Creativity, Inc: The story of Pixar

Who better than the founder of Pixar to give advice on how to build teams and stop a business going stale? Michael Rose applauds an inspiring memoir cum guide.

by Michael Rose
Last Updated: 26 Aug 2015

In November 1995, the world of film was transformed by the release of Toy Story. The movie was a worldwide hit and launched the nascent Pixar Animation Studios in San Francisco, led by the brilliant director John Lasseter, entrepreneur and Apple founder Steve Jobs, and visionary technologist Ed Catmull.

Of the three, Catmull is the least known - but Pixar was his creation and Toy Story the fulfilment of his 20-year dream to produce the world's first computer-animated feature film.

As with any driven person who reaches his goal, Catmull's reaction to success was to ask: 'What's next?' His answer was to look hard at the company. He realised that his mission was to make a sustainable creative environment so that Toy Story would not be a one-off. The results? A further 14 box-office hits, from Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. to Up, Wall-E and Brave.

This thoughtful book, co-written with journalist Amy Wallace, distils Catmull's philosophy and takes us behind the scenes in Pixar, with lessons everyone can apply to keep a company's thinking fresh.

Animated films often have 300 names or more on the end credits. Having produced a number of these, including Chicken Run and A Close Shave, I know that egos can dominate and teams can be unwieldy. Things go wrong, sometimes spectacularly so. Projects get derailed, put on hold, even abandoned. With such a risky business, how do you balance the need for sound management with enabling creativity?

To answer this, Catmull's book ranges over Pixar's movie output, cataloguing both successes and failures. Not beguiled by the former and drawing lessons from the latter, he's constantly looking for ways to improve both company processes and culture.

And he trusts in his people above all else. As he says: 'Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better.'

In my experience, that's true. At Magic Light Pictures, we get passionate about ideas, but it's the people that matter, so, at the start of each project, we focus on team building. By chance, the storyline of our most recent animated film, Room on the Broom, encapsulates that: very different characters - a cat, dog, bird and frog - learn to co-exist on a witch's broom.

Catmull's core principle is that all staff must be empowered to spot problems and suggest solutions. He encourages risk-taking without fear of failure or blame. His fundamental question is 'how do we enable our people to solve problems?' not 'how do we prevent our people from screwing up?'.

He puts huge emphasis on developing a culture of candour at Pixar so that its staff can be open and honest with each other. For example, he instigated a 'Braintrust' - regular peer review sessions of creative work in progress, with rules to ensure that direct, constructive feedback is given, which allows recipients to find solutions themselves.

Catmull is refreshingly open about Pixar's errors and wrong turns. My favourite of his anecdotes is the accidental wiping of a hard drive that contained all work to date on Toy Story 2. It's a near catastrophe for the studio, but the day is saved when a producer reveals that she has made personal copies of the material so she could work from home.

It's an example that underlines two of Catmull's key tenets: that employees must be allowed to show initiative and that accidents and serendipity contribute as much to success in business as meticulous planning.

If Pixar's success is not enough to demonstrate the wisdom of Catmull's approach, the 2006 merger with a moribund Disney Animation allows him and Lasseter to apply their management ideas in a different environment.

In just a few years, they re-energise Disney's creative teams, leading to a string of box-office hits, from Bolt and Tangled to this year's Oscar-winner Frozen.

But Catmull, ever candid, ends the book by returning to one of his favourite themes: the need to keep on regenerating. By 2013, he fears that Pixar itself is in danger of going stale, and engages all 1,200 staff in brainstorming sessions.

Once more, he puts his staff at the centre of creating solutions. And he recognises that Pixar, like all companies, is a work in progress: 'as challenges emerge, mistakes will always be made, and our work is never done'.

Part memoir, part management guide, this is a fascinating book about celebrating and sustaining the creativity at the heart of every successful business.

- Michael Rose is co-founder of Oscar-nominated company Magic Light Pictures, producer of The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom.


Creativity, Inc

By Ed Catmull

Bantam Press, £20

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