Meet the Unknown Genius Who Helped Make Pixar Possible


Those few feet on the whiteboard were taken by Smith to the point of not being able to go back. No one wrote on Steve Jobs ’sacred whiteboard. As Smith took the marker and scratched it – he no longer remembered what he had written – he made Steve -icide. “I want to get out of there,” he said. “I don’t want the human poison in my life anymore.”

Smith spent the next year leaving his office. He knew that personal computer users could benefit from his advancement in graphics, so he began writing an app known for what he called “floating image,” which allows users to fast moving objects. “You can’t believe what you see,” said Eric Lyons, an Autodesk executive who saw an early demo. “It wasn’t something Photoshop could do at the time.”

Meanwhile, there is good news from Disney. At a Disney animation czar meeting, they collaborated with Jeffrey Katzenberg, Jobs, Smith, Catmull, and Lasseter. Toy Story got a tentative green light. Once Smith was sure the Movie would be made, he left Pixar. (Years later, Lasseter resigned from the company following allegations of sexual harassment.)

Like a computer-graphic designer Moses, Smith helped deliver Pixar to be seen in the promised land. But he never put it on. In the movie – from Life of a Bug on Ratatouille on loose-the studio that pushes the boundaries of technology and art, fulfilling the vision Smith nurtured while with a full-body cast, on acid trips, in Long Island mansions, and behind Lucasfilm lots. His former colleagues at Pixar are united in recognizing his contributions. But after he left, Smith’s name was removed from the website, a departure that he thought was a betrayal. Catmull said he does not see the websites as historical documents.

Smith did not escape clean. With Lyons and a third cofounder, he started a company that sold his new image editing software. They called the company Altamira, after nearly 20,000 years of cave paintings in Spain. But there is an obstacle. “It’s not in Alvy’s letter to write that she can bring her code” – the code was written while she was still an employee at Pixar, according to Catmull. Jobs demanded that Altamira pay him a hefty royalty for every copy sold, fearing potential investors. After lengthy negotiations, Jobs signed in exchange for an equity stake in Smith’s company.

One day Smith was at home with his wife and two sons when he felt “a severe scream of pain” in his chest. A colony of bacteria invaded one of his lungs, forming the equivalent skin that should be skin. A month later, aboard the ferry in Vancouver, he felt the pain again. The same thing happened to his second lung. To date, it is only about a third of normal lung capacity. “I asked, why did I get it?” as he said. “My answer, extreme stress.” Catmull agrees:

The missing moon proved to be a turning point in the beginning. At the time, Photoshop was launching a form of competition called “layer.” Altamira’s sales are small, and the company needs a different life line. Smith was introduced to Nathan Myhrvold, who heads Microsoft Research. “I just want marketing help from Microsoft,” Smith said. Myhrvold, however, bought the company, even if he wanted Smith more than his product. Smith spent four years there and retired in 1999. “I decided they really didn’t care about my ideas,” he said.

Smith’s next step confused his friends: He became a pedigree. He began the method of exploring his heritage, and in 2010 was elected a member of the American Society of Genealogists. The award is limited to only 50 living people, and it requires a supermajority vote.



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