Ed Catmull explores the secret of Pixar’s success in Creativity, Inc. (Random House) with a managerial insight that’s applicable to everyone. Reminiscent of John Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success,” the Yoda of Pixar has presided over the industry’s animation leader with a winning philosophy that delicately balances individual talent and chemistry with team leadership and a dynamic vision.
Early on, Catmull was dedicated to nurturing and preserving Pixar’s creative culture, and he imparts his wisdom in this must-read book with the help of journalist Amy Wallace. It wasn’t enough to embrace the two guiding principles, “Story Is King” or “Trust the Process” (which turned out to be a flawed concept). No, while great storytelling and bravura animation have certainly led to an unprecedented string of 14 well-crafted hits, the true meaning of Pixar’s success has been its ethos that people are more important than ideas. And managing the people at Pixar and Disney has been quite a journey for Catmull, who’s managed to tap into left and right brain capability as well as anyone in the industry.
Indeed, you can trace a through line from Toy Story through Monsters University as a result of this people first/technology serving storytelling philosophy. From the top down, Steve Jobs enabled the sandbox of creativity, John Lasseter has led the troops with passion and clarity, Andrew Stanton has provided “deep insight into story structure,” Pete Docter has offered “a knack for capturing emotion on screen, Joe Ranft introduced “a warm and twisted sense of humor,” and Brad Bird appeared as a rebel with a cause.
And yet Pixar has endured its share of ups and downs, with Stanton suggesting that the clearest path to success is confronting failure as early and as quickly as possible. The first hurdle, of course, occurred during the infamous “Black Friday” when Toy Story was shut down. Jeffrey Katzenberg suggested an edgier Woody and Pixar made the mistake of obliging and made him mean-spirited and unlikable. Lasseter and company didn’t trust their instincts but went back to the drawing board to make the movie they wanted, with more innocence, charm, and wit. It was a valuable lesson that launched an identity.
But in assessing the methodology, Catmull discovered that there was a disconnect between the creative and production departments, with the latter made to feel inferior. If Pixar was to flourish, the artists and technical people had to be equals. The second great lesson in failure occurred when Toy Story 2 had to be completely overhauled. While Disney was satisfied with mediocrity for a sequel, Pixar was not. They started all over in search of an emotional arc. This soul searching led to the institutionalization of the vaunted Braintrust, “which emerged organically during the making of Toy Story.” Woody was confronted with a real dilemma: eternal life as a collectible toy or finite existence among loved ones?
Speaking of the Braintrust, Catmull enlightens us with an anecdote about Docter’s upcoming Inside Out (June 19, 2015), arguably Pixar’s most ambitious film, which takes us inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl, Riley, whose emotions are anthropomorphized and compete for dominance.
“Candor is the key to collaborating effectively. It is our primary delivery system for straight talk. The Braintrust meets every few months or so to assess each movie we’re making. Its premise is simple: Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid. The Braintrust is not foolproof, but when we get it right, the results are phenomenal.”
During the meeting Docter described the rules of the movie — how memories function as a maze of chutes. Stanton emphasized the theme of growing up and the inevitability of change; and Bird added that the “conundrum is how to become mature and become reliable while at the same time preserving your childlike wonder.”
But how do you deal with complacency or the fear of failure? That’s been the biggest conundrum at Pixar, particularly since the Disney merger and the need to feed the beast intensified. Having to make three movies every two years with tighter schedules and the same resources was tough enough Plus there was the added resentment of having Catmull and Lasseter splitting duties, and the difficulty of nurturing a new generation of people under more pressure than their predecessors. Something had to give, especially after a string of directors had to be replaced on Brave, Monsters University, and The Good Dinosaur.
Thus, management came up with “Notes Day,” a collective meeting of the minds in which the rank and file came up with suggestions for improving the creative culture. And what came out of that fruitful exchange has repaired and reinvigorated Pixar, taking it full circle back to its most important principal: people matter more than ideas. “Things change, constantly, as they should. And with change comes the need for adaptation, for fresh thinking, and, sometimes, for a total reboot — of your project, your department, your division, or your company as a whole.” Even Lasseter was confronted with the strain of running two animation studios and has made vital adjustments at Pixar.
At the same time, however, Catmull and Lasseter have repaired the dysfunctional Disney after being lost in the wilderness, instituting the Story Trust and encouraging a new level of trust, enthusiasm, and creativity. Hand-drawn features might be on the back burner until a director comes up with a great story, but the Disney legacy thrives at the new studio, infused with new ideas and the best that technology has to offer, culminating with the Oscar-winning juggernaut, Frozen. The most important lesson that Catmull learned about Disney was to keep its culture separate from Pixar’s, avoiding a sibling rivalry that might destroy both studios.
Catmull ends with a touching tribute to Jobs, who changed Pixar as much as Pixar changed him. He found an equilibrium between logic and emotion and became a much more gentle and empathetic leader, enriching everyone around him, including Catmull.