When the Soviets launched the world’s first satellite – Sputnik 1 – into earth’s orbit in 1957 its implications would be far reaching.
America’s response – to create the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to support scientific researchers in universities to prevent further ‘technological surprise’ – was based on the belief that America would just need to get smarter. This belief, and Walt Disney’s personal introductions to his cartoons and technical innovations on a weekly TV programme, have deeply inspired Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar Animation, all his life.
The ARPA funding, and the great minds it attracted, inspired Catmull to study computer graphics, a discipline still in its infancy in 1969. With his professors and his peers, such as Jim Clark, who would go on to found Netscape, and John Warnock, who went on to co-found Adobe, they created an incredibly collaborative, supportive community, with ideas freely shared and one idea building on another. It was ARPA’s belief that collaboration could lead to excellence, smart people will do the right thing, and over-managing was counterproductive. ARPA were not hovering over people’s shoulders, but trusting the researchers to innovate, all at a time when universities were being linked together through ARPANET, which would eventually evolve into the internet. The environment was so exciting and inspiring that Catmull would try to replicate it later, while trying to fulfil his dream of making the first computer-animated movie.
“What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; we work hard to uncover those problems…and then marshal all our energies to solve it.”
When Catmull moved on to work for the New York Institute of Technology he gained further insights into the keys to success. Firstly, he ignored his fears about hiring people who were smarter and better qualified than him so that together the team excelled. And secondly, by going against the prevailing idea that commercial confidentiality should be strictly enforced, he deliberately shared their progress with others in the same field through publications and academic conferences to make faster progress. Catmull says that although the benefits weren’t immediately felt, the relationships and connections they formed over time proved far more valuable than they could have imagined.
When Catmull was approached by George Lucas – creator of Star Wars – to join Lucasfilms to help advance the company’s visual effects and sound design he realised his approach to team management needed to change. To allow a clearer focus on the goal, instead of a flat structure, he hired managers and established a team hierarchy to help overcome the issues that a lot of independent thinkers with individual projects – and no common goal – can encounter.
While with Lucas, he hired a young Disney animator, John Lasseter, who would be able to give his computer animation some vital story telling emotion. When Lucas needed to streamline his business and sell off Catmull’s division following a hefty divorce settlement it was the brilliant but intense Steve Jobs, who had just been forced out of Apple, who eventually agreed to fund and co-found Pixar with Catmull and Lasseter.
Nine years after Pixar was founded, following years of loss, Toy Story was released, changing animation forever and becoming an overnight success. It was as this point, as work began on Bug’s Life, that Catmull realised that now his dream was achieved he felt a troubling lack of purpose – a sense of ‘Now what?’. It was a serious and unexpected problem that gave him his new direction.
If this book was just a biography of Catmull’s experience working with some of the world’s most influential people and the fascinating story of Pixar’s struggles and eventual rise to the top, it would be captivating enough. But, along with an afterword in praise of Steve Jobs who he worked with for 25 years, he has also thoroughly analysed his experiences and offers many clear thoughts on managing a creative culture both at Pixar and Disney animation:
- Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. But give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better. It is how the team work together that is more important than the brilliance of the individuals
- If you don’t strive to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead
- It’s not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It’s the manager’s job to make it safe for others to take them
- The cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them
- A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organizational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody
- Do not assume that general agreement will lead to change—it takes substantial energy to move a group, even when all are on board
- Trust doesn’t mean that you trust someone won’t screw up – it means you trust them even when they do screw up
The honesty about the issues and the creative approaches to problem solving at Pixar– from Braintrusts, to Notes Days – make Creativity, Inc a must read. And the bonus is that Catmull knows a thing a two about how to tell a good story.
About the authors
Ed Catmull is co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, and president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation. He has five Academy Awards, including the Gordon E. Sawyer Award for lifetime achievement in the field of computer graphics. He gained his Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Utah.
Amy Wallace is a journalist whose work has appeared in GQ, The New Yorker, Wired, and The New York Times Magazine. She is currently editor-at-large at Los Angeles Times magazine.
“It’s one thing to be creative; it’s entirely another—and much more rare—to build a great and creative culture. Over more than thirty years, Ed Catmull has developed methods to root out and destroy the barriers to creativity, to marry creativity to the pursuit of excellence, and, most impressive, to sustain a culture of disciplined creativity during setbacks and success. Pixar’s unrivalled record, and the joy its films have added to our lives, gives his method the most important validation: It works.” Jim Collins, co-author of Built to Last and author of Good to Great
“Business gurus love to tell stories about Pixar, but this is our first chance to hear the real story from someone who lived it and led it. Everyone interested in managing innovation—or just good managing—needs to read this book.” Chip Heath, co-author of Switch and Decisive
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Author: Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace