Danielle Newnham Podcast

Alvy Ray Smith on Pixar, Pixel and Steve Jobs

Episode Summary

Pixar co-founder Alvy Ray Smith talks me through the relatively unknown history of computer graphics and the pixel, the accident which changed his life, his career journey leading to Pixar, and the pivotal part Steve Jobs played in the Pixar journey.

Episode Notes

I am over the moon to kick off Series 3 with the incredible Alvy Ray Smith – co-founder of Pixar. 

Dr Alvy Ray Smith is a computer scientist and pioneer in the field of computer graphics. After starting his career in academia, Alvy had an epiphany following a serious skiing accident. He decided to move to California to combine his two passions - art and computers - in a place where he felt something good was about to happen. 

Alvy was always a pioneer. From creating his first computer graphic in 1965, Alvy became an original member of the Computer Graphics Lab at the New York Institute of Technology, he witnessed the birth of the personal computer at Xerox PARC, and he was the first director of computer graphics at George Lucas’s Lucasfilm. It was there that Alvy gathered some of the smartest people he knew to develop computer graphics software, including early renderer technology. He and colleague Ed Catmull then spun out to co-found the famous Pixar, soon followed by the hiring of Lucasfilm colleague John Lasseter, and Steve Jobs as an investor. It was at Pixar that Toy Story would be made - the very first, entirely computer-animated, feature film. In 2006, Pixar was sold to Disney for $7.4 billion.

Alvy also co-founded Altamira Software and has created a number of computer art pieces including the famous Sunstone with Ed Emshwiller which featured in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Alvy was also the first Graphics Fellow at Microsoft.

In this interview, Alvy recounts his career from the early days at Xerox PARC to how Pixar got started. We discuss the Pixar journey in detail, as well as his new book – A Biography of the Pixel including how innovation is born from three strands:

An idea, chaos and a tyrant. And how Steve jobs was both the saviour and the tyrant in the incredible Pixar story.

Alvy has combined his two passions – art and computer science – to spend his career showing the world what computers and moreover, what computer graphics can do. 

 A true pioneer, this is one of my favourite conversations.

I hope you enjoy it too.


Let us know what you think of this episode and please rate, review and share - it means the world to me and helps others to find it too.

Danielle on Twitter @daniellenewnham and  Instagram @daniellenewnham

Alvy Ray Smith on Twitter @alvyray / website 

Buy Alvy Ray Smith's book A Biography of the Pixel here. 


This episode was hosted by me - Danielle Newnham, a recovering founder, author and writer who has been interviewing tech founders and innovators for ten years - and produced by Jolin Cheng.