Ed Catmull is a co-founder and the longtime head of Pixar Animation Studios, which struggled for 10 years from its founding in 1986 until the runaway success in 1995 of its first feature film, Toy Story. With the acquisition of Pixar by Walt Disney in 2006, Catmull became president of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar.
In his new book Creativity, Inc., Catmull expands on his ideas about managing a creative company that he explored in his 2008 HBR article “How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity.” I spoke with him by phone. This Q&A has been edited and condensed.
Walt Disney is a huge company with some overlapping activities in different areas. For instance, Pixar, obviously, does computer animation and so does ILM [Industrial Light & Magic]. Does this create pressure to adopt the same technology or the same processes?
We had a conference here yesterday of 250 technical people from the various divisions around Disney. There was obviously Pixar, but also Walt Disney Animation, WDI [Walt Disney Imagineering, which designs the company’s theme parks], Industrial Light and Magic, Disney Interactive [Disney’s game division], and ESPN. It was based upon something that we brought to Walt Disney Animation when John Lasseter [the chief creative officer of Pixar and Disney Animation] and I went down there eight years ago [to head it]. The thing that would happen in most companies is to say, “Well, here are two businesses that are similar. So let’s consolidate the tools and the workflow, that is, the way of working, and let’s consolidate the R&D so that we’re not duplicating it.”
We took the exact opposite approach, which was to say to each studio, “You may look at the tools that the other has, you may use them if you want, but the choice is entirely yours.” They each have a development group that’s coming up with different ideas, but because we said, “You don’t have to take ideas from anybody else,” they felt freer to talk with each other.
The underlying hardware keeps changing, the software keeps changing, everything’s changing. So the best thing we can have is different groups pursuing different ideas and then sharing them. And it helps it move faster.
When I’m done here after our conversation, I’m going to something that I do once a week, which is a random lunch. It’s eight people randomly from around the company. No agenda, just talking about issues, whatever they want. The idea is to send a message that anybody can talk to anybody.
There was some unhappy news about one of your films in production. Pixar announced in September that the release of The Good Dinosaur, originally scheduled for 2014, would be postponed to 2015. This will be the first year since 2005 in which Pixar has not had a feature film to release. There must have been some difficult conversations leading up to this decision.
We have had a substantial difficulty with every film that we made. That has included complete restarts. Toy Story 2 was a restart. Ratatouille was a restart. And The Good Dinosaur is a restart. In the past, because we were a little company, nobody paid attention or they didn’t know. It’s because Pixar is successful that now people are paying attention and saying, “Oh, what’s going on there?” What’s going on is what has always gone on: Ultimately, there’s a criterion whether the film is good enough and we don’t let the other stuff get in the way of it.
One thing I don’t believe in is the notion of a perfect process. Our goal isn’t to prevent all the problems; our goal is making good movies.
Pixar has around 1,200 employees and a lot of them are in on secrets about Pixar’s film pipeline. Yet it’s very rare for information about Pixar films to be leaked. Why is that?
There’s a very good reason for it. I will use a counter-example: When we first got to Disney Animation, there were a lot of leaks. People were going crazy trying to stop them. All I knew was that it was one or two people who were talking inappropriately and it was not good for the morale of the studio.
I got up in front of everyone at Disney Animation. I pointed out that when you make a movie, when you first put it up on the reel, it doesn’t work. [A story reel is a video of a series of sketches, often with some simple animation ? in effect, a mock-up of the planned film.] In fact, the first versions are disastrous. We have meetings afterwards where various directors, story people, and others get together and have hard discussions about making the film work. When that meeting is over with, the director and his team have to go back to their crew and talk about the things that didn’t work. They have to trust the crew with what they’re telling them. And the things that don’t work will then seep throughout the studio. I said that if somebody goes and speaks to other places or talks to a blogger, which is what was happening in this case, what they do is they break that trust.
When I said that, the entire audience burst into applause. For the one or two people who were talking to bloggers on the outside, what they saw was that everybody else in the studio was really upset that somebody was doing this. So the message didn’t come from me, the message came from that response of the audience ? and whoever was doing it stopped doing it.
My belief is that the way you keep secrets is you tell people the information; you let people know what the problems are so they have ownership in the solution. If we don’t trust them, so we’re trying to keep secrets away from everybody, then they feel less ownership and in fact they’re more likely to talk about it outside. So it’s by an act of collusion that we get the ownership that keeps the problems in-house.
Do you think that the success that you and John Lasseter have had with Disney Animation and Pixar after the acquisition helped to give [Disney CEO] Bob Iger the confidence to make the other big bets he’s been making on acquisitions, such as Marvel and Lucasfilm?
We took Disney Animation, which at the time eight years ago was completely dysfunctional, and we turned it around. Every one of the six films that have been made since we’ve been there has been a critical success. By the time we got to Frozen, the marketing organization completely lined up behind it worldwide, built upon the earlier successes. It has passed a billion dollars. There’s a good chance that by the time we’re done, Frozen will be the number one animated film of all time. [This did happen in late March.] So, yes, Bob Iger is very happy.
The one thing we were really adamant about was that the two studios not be integrated together. We established an absolute rule, which we still adhere to, that neither studio can do any production work for the other. For me, