That’s the true story of another. Another part of it that might surprise you is that I split out. Steven, I had a horrible time we didn’t like each other at all. And eventually, after I knew that Toy Story is going to happen, I got the hell out of there because I couldn’t stand having this guy in my life. And I started another company called Altimira Software. guess one of the investors was Steve Jobs. You know, he couldn’t stand each other. But he came through with the money twice for me. So.
Dr. Scot Gray 50:53
But he’s he knew that he would get his investment back and it was a good thing. So I don’t want to work with them. But a boy
Jeremy Weisz 51:03
Alvy I’m sorry, yes. You know, yes. with Steve Jobs in the whole story. I’ve heard you tell before what was so sacred about the whiteboard.
Alvy Ray Smith 51:14
It seemed like that was a turning point. That was the point when I realized I could I couldn’t be around this guy anymore. Yeah, I, I grew up in Southern Baptist, I told non believer now but I grew up Southern Baptist Church three times a week. And we’d have these evangelists come through once a year, they throw up a tent outside of town. And these evangelists would come in and they would preach and preach and preach in forelock. All 1000s of people in my hometown would be marching up to the front of the tent, to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. And I’m sitting there going, what’s going on? Somehow that guy has manipulated the brains of all these peoples, what it seemed like to me, so no worries, I grew up spotting these evangelists. I don’t care what they call them, so I could spot them a mile away. Steve Jobs was one of those guys. He could just start preaching and you get the sing song going for long, like my boys are all in love with him. And they would be marching to the front of the church to accept Him as their Lord and Savior. So he would so quickly, I figured out the way, you know, his techniques, one of them was he would hate to start a meeting, he would say something absolutely outrageous. And in that moment of your mouth hanging open, he’s grabbed the agenda. So we started advising everybody, whatever Steve says, first, just just ignore it. Absolutely. ignore it. He’s looking for, for a grab, don’t let him grab it. Stick your agenda. And I would often say, Steve, That’s not right. He was make some outrage. And I said, No, that’s not right. And I didn’t like the role. But he would, you know, he would accept it. So Well, what’s right, I give the true version or whatever was the overclaim until it got to the point where, whenever he would make a claim here with his eyes or to see how it’s been, I take it or not. That was our relationship. It wasn’t, wasn’t very fun. But at least I got to speak the truth. And until this one day, the famous whiteboard day. We were at a board meeting at next. And we had a couple of two or three vice presidents there because we’re getting larger by now. And same thing happened he came in, he says, Oh, I know what it was. He said. He started bussing me. And because we were late on one of our boards. And I said, but let’s see if you’re late on one of your boards. It’s like, how can you bust us for something you yourself can’t do? Right? Just this is not right. Whatever, whatever. I don’t want that there is was that he went nuts. He went crazy. He’s, by the way, he always positioned himself in front of the whiteboard with colored pants that he would leap up, illustrate on the whiteboard. Not everybody knew they weren’t allowed at the whiteboard. That was Steve’s an unwritten rule. And I’m a kind of guy that just can’t stand unwritten rules is what just a guy like me, what is this? You know, I’ll respect you for your genius and your business acumen, but not just because you’re you. So, he was standing at the whiteboard, and I was sitting down. When he he this time, he didn’t accept my version of things and he marched over he standing you know, above me and in my face. And he starts insulting my Texas accent. I mean, this is straight yard bully stuff. It has nothing to do with content of argument, right? It’s straight yard bully. You’re frightened little boy can’t talk straight, you know, that kind of stuff. And nobody ever talked to me that way before in my entire life. And I went crazy. And I leaped up, literally in his face. were screaming at each other full bull rage, that far apart. And in that moment, I knew exactly the right thing to do. I’ve physically brushed past him and wrote on the whiteboard. He says, You can’t do that. I said, What? Write on the whiteboard. He marched out. And from that moment, I know. So it took a while for all of this rhetoric because this is very emotional moment. Right. So I knew I started to register out, I’ll start the moment was when Bill Adams Rs, VP of sales from Texas, reached across the table and took my hand in a two handed handshake. He took my hand in both his hands. He had never done that before. And he said, Oh, my guy from Texas could have done that. I knew that wasn’t probably wasn’t a compliment. He’s probably say, you poor bugger. And then he did it again out in the parking lot. So somewhere in there went Geez, that that that was it. Now, he couldn’t fire me. So you couldn’t fire me Ed was the was the head of the company. And it wasn’t about to fire me. But it became clear to me that I had to get I had to get that guy completely out of my existence. He was poison. It just resigned then from there. No, no, I was there. I was there for another year, figuring out what to do. I didn’t want to leave until I knew that Toy Story is going to happen. That was our that was our vision. So I you know, we the there was a so so we you know, even though we got the offer to to make the movie from Disney, john Lasseter, didn’t want to work for that. They fired it. Right? Well, ah, here’s our big break. So, so Katzenberg called a meeting in Burbank just to address this problem. He knew what the problem was. He knew that Jon Lester thought he was a tyrant. Katzenberg was a tyrant. So he called a meeting in Burbank he invited so Ed and I went down. JOHN Lasseter, and Bill Reeves that are high power technical duo went down and artistic though, and, and it Steve Jobs went along to check out his fellow Tyron I think. And we’re sitting in the room and Katzenberg starts off by surprising us. He says, You know, I tried to hire john. Well, if you guys and he won’t leave, we didn’t know that, that he tried to steal john. So I’m willing to do a deal with Pixar just to get that John’s talent. So what we’re going to do here, john, I know you think I’m a tyrant, blah, blah, blah. But what we’re gonna do here is jobs and I are going to leave the room and you guys from Pixar can go hang out guys from Disney for hours, if you want to just ask anything you want, and find out what it’s really like to work here and with me. And see if you can’t change your mind.
Jeremy Weisz 58:46
So he must have been pretty confident then.
Alvy Ray Smith 58:49
Well, I I don’t know. I mean, it was one thing was for sure. He and Steve Jobs are two of the same kind of guy. It was kind of astonishing. They. So that’s what we did. We spent all day talking talking about the end of the day. JOHN Lasseter are walking out in front of the rest of the group. We’re walking together side by side, toward the rental car to take us to the Burbank airport and fly home. And I said, so what do you think? and john says, I can do it. And at that point, I knew it was you know, there still had to be negotiated and all that but I knew it was going to happen. And that’s when I felt free to leave. And I crafted. I spot out Altamira software from the side.
Jeremy Weisz 59:39
Alvy Ray Smith 59:41
Very proud of you know, very proud of Pixar regardless of the nastiness along the way.
Dr. Scot Gray 59:53
Yeah, you came out of it. Yeah. Although you went through to do that. And I mean, just amazing. Right. I still remember november of 95 going to see Toy Story that I mean, that was it was it was like it
Alvy Ray Smith 1:00:09
was a mind flavor. Was it?
Dr. Scot Gray 1:00:10
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I literally remember I remember going just amazing.
Alvy Ray Smith 1:00:16
So I went to the screening and jobs and I encountered each other at the screening. And he made some kind of, oh, when are you going to come back and join us? That is such a bogus he has no more what’s the around there? Total phoniness. So, you know, that’s what happened. That’s what it took to make it happen. I’m so pleased that the Pixar happened. I mean, we we didn’t know we were starting Pixar. Right? We were just keeping the team together to make the first movie. Well, we’ve made dozens of the first movies now so to speak. So I’ve got that story in the book. And I also have intertwined with the stories of DreamWorks and blue sky because we kind of all came alive at the same time, just different interrelate different interlacing of the same, same forces at work. And I try to give a lot, lots of players some visibility.
Jeremy Weisz 1:01:24
Now the question, though, so
Alvy Ray Smith 1:01:28
I don’t cover the whiteboard in my book. I thought Walter Isaacson covered it just fine in his Steve Jobs book. I’m not going to beat people up with that, again.
Jeremy Weisz 1:01:40
With Alltimira Software, what was your when you split it out? What was the vision at the time?
Alvy Ray Smith 1:01:46
Well, the evolution of it? Well, the alpha channel, one of the inventions that we made along the way was the alpha channel at NIH invented it at New York tech in the 70s, about 77 or so. The reason we could come up with a fourth channel was we had more memory than anybody in the world. And it was easy in that context and say, oh, let’s just add a fourth channel. No, everybody else was just didn’t even have RGB yet, right? They didn’t have 24 bits yet. Well, we had rd. And we had By that time, we had 18 frame buffers, and we could cobble them together, we just have to solve that problem. Let’s just throw a fourth channel at it. Though we solved the problem. It turned out to be pretty trivial. And we didn’t tell you truth. It didn’t dawn on me for decades how profound alpha was, especially when you tied into an algebra and algebra into it. Invented by our colleagues, Tom Porter and Tom Duff, the four of us got an Academy Award for all that technical Academy where cytec board and I still wasn’t, it finally dawned on me that what the alpha channel had really done was overthrown the tyranny of the rectangle and pictures. You can now have pixel pictures that weren’t rectangular. And from that flowed the idea for this company Alta Mira software. And as soon as I got it in the marketplace, Microsoft snapped it up. How’s that working with? With Microsoft? As soon as they asked you again. How’s that working with Microsoft? Oh, I I was as well. That’s not much. To my surprise. I love being at Microsoft after hearing how awful it was from Steve Jobs. You know, I heard everything I heard about Microsoft turned out not to be true. That’s a warner. It’s original. They never tested anything. They had lousy programmers. Oh, bogus. I’ve met some of the best programmers in my life there. Whenever they built a product on top of what I brought them they tested from the very getgo they, you know, I did not I would not want to compete against their software team. Man. They are sharp. So yeah, I didn’t get I didn’t get to do what I thought I had. They bought my company. I thought they wanted me to build a Photoshop theater, which I could have done. But the last thing Microsoft wanted was to be seen as yet again, the big ogre, who’s trying to out compete, in this case, Adobe. So they turned my products capabilities way down. too far down, in my opinion.
