Why Steve Jobs Hired Me at Pixar
In 1999, director Brad Bird’s film “The Iron Giant” was released in theaters.
It was a commercial failure, costing around $70 million to make and only grossing $23 million at the worldwide box office. The experience would have left Bird wondering if he was cut out to succeed in the film industry. He had no idea anyone else had seen the film and thought it held enough creative promise to rock an entire top animation studio.
That person: Steve Jobs, who at the time was CEO of Pixar Animation Studios.
Fresh off the career-threatening flop, Bird was hired by Jobs and Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull to write and direct a movie called “The Incredibles.” The film won multiple Oscars, but at the time, nothing seemed like a guarantee.
“They were actively picking a guy to ride who had just had a big flop,” Bird said on the “WorkLife with Adam Grant” podcast in 2019. “They felt like, ‘We might fall into some habits because we have the same band doing things… but we want to shake things up.'”
It was all the more unusual since Pixar was already successful. In 1999, the studio had already released “Toy Story” and “A Bug’s Life”, and “Toy Story 2” was released towards the end of that year.
Jobs and Catmull told Bird they hired him because “The Iron Giant” showed a determination to find new ways to tell stories, Bird recalled. And adding a new voice to the room could help prevent the rest of the team from falling back on their laurels.
Bird’s promise to make a better movie with half the time and money than other animated films didn’t hurt either, he noted.
The problem: Once Bird was hired, the studio said its expectations for “The Incredibles” were indeed unrealistic. He was told the film would take nearly a decade and $500 million to produce, he and producer John Walker said on the podcast.
So Bird began to seek out Pixar’s “black sheep” – staffers whose risky ideas had been overlooked in the past. “I want people upset because they have a better way of doing things and they’re having a hard time finding an avenue,” Bird said.
Then he united them against a common enemy: the status quo. “Nobody thinks we can pull it off,” Bird told the team.
Some experts call this method of motivation the “outsider effect”.
In 2017, researchers at Coastal Carolina University found that beginners or neglected people often have an advantage: despite their lack of resources and control, they have a “strong motivation to acquire something, as opposed to keep something”. .
Instead of viewing their disadvantages “as a hindrance, attempts by outsiders to increase this control may have positive effects on creativity” and problem solving, the study notes.
In Pixar’s case, Bird’s team sidestepped the issues of needing to hire advanced animators or invest in expensive new technology by creating their own advanced computer-generated animation.
“The Incredibles” ended up costing $92 million to make. It grossed over $631 billion at the worldwide box office after its release in 2004. Bird went on to create more films with Pixar, including another Oscar-winning film, “Ratatouille.”
Having an underdog mindset is beneficial, Bird said — and a good motivator.
“It’s hard to do a really good job. If you do it well, you’re kind of an underdog,” Bird said. “You should aim for something that is out of reach.”
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