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The Source of Pixar's Magic? Straight Talk

Pixar's co-founder Ed Catmull explains how to foster an innovative and creative culture.
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Since Woody and Buzz first burst from the toy box in 1995, Pixar's 14 films have managed the hat trick of being at once technically inventive, emotionally resonant, and commercially gratifying. Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation Studios (and of Walt Disney Animation Studios, since the 2006 merger), built the studio with--among others--Steve Jobs and storytelling maestro John Lasseter. In his new book, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, Catmull explains how they created a culture in which no one is without a voice and new ideas are protected. Catmull recently spoke with Inc. editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan.

To Infinity and Beyond: Under Ed Catmull's watch, Pixar's films have earned 30 Academy Awards and grossed more than $8.3 billion worldwide.

Pixar originally built computers that processed high-resolution images. How did those origins influence your approach to innovation?

Because we started as a hardware company, I learned about manufacturing. And I was surprised that some principles of creativity came out of that environment, although people didn't think of it that way. That's why I found what Toyota did so remarkable. The company thought about the assembly line as a way to get product out. But it also engaged people in solving problems. And that turned the company into a creative environment. I saw that I had been defining creativity too narrowly.

How do you manage the tension between building on something that has proved successful and creating something wholly new and original?

A director will say, "Here are things that I think are interesting." And some of those ideas will be pretty far out. A rat that can cook. An old man who goes off in a house attached to balloons. These are not obviously commercial ideas. Other ideas look as if they will be more commercial up front. If, at Disney, we do a musical like Frozen, we know it has a good chance of being successful. When we do a Cars film, we know how it is going to do. So we try to blend things we know will do well and things that aren't obvious at all. By putting into the hopper both high-risk and low-risk, we signal to the team that we want it to be creative. But we're not betting it all on high-risk things, which would turn us into a boutique art studio.

Some companies run into trouble because they overly rely on the audience response. They say, "I am going to tweak the product in response to what the audience has shown it likes." But that results in incremental change and makes it more difficult to conceive of and to allow for something radically new. And you need both. You want to be in the middle ground between those two pulls.

Your book's title refers to "unseen forces" that hobble creativity. What are those?

There are levels to what we can't see, starting with the fact that, as we grow in management responsibility, people start to behave differently around us. You go into meetings where people have prepared for you. They don't want any surprises. That makes it harder for you to get information.

Then there's this imperative toward clarity that screws a lot of companies up. People want clarity, and so the leader tries to give it to them. But real clarity may not be there, in the situation. That leads to oversimplification and a false sense of confidence. At the same time, there are all these random events that have influences we don't appreciate. Right now, there are things going on in this organization, and I can't see them. So I have to be more aware, always probing, always looking for clues.

What roles do metrics and analysis play in an organization whose deliverables involve aesthetics and emotion?

When we make a film, we have hundreds of people producing hundreds of thousands of pieces of artwork. It's orchestrated in a very complex way, and we've got a lot of tools to assess the flow of information around the studio. So we can do quite a bit of analysis. But a lot goes on that we can't measure. And, in fact, there's a danger that measuring tools might lock us into a way of thinking. So every once in a while, we'll step back and say, "Let's break out of that mode of thinking and look at this in an entirely different way." For us, it's got to be a mix between the gut, instinctual side, and getting real data.

Pixar seems like a company that has never run low on ideas. Have you ever experienced fallow periods?

We are never short of ideas. But an idea is extremely complex. By the time consumers see something, they may think it's this one simple thing, with a name, like an iPod or an iPad. But underneath that thing are millions of ideas. So this notion of "the idea" is the wrong way to think of it. The question is always, Do we have a team that can tackle interesting problems and solve them?

Flying High: Pixar's 2009 hit Up raked in $731 million in worldwide ticket sales.

For a company that experiments so much, you've managed to hold quality very steady. How?

Pixar has had 14 successful releases in a row. Every one of them opened at No. 1 at the box office. But that started--right at the beginning--with us saying, "We are going to screw up. Things are going to go wrong." And things did go wrong. We've had meltdowns along the way. Most people aren't aware of that because they only see the final product. We've had fairly big problems. But when they happened, we recognized them and we did a restart. In recognizing and catching a problem, regardless of the stage, we have been able to maintain a pretty high standard.

Pixar's keystone process is the Braintrust, a meeting used to deliver constructive feedback on works in progress. Can a company just put something like that in place? Or must it develop over time?

Disney's team members, knowing about Pixar's Braintrust, had put together something they called the Storytrust. But they didn't actually know how it operated. We explained to them that the idea was to remove power dynamics from the room. But a few months into it, we realized they were deferring to what John [Lasseter] thought before they would say what they thought. That's counter to what the Braintrust is about. We explained why deferring to John was actually damaging to them. They got better, but it took a few years before they were operating at a very high level. The reason is, it's not sufficient to say we trust each other. Trust can only be earned over a period of time. Now, [the Disney meeting] has turned into a remarkable room. But it took work.

What did Disney's acquisition of Pixar teach you about combining cultures without diluting creativity?

At the time of the acquisition, we put together a list of things we thought were important to our culture. It was a rather broad list. Some of it was a little on the silly side, and some of it was absolutely crucial. But at the time, we didn't know which was which. The agreement was that, though we were wholly owned by Disney, we would still do things in a unique, Pixar way. So we have different systems and policies.

Because John and I were in charge of Disney Animation, we made a clear choice that we would not merge the two studios, nor allow the studios to do any production work for each other at all. We felt this was important culturally, because when a studio solved a problem, then it had the psychological benefit of knowing that it did it on its own. Now people are proud to be part of Disney, but they believe they are Pixar. It's been a model for taking an existing strong culture and letting it thrive.

IMAGES: Deborah Coleman/Courtesy Pixar, Alamy
Last updated: Apr 11, 2014

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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