Dr. Scot Gray 1:04:46
Well, I’m gonna I’m gonna go way back right now because I feel like I’ve studied Pixar and Disney and all this and I’ve learned some pretty interesting business lessons, you know, in studying what you guys did, and one of the most interesting things I But I found was, um, I read that Ed, when he first met you. He didn’t want to hire you. Because he really thought that you would basically take him over, you’d be able to take his job because he just saw something in you. But he decided that he said, No, I need people better than me. So he decided to hire you. And you keep talking about talent, keeping that team. And I feel like you guys just were so good. I mean, when Fred to take that risk, right to hire a guy better than him, so to speak. And you may not see it that way. But I
Alvy Ray Smith 1:05:39
don’t see it. I don’t see it that way. And I have seen interviews where he said that. And it’s true that and I always made a point of hiring smarter than ourselves. It’s easy to say that, by the way, it’s a lot easier to say, than to do it. Because for if you have a place that’s got heavy politics, then people will play politics against you. We never had that we had a wonderful collegial group of people forever. We just didn’t think that way about who’s gonna take something away from and in the early days, that was his really Alex sure that Harvey as I recall it. I remember showing up there at New York tech and showing Alec sure what I had done at Xerox PARC, he got all excited. And I said, Well, you know, I’m here so I can get access to the frame buffer. And then I said, then I got to talk to Ed. I said, Yeah, don’t. It’s told me what he was doing. I said, Don’t you need help? He says, you can just see the relief. This Yeah, do I really need help? I said, Well, you know, I’m, I’m here as artists, but I also have a PhD in computer science from Stanford I can program and it looks like he needs some help, but he’s, so he hauled me over to Alex sheers office, and I got hired, I don’t, I guess he construes that as he hired me, but whatever. Okay, so I became part of the group, there wasn’t a boss, there was four of us at her room. And I remember one day, somebody showed up the door and said, Who’s in charge here. And we all looked at each other. And then we looked at it, because as far as we’re concerned, it was the only one who wanted to be in charge, the rest of us didn’t want to be, it was like a University Department or not whether you know, academia, but nobody wants to be chairman of the department. Somebody has to do it, but nobody wants to do it. It was it was like that. Did you do it? And I remember him, looking at me, as if I was going to make the move to be that leader, maybe that’s what he’s referring to. Okay, if I if I’d had that me, I guess I could have chosen that moment to grab it. But I just that’s not the way I work nor the way the group worked.
Dr. Scot Gray 1:08:09
So speaking of how the group work, like I won, maybe last question I can throw in here is, you know, I think, you know, Pixar was so famous for the culture, right? And, obviously, it sounds like, the culture. And the next, the board meetings was a little different than how you guys work together. Right? But who, who instilled that, who came up with that? You know, really no hierarchy? everyone’s working together. How did you guys develop
Alvy Ray Smith 1:08:40
that? Well, I think it’s because we were really academics. And I mean, by we, I mean, me. To me, that’s our proudest achievement. what you just described is that we, we kept a collegiate. Yeah, somebody has to, you have to have a manager, you just have to, but no, super glory goes with that. He just, it’s just, it’s just structure. You get glory for what you do. And by the way, one of the things we did not that I’m really proud of is we did not let this technoid creatives distinction ever arise. I’ve been places where the creatives look down their noses at the tech noise. I’ve been to places where it’s just the opposite. No, no, no, no, no. The way Pixar worked is we had artistically creative people just as noble in their creativity as the the creative people. Equal dignity, equal everything. There’s none of this looking down your nose at the other time, just because they’re different. We did not allow it. So you know, Microsoft failed that Friday. They were very much if you’re smart you program otherwise you do this easy. stuff, marketing and art and so forth. No, no, no, no, no, he did not let that kind of thing happen. And yeah,
Dr. Scot Gray 1:10:07
I think, you know, that was one of the big things. If you read Bob Iger book when he talked about buying Pixar, one of the things that he did you know, he was an ABC when Disney bought them. And he talks about the difference when a company comes in and changes culture and changes things. One of his one rules is like, we’re not touching their culture, we’re not touching anything like they have the best system, they put out, hit after hit, we’re not going to mess up. And I thought that was obviously a super smart move on his part. And
Alvy Ray Smith 1:10:36
that was, I mean, this is the part I worry about the most as we as the old timer, you know, there’s only one or two of us left at that Pixar. Now, Bill Reeves is still there, and probably one or two others of the originals. But you know, basically, we’ve retired out the old culture keepers are, are gone or soon will be gone. I worry about what happens then, you know, but so far Pixar has held on to its its unique culture. I think. They’re right down the road from me here, by the way. That’s cool.
