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Pixar's Ed Catmull sounds off on animating creativity

Published April 8, 2014 3:58 pm

Pixar's Ed Catmull sounds off on how companies can foster the kind of culture that leads to original work.
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Zero mistakes. That's the worst possible goal for a creative project.

It might be a worthy goal for manufacturing aircraft, perhaps, but it doesn't work in getting an education or writing a book or making animated movies, says Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar and Disney animation companies. "As a company, it's our job to tell new stories that aren't obvious at all."

Fear of failure leads to risk avoidance, which doesn't generate originality, says Catmull in his new book, "Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration."

The book is aimed at dual audiences, both managers and creative types, while offering a rare inside view of the creative culture of Pixar.

Catmull says his theories draw upon basic principles he learned while studying physics and then computer science at the University of Utah in the late 1960s and early '70s. (The title of his 1974 dissertation: "A subdivision algorithm for computer display of curved surfaces.") He serves on the school's national engineering advisory council and gave the commencement address in 2012.

At the U., he worked with other students to build rudimentary animation software. In 1972, he and a colleague, Fred Parke, created a one-minute digital animation of Catmull moving his left hand. In 2011, that film with its very basic title — "A Computer Animated Hand" — was included in the National Film Registry housed at the Library of Congress.

That experiment launched Catmull's career in computer graphics, with stops at the New York Institute of Technology and Lucasfilm. In 1986, the company's digital division, under Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith, was spun off into its own company, Pixar, funded by Steve Jobs. In 1995, the company launched "Toy Story," the world's first digitally animated feature, and the first of the company's string of 14 consecutive No. 1 hits. That list includes "Finding Nemo, "The Incredibles," "Ratatouille," "Up" and "Brave."

Catmull believes creating original work requires developing comfort with the unknown. "To me, to be creative is to stand at the threshold into what you don't even know you don't know," he says. "A lot of people find it too scary. So how do you make it safe?"

He argues that a company has to value the work of creativity and learn how to negotiate the failures that will happen along the way. Those trying to create original work can lose their way when they misperceive the results of their successes and failures, Catmull said in a phone interview. "Institutions put up blocks and barriers to creativity, and they don't know they're doing it," he says.

Catmull asserts there are ways to help people ask the right questions. In the book, he details how Pixar developed an authorityless, benevolent "Braintrust" to honestly critique projects in the middle stages — because all ambitious projects will lose their way.

One of the revelations of the book is how important the idea of a braintrust has become to Pixar's success. Protecting the way the group functioned meant that Jobs wasn't invited into the room. "Steve had such great personal presence and great personal intelligence that his words couldn't help but carry a great deal of weight," Catmull said.

Other lessons Catmull suggests in the book include the importance of hiring the right team (more important even than the right idea), creating open communication structures (which shouldn't mirror any hierarchical organizational structure) and valuing the fragility of originality (early mockups of Pixar's films are called "ugly babies").

These early drafts "are not beautiful, miniature versions of the adults they will grow up to be," he states in the book, which was co-written with journalist Amy Wallace. "They are truly ugly: awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete. They need nurturing — in the form of time and patience — in order to grow."

Many of the film company's most important creative lessons grew out of the near-failure of "Toy Story 2," which Disney originally requested be released as a moneymaking direct-to-video project. But Pixar decided instead to be true to the company's ambition and released a high-quality sequel in theaters.

After firing the original directors and retooling the story internally, the company pushed its employees to the breaking point to hit the film's release date. One artist was so overworked he forgot to drop his infant off at daycare, leaving the child in his parked car for several hours.

"There were so many lessons that came out of the film," Catmull says now. "That's why I view it as the defining moment for the film. We had to think: How much is too much? How much is too hard? But also: What are our values?"

" 'Toy Story 2' was a case study in how something that is usually considered a plus — a motivated, workaholic workforce pulling together to make a deadline — could destroy itself if left unchecked," Catmull writes, describing the kind of value-aimed turning point that underscores his message to corporate America.


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Creativity, Inc.

Ed Catmull

Random House

Pages • 368

Price • $28