VIDEO: Oren Jacob, entrepreneur and former Pixar CTO, talks about scaling Pixar, the crisis around Toy Story 2 and his first-hand encounters with Steve Jobs

Oren Jacob

(VIDEO INTERVIEW AT BOTTOM OF POST)

For those that aren’t familiar with the history, Pixar – the world-famous animation studio we all know and love – came close to total implosion because of Toy Story 2. After more than two years of production and slightly less than a year before the film was due for launch, the then-small team of animators, artists and developers decided the movie they were working on was crap.

At that point in its life, Pixar had produced only one major hit; a single big-budget failure would destroy them. The team now had a choice: torpedo the whole company’s hopes and dreams with a movie they knew would bomb or scrap the whole thing and start from scratch. The problem? It normally takes multiple years to produce a Pixar film. They had less than 12 months.

Oren Jacob, then an Associate Technical Director at Pixar, knew what he had to do. With the support of his team, he marched into Steve Jobs’ office and tentatively resigned, effective one week from that day. He told Jobs and Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter that if they took a close look at the existing Toy Story 2 project and decided it was truly great, he’d get back in the saddle. If they decided instead that it was terrible and wanted to do something about it, he’d come back for that, too.
According to Jacob, who spoke about his Pixar experience with Twilio’s Tim Milliron (Jacob’s former Pixar colleague of 10 years), threatening to resign was the most effective way to get Steve Jobs’ attention. Jobs watched Toy Story 2′s original rough cut and agreed with Jacob’s harsh assessment: releasing the film as it stood would nuke Pixar into oblivion.

But the film was due in a matter of months. Starting over was an utterly impossible task.

Jobs didn’t care. According to Jacob, who went on to become Pixar’s CTO, Jobs gathered the entire Pixar team and laid it all out:

  • Toy Story 2’s failure would mean game-over.
  • Disney wasn’t interested in sinking more money into the struggling production and had no faith the small studio would turn things around.
  • Turning things around was probably impossible, but Jobs believed they could do it anyway.

Jacob, who says that “ that Jobs conveyed everything in just three sentences: “Jobs,” Jacob says, “could speak the truth in an unbelievably concise way.”

The looming threat of disaster – combined with Jobs’ words and the faith in Pixar they represented – was all the team needed to get through the marathon slog of the next 10 months. This insane slog took a failing project and turned it into the massive success Toy Story 2 became. Thanks in part to Jobs’ faith that he and his people could surmount the impossible, Pixar produced an amazing film and cemented Pixar’s place as the premiere animation studio in the world.

In the video above, Oren Jacob and Tim discuss this story, Jacob’s career trajectory from Pixar intern to Pixar CTO and the challenges of scaling an organization that consistently ships products the market loves.

Watch below for more.