Ed Catmull’s new book Creativity, Inc about Pixar

I have pre-ordered it! Cartoon Brew has a review.

Ed Catmull, Pixar

As a young man, Catmull had a dream: to make the world’s first computer-animated movie. He nurtured that dream first as a Ph.D. student at the University of Utah, where many computer science pioneers got their start, and then forged an early partnership with George Lucas that led, indirectly, to his founding Pixar with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter in 1986. Nine years later and against all odds, Toy Storywas released, changing animation forever. The essential ingredient in that movie’s success—and in the thirteen movies that followed, all of which debuted at #1 at the box office—was the unique environment that Catmull and his colleagues built at Pixar, based on philosophies that protect the creative process and ideas that defy convention, such as:

 

• 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.

 

• 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.

 

Here is an excerpt from Fast Company,

A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Our decision making is better when we draw on the collective knowledge and unvarnished opinions of the group. Candor is the key to collaborating effectively. Lack of candor leads to dysfunctional environments. So how can a manager ensure that his or her working group, department, or company embraces candor? By putting mechanisms in place that explicitly say it is valuable. One of Pixar’s key mechanisms is the Braintrust, which we rely on to push us toward excellence and to root out mediocrity. It is our primary delivery system for straight talk. The Braintrust meets every few months or so to assess each movie we’re 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. The Braintrust is not foolproof, but when we get it right, the results are phenomenal.

 

While I attend and participate in almost all Braintrust meetings, I see my primary role as making sure that the compact upon which the meetings are based is protected and upheld. This part of our job is never done because you can’t totally eliminate the blocks to candor. The fear of saying something stupid and looking bad, of offending someone or being intimidated, of retaliating or being retaliated against—they all have a way of reasserting themselves. And when they do, you must address them squarely.

 

The Braintrust developed organically out of the rare working relationship among the five men who led and edited the production of Toy Story—John Lasseter,Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich, and Joe Ranft. From Pixar’s earliest days, this quintet gave us a solid model of a highly functional working group. They were funny, focused, smart, and relentlessly candid when arguing with each other. Most crucially, they never allowed themselves to be thwarted by the kinds of structural or personal issues that can render meaningful communication in a group impossible. After the release ofToy Story 2 [when the Braintrust helped turn around a film in danger of foundering], the Braintrust evolved from a tight, well-defined group working on a single film into a larger, more fluid group. Over the years, its ranks have grown to include a variety of people—directors, writers, and heads of story—whose only requirement is that they display a knack for storytelling. The one thing that has never changed is the demand for candor.

Update: from the TAG blog, “Not quite the kindly and avuncular studio head depicted in all those sunny books about the animation business.”

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