Meet the little-known genius who helped make Pixar possible


Those few yards to the whiteboard allowed Smith to pass the point of no return. No one has written on Steve Jobs’ sacred whiteboard. As Smith took the marker and scribbled – he didn’t even remember what he had written – he was committing a Steve-icide. “I wanted to get out of there,” he says. “I didn’t want this guy’s poison in my life anymore.”

Smith spent the following year locked in his office. He realized that personal computer users could benefit from his advanced graphics. So he started writing an application that stood out for what he called “floating imagery,” which allowed users to easily move objects. “You couldn’t believe what you were seeing,” says Eric Lyons, an Autodesk executive who saw a first demo. “It wasn’t something Photoshop could do back then.”

Meanwhile, there was good news from Disney. In a meeting with the Disney Animation Tsar, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Jobs, Smith, Catmull and Lasseter collaborated. Toy story got a provisional green light. Once Smith made sure the movie was made, he left Pixar. (Years later, Lasseter resigned from the company after accusations of sexual harassment.)

Like a computer graphics Moses, Smith helped deliver Pixar to the Promised Land. But he never entered it himself. Film after film, The life of an insect To Ratatouille To Soul– the studio has pushed the boundaries of technology and art, realizing the vision Smith nurtured in a full cast, on Acid trips, in Long Island mansions and on Lucasfilm’s after-spells . His former Pixar colleagues are unanimous in recognizing his contributions. But after he left, Smith’s name was taken off the website, an excision he said was somewhat of a betrayal. Catmull says he doesn’t view the websites as historical documents.

Smith did not escape cleanly. With Lyons and a third co-founder, he creates a company to sell his new image editing software. They named the company Altamira, after cave paintings from around 20,000 years ago in Spain. But there was a catch. “Alvy didn’t write that he could take his code with him,” code written while an employee of Pixar, Catmull said. Jobs demanded that Altamira pay him a huge royalty for every copy sold, scaring away potential investors. After lengthy negotiations, Jobs signed in exchange for a stake in Smith’s company.

One day, Smith was at home with his wife and two sons when he felt “an intense screaming pain” in his chest. A colony of bacteria had invaded one of his lungs, forming the equivalent of a bark that had to be removed surgically. A month later, on a ferry ride to Vancouver, he again felt pain. The same had happened to his second lung. To date, he has only a third of his normal lung capacity. “I asked, why did I get it? ” he says. “My answer is, absolute stress.” Catmull agrees: “Basically it was a life-threatening experience, which arose out of the pressure of Steve being late. “

The wasted months proved to be crippling for the start-up. Around this time, Photoshop released a competing feature called “layers”. Altamira’s sales were weak and the company needed a lifeline. Smith was introduced to Nathan Myhrvold, who ran Microsoft Research. “I just wanted the marketing help from Microsoft,” Smith says. Instead, Myhrvold bought the business, even though he wanted Smith more than his product. Smith spent four years there and retired in 1999. “I had decided along the way that they didn’t really care about my ideas,” he says.

Smith’s next move baffled his friends: he became a genealogist. He began to methodically explore his heritage and, in 2010, was elected a fellow of the American Society of Genealogists. Honor is limited to only 50 people alive and requires a qualified majority vote.



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