Jeremy Weisz 1:11:18
All of you have a question about, you know, in the biography of pixel is obviously a long journey of the pixel which even predates you. And I know, I’ve watched one of your other talks, and you talk about how they’re Schindler. How should I saw that corporated into this whole story? Can you talk about that for a second?
Alvy Ray Smith 1:11:39
Sure. There were surprised you know, I worked on this book for 10 years, and there were surprise after surprise. To me, here I am thinking I was born. before computers. I’ve watched the entire Moore’s Law thing happen. I should know this history inside now. I didn’t. So part of the book is to tell the story. Like it really was not the other received stories, which are often flood. So one of the things I detected early on was there was this group of early contributors to computer graphics. who were here, part of the story courtesy of the Nazis. My, the guy who started my first job out of Stanford, was working for a fella named herb Freeman. at New York University NYU. Herb was one of the original computer graphics guys, he had been saved from the Nazis as a child by Albert Einstein. Oh, oh, Albert Einstein. Whoa. Albert Einstein wrote three letters to save this kid from unjustly being accused of having TB and got him out in 38. Justin time. Wow, he was one of the first guys in computer graphics. He hired me knowing I was an artist, thinking I’m pretty sure he thought that he’s still alive, by the way. So thinking that because of my artistic interest, I would probably be a good candidate for computer graphics research. And he kept trying to get me to join a computer. I said her. If you ever get color, I’m there. Because it was still all black and white line drawing stuff in those days. And sure enough, it was just a few years later when I saw the color pixels at Xerox that I made the leap. Alright, the second one was, well, the one let me address the person you’re thinking about the the first inbetweening program. Computer inbetweening program. It was used for hunger FM. The first computer animation to be nominated for Academy Award by Marcel Lee wine and, and Lester Burton Nick. I
Jeremy Weisz 1:13:56
think his name’s Burton markable. Memory I can’t remember what I had for breakfast, you remember? He’s No
Alvy Ray Smith 1:14:01
you’re not. You’re no no, you got that completely wrong. Terrible memory. But marsali wine so marsali wine, turns out lives near my in laws in Ontario. So Canada, so I call him out. He and his wife came and fetch me took me out to their island in the 1000 islands in the St. Lawrence. And we spent a wonderful day together. Gentle this gentle man. He tells me a story. It was a mind blower his father. First of all what he and his father were in the Warsaw ghetto. The Nazis came to haul him off to Auschwitz. And his father throws the kid aside into the crowd to see I don’t know how I set it up. But there was a woman in the who received the child Marcel and raised him as a Catholic and later he He was reunited with his father, who had been saved from Auschwitz by being a master tailor on Schindler’s List. Wow, great story. Amazing. Amazing. Salvy
Jeremy Weisz 1:15:18
wonderful stories in the book. Amazing. I’m just I want to thank you. It’s an absolute honor and a pleasure to be with you here. And I want to encourage everyone to check out a biography of the pixel and there’s so much so many good stories and it starts way back even before you started, which is, you know, you just kind of map the whole thing out and
Alvy Ray Smith 1:15:44
starts with it starts with the French Revolution, actually.
Jeremy Weisz 1:15:50
So thank you for everything you do. I want to find out how we get our herb Freeman on the podcast to talk about that story. And but just thank you so much and appreciate your time and we’ll link this up in the in the notes so everyone can get it. And thanks Dr. Scott, for being my co host.
Dr. Scot Gray 1:16:14
Hey, thanks for having me on. Thank you Alvy
Alvy Ray Smith 1:16:15
By you guys is a lot of fun.