My Review = Read it! ($28 on Amazon)
Even as a young boy growing up in Salt Lake City, Utah in the 1940s and 50s, Ed Catmull knew he wanted to be a Disney Animator. He’d sent away for Jon Gnagys Learn To Draw art kits, made flip books, and even built a plywood animation stand with a light under it. But as fate would have it, he wasn’t any good at drawing. So after high school, he pursued areas he had talent in: physics and computer science.
This move would one day lead him to co-founding Pixar Animation Studios, selling it for $7.4B, and serving as the President of both Pixar and Disney Animation from 2006-2018.
“It soon became clear that I would never be talented enough to join Disney Animation’s vaunted ranks. What’s more, I had no idea how one actually became an animator. But my decision to pursue physics, and not art, would lead me, indirectly, to my true calling.” [i] [vi]
In Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace’s co-authored 2014 book, “Creativity, Inc.”, Catmull illustrates his business leadership advice with colorful examples (both ‘wins’ and ‘lessons’) from his time at Pixar and Disney. Including: staying true to your vision, valuing people over ideas, prioritizing candor, embracing failure as a tool, understanding that ideas can come from anywhere, and then… well, there’s that whole thing about the hungry beast and the ugly baby…
“Creativity Inc.” struck me as particularly relevant and inspirational for leaders who seek to become more self aware, inspire to their teams, and create something meaningful. As someone whose read her fair share of leadership books, this one exceeded my expectations and is one of my favorite reads of 2022. What I liked best was Catmull’s candor in describing “behind the scenes” stories from my favorite animated Pixar movies from childhood (Toy Story, Ratatouille, Monsters Inc, and Up to name a few) to help illustrate his points.
Time and time again, you’re left saying “awe” at the movie scene he reminds us of from our favorite Pixar movies, and then a shortwhile later leaves us saying “ah”, when he weaves it into a larger business lesson he’s applied at Pixar. At the top of one page, you’re reminiscing about when Anton Ego, the jaded food critic proclaims in his review that he loves Remy’s cooking in Ratatouille… and by the bottom of the page, he’s explaining how this ties into Pixar’s value of defending new talent and creations. I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything less from a leader in storytelling.
His story begins with an introduction to his childhood dream, and later on, formal goal of developing a new way to animate – with a computer instead of a pencil. The problem was (in the age of 2D, traditional animation) nobody else seemed to share his enthusiasm… not even Disney when he pitched this concept to them in 1973.
“What I proposed to do looked, to most academics [in the 1970’s], as a pipe dream, an expensive fantasy. … It’s hard to imagine now, but in 1976, the idea of incorporating high technology into Hollywood filmmaking wasn’t just a low priority; it wasn’t even on the radar. But one man was about to change that, with a movie called Star Wars.” [i] [iii]
Remaining true to his vision, he carved his own pathway to achieve his dreams – by forming strategic business relationships with the like-minded thinkers such George Lucas, John Lasseter, and Steve Jobs.
Prioritizing candid feedback – and not identifying too closely to your ideas – improves the final product
One of the largest takeaways I got from his book, Creativity Inc. is the prioritization of giving candid feedback. To do this, Pixar developed a modality referred to as braintrusts. These are special “meetings of the minds” sessions to assess a movie’s progress. Members provide candid feedback on what’s wrong, missing, not clear, or doesn’t make sense. The important caveat: nobody has authority to tell the director what or how to change something. Which in turn, makes directors less defensive when they receive constructive criticism. The meetings have the sole aim of helping the story reach new heights.
“Candor isn’t cruel. It does not destroy. On the contrary, any successful feedback system is built on empathy, on the idea that we are all in this together, that we understand your pain because we’ve experienced it ourselves” [i]
In the same vein, Catmull warns in his book never to identify too closely to your ideas, as this will make you more susceptible to taking offense when they are challenged. Which is well, inevitable. Expanding on this idea further, he shares that all of that Pixar’s stories all suck at first. Like, actually.
Catmull explained that it takes teams tons of workshopping to get the final idea right. A quick example: At first, the human protagonist in Monsters Inc. was a 30 year old man. Then, a 6 year old girl named Mary. Then a six year old boy. Then back to a girl. Then she was seven. And finally, she was a fearless, preverbal toddler named Boo. Director of the movie, Peter Docter, noted: “The process of developing a story is one of discovery.”
Put plainly, the concepts of 1. radical candor and 2. reception to constructive criticism appear to be key drivers in improving a company’s final product.
Failure is a necessary part of the creative process
Catmull titled the 6th chapter of his Creativity Inc. book “Fear and Failure.” In it, he dedicates 23 pages to detangling the myths surrounding failure. Most persuasively, the myth that it should be avoided. Instead, he recommends taking a fail-fast-and-iterate approach. Driving in this point further, he explains that when you put your faith in meticulously planning in the hopes that you will avoid failure down the line, you’re deluding yourself. “Over-planners just take longer to be wrong”, he explains.
“Failure isn’t a necessary evil. In fact, it isn’t evil at all. It is a necessary consequence of doing something new … If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it.” [i] [viii]
Catmull explains that he’d ingrained the idea that “failure being a necessary part of creativity” into Pixar’s culture. So much so, that when Toy Story 3 came out WITHOUT any major crises, the team was actually disappointed. They’d interpreting this team mean that they hadn’t tried as hard as their colleagues on other films! While he assured them that this wasn’t true, he viewed this as proof that Pixar’s culture was healthy. That is, seeing failure as necessary part of creativity. [v]
Ideas come from people, and they can come from anywhere
Catmull explains in his book that he would often pose the following question in Pixar business meetings: “which is more important, people or ideas?”. And he found, that the results were often split down the middle… with folks sometimes explaining that they had great teams but poor ideas, and vise versa. In Catmull’s view, this is actually a trick question… as ideas come from people. And therefore by default, people are more important. In other words, it’s a false dichotomy. In one of his most memorable quotes from the book he says:
“Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea … If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.”
Another core idea regarding the interrelation between people and ideas comes from one of Pixar’s company tenants: that creative ideas come from team collaboration, not executive orders. Catmull shares in his book that Pixar even has a dedicated day for this every year, where all employees can share feedback on how to make the company better. It’s called “Note Day”.
On the first year Pixar implemented Note Day, 4,000 emails came in from employees offering ways to improve the company’s systems. Executives immediately implemented 4 ideas, committed to five more, and earmarked another dozen or so.
“If there are people in your organization who feel they are not free to suggest ideas, you lose. Do not discount ideas from unexpected sources. Inspiration can, and does, come from anywhere.” [i] [vi]
The hungry beast and the ugly baby are both important
As companies get larger, it’s common across all industries to hear the phrase, “you need to feed the beast”. Put differently, you need to increase your company’s output as demand for your products rise. You also need keep your growing number of employees busy with engaging projects. Important, to be sure.
But the danger in ONLY focusing your energy on feeding the beast is that you’re likely to fall back to whats worked in the past, rather than being innovative. In opposition to feeding the beast, Catmull offers “nurturing your ugly baby”. Which, he says, is equally important to stay at the top of your game.
“Originality is fragile. And, in its first moments, it’s often far from pretty. This is why I call early mock-ups of our films ‘ugly babies’. They are not beautiful, miniature versions of the adults they will grow up to be. They are truly ugly: awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete. They need nurturing – in the form of time and patience – in order to grow. … Our job is to protect our babies from being judged too quickly. Our job is to protect the new.”
Catmull illustrates this point by making an example of Disney during the early 2000s when it was going through, as he explains, a lull in performance. His analysis of the situation was that this was due to an imbalance between the hungry beast and the ugly baby… paying too much attention to the former. In fact, he bragged in an 2014 Milken Institute interview about the book [viii] that Pixar’s best ideas actually fail the so called, 30 second elevator pitch – since elevator pitches work best when they are mere derivatives of what’s come before.
Conclusion: I recommend Ed Catmull’s Book for Any Business Leader Looking To Level Up Their Game
I would most definitely recommend the book, Creativity Inc. to any business leader looking to level up their game. That said, my biggest critique is that the book seems to front load a lot of its most interesting ideas. Perhaps this was by design, as not everyone reads a book cover to cover.
The proviso to this observation, came in the last chapter of the book – where Catmull included a letter from one of his animators, Austin Madison:
“To Whom It May Inspire, I like many of you artists out there, constantly shift between two states. The first (and by far more preferable of the two) is a white-hot, ‘in the zone’ seat-of-the-pants, firing on all cylinders creative mode. This is when you lay your pen down and the ideas pour out like wine from a royal chalice! This happens about 3% of the time. The other 97% of the time I am in the frustrated, struggling, office-corner-full-of-crumpled-up-paper code. The important thing is to slog diligently through this quagmire of discouragement and despair. Put on some audio commentary and listen to the stories of professionals who have been making films for decades going through the same slings and arrows… In a word: PERSIST. Persist on telling your story. Persist on reaching your audience. Persist on staying true to your vision…”
Frequently Asked Questions About Ed Catmull and Pixar Animation
Ed Catmull is a computer scientist by training that used his degree to co-found Pixar. He later became the President of Walt Disney Animation.
Ed Catmull retired from Disney/Pixar retired in 2018. Jim Morris is the current President of Pixar (as of October 2022).
Ed Catmull was brought up in the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City, UT. Though he is no longer a practicing Mormon, he explains that he is grateful for the atmosphere he grew up in.
Ed Catmull has won ten awards throughout his career – including five Academy Awards, three Visual Effects Society Awards, one Annie Award, and one PGA Award.
According to GlassDoor data, Pixar animators make around $95,000 a year.
- [i] Catmull, Ed & Wallace, Amy “Creativity, Inc. Overcoming The Unseen Forces That Stand In The Way Of True Inspiration”, Random House Group Publisher, U.S., 2014.
- [ii] Pixar.fandom.com.
- [iii] “Ed Catmull at Web Summit 2015” (Headshot). Wikimedia Commons, 29 Sept. 2021
- [iv] “Meet The Toys Gallery” (Photograph of Andy & Buzz from Toy Story). Toystory.Disney.com
- [v] Catmull, Ed, “About Creativity, Inc.”, Creativityincbook.com.
- [vi] Young Ed Catmull candid photo, Pixar team photos, Pixar.com
- [vii] Milken Institute. “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration” YouTube video. August 06, 2014.
- [viii] Sully and Boo picture + Remy the rat picture. Movies.disney.com
Note: no copyright infringement is intended with any of the quotes, photos, images, etc used in my blog article. My purpose for using these items is purely for factual commentary on a published work (i.e., fair use).