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The Profile Dossier: Ed Catmull, Pixar's Creative Genius
“We believe that ideas only become great when they are challenged and tested.”
Ed Catmull revolutionized the animation industry.
Catmull, who had a doctorate in computer technology, co-founded animation film studio Pixar alongside Steve Jobs and John Lasseter in 1986, and the trio began taking creative risks that shook up the world of entertainment.
"Never in my wildest imagination could I have conceived of the path or the extraordinary people I have worked with over all of these years — the twists and turns, the ups and downs, along with exhilarating passion, talent, and dedication that have led to something extraordinary, something that has an enduring impact in the world,” Catmull says.
Catmull's genius lies in that he's able to use both sides of his brain, the creative and the logical. In his five-decade career, Catmull helped bring to life a number of computer-animated hit films including Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Inside Out. As a computer scientist, he has also invented algorithms, made important discoveries in computer graphics, and helped pioneer digitally realistic films.
Perhaps counterintuitively, Catmull credits his grand success to his consistent willingness to fail. When asked how Pixar's animation units manage to pull off one hit after another, he says: "If something works, you shouldn't do it again. We want to do something that is new, original—something where there's a good chance of failure [each time]."
He believes the big, juicy failures is where true originality lies. During the creative process, Catmull encourages his team to experiment, fail, and learn over and over again until the film reaches their desired level of quality.
"We as executives have to resist our natural tendency to avoid or minimize risks, which, of course, is much easier said than done," he says. "If you want to be original, you have to accept the uncertainty, even when it’s uncomfortable, and have the capability to recover when your organization takes a big risk and fails."
Here's what we can learn about creativity, originality, idea-generation from one of the most creative executives in the world.
On turning Pixar into a creative giant: In his wildly popular book, Creativity Inc, Catmull reveals the ideas and techniques that have made Pixar one of the most widely-admired creative businesses. This book is a manual for anyone who strives for originality, with behind-the-scenes examples from Pixar itself. It will help you understand how to build and sustain a creative culture with a unique identity. Forbes called it "the best business book ever written."
On fostering collective creativity: In this wonderfully practical HBR article, Catmull explains how he and his team at Pixar actively work to foster creativity. "If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they’ll screw it up." he says. "But if you give a mediocre idea to a great team, they’ll make it work." If you read one thing today, let it be this.
On the connection between art and entrepreneurship: Being an entrepreneur is a creative act, Catmull says. It's about observation, awareness, and introspection. "If you pay some attention, you'll be able to dive beneath the surface level conclusions," he says. "In most companies, whether or not there was a mistake is a very shallow analysis." In this podcast, Catmull explains how you can learn how to start to see the world around you.
On abandoning his art dreams: When Catmull was young, he aspired to be an artist. But as he neared the end of high school, he didn’t see a path to getting a job as an animator at Disney. So when he got to college, he switched over to physics. "Most people to this day think of [art and physics] as so radically different from each other," he says. "But I want to toss it as a different way to look at it. And it comes from what I think is a fundamental misunderstanding of art on the part of most people." Here's what he thinks that fundamental misunderstanding entails.
On revolutionizing film: The documentary, The Pixar Story, charts the meteoric rise of Pixar and the three co-founders who made it a reality. Catmull, Steve Jobs, and John Lasseter pioneered a new generation of animation and forever changed the face of filmmaking. Here's how they brought inanimate objects to life with their own personalities, emotions, and moods.
On the power of creativity: Tell me a profession in which observation isn't considered important. The best doctors, lawyers, movie producers, journalists, and investors are all considered observant people. In this interview, Catmull explains why creativity is all about awareness and risk-taking.
On Pixar's creative process: Pixar is known for this motto: "Quality is the best business plan." The company's creative process requires taking smart risks, failing internally, and iterating until the film has hit a quality threshold suitable for Pixar's audience.
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Aim to fail the 'elevator test:' The moment we graduate from college, we're told we need to perfect our "elevator pitch," which refers to the ability to pitch an idea to higher ups in a 30-second elevator ride. Catmull says if you can pass the elevator test, your idea is probably derivative of what’s been done before. In other words, it's not as original as you think. For instance, ambitious ideas — “a rat that wants to cook, or an old man who floats away on a balloon with a stowaway" — can’t be summed up in 30 seconds, but they can go on to become the Oscar-winning Pixar films “Ratatouille” and “Up,” respectively. Catmull believes failure, uncertainty, and overreaching are essential ingredients to creative growth.
Allow conflict to thrive: As a manger, Catmull had an appetite for disagreement for teammates — so long as the conflict never turned personal. "We can have people who can argue such that they turn red in the face, but it’s about the problem,” he says. “As long as it’s focused on the problem, then we get the best possible outcome.” Solving thorny problems and making space for productive debate can allow creativity to flourish. The key to fostering a creative, innovative, and inclusive culture? "It must be safe to tell the truth," he says.
Form a 'creative brain trust' to promote candor: A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Candor, Catmull believes, is the key to effective communication. Early in its journey, Pixar created a brain trust, which is a group of people that meet every few months to assess each movie they were 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," Catmull writes. "The brain trust is not foolproof, but when we get it right, the results are phenomenal."
Accept that originals are a mess: Pixar ﬁlms are not good at ﬁrst, and Catmull's job is to make them go “from suck to not-suck.” Think about how easy it would be for a movie about talking toys to feel derivative, sappy, or overtly merchandise driven. Think about how off-putting a movie about rats preparing food could be, or how risky it must’ve seemed to start WALL-E with 39 dialogue-free minutes. "We dare to attempt these stories, but we don’t get them right on the ﬁrst pass. This is as it should be," he says. "Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process–reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a ﬂawed story ﬁnds its through line or a hollow character ﬁnds its soul." It's better to start with a bad idea, iterate, and get feedback along the way than to wait for the perfect idea to spring into your brain.
There is no one single brilliant idea: Think about this: A single movie contains tens of thousands of ideas. "They’re in the form of every sentence; in the performance of each line; in the design of characters, sets, and backgrounds; in the locations of the camera; in the colors, the lighting, the pacing," Catmull says. In other words, every single member of a 200- to 250-person production group makes suggestions and generates ideas. "Creativity must be present at every level of every artistic and technical part of the organization," he says. "The leaders sort through a mass of ideas to find the ones that fit into a coherent whole—that support the story—which is a very difficult task." Seek out ideas from people at every level of the organization.
Learn to embrace failure: Catmull believes that failure is an essential part of the creative process. "Initially, the films we put together, they're a mess. It's like everything else in life—the first time you do it, it's a mess," he says. "Sometimes it's labeled 'a failure' but that's not even the right word to use. It's just like, you get the first one out, you learn from it, and the only failure is if you don't learn from it, if you don't progress." In other words, if you want to be truly original, you have to learn to accept uncertainty, mistakes, and starting over multiple times. Learning from failure leads to progress.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“We believe that ideas only become great when they are challenged and tested.”
“Seek out people who are willing to level with you, and when you find them, hold them close.”
“Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new.”
“Turn pain into progress. To be wrong as fast as you can is to sign up for aggressive, rapid learning.”
“Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear.
“To be a truly creative company, you must start things that might fail.”
“If you don’t try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.”
“The creative act is acting and responding in the face of change.”
“The most creative people are willing to work in the shadow of uncertainty.”
“The attempt to avoid failure makes failure more likely.”
“Driving the train doesn’t set its course. The real job is laying the track.”
“Easy isn’t the goal. Quality is the goal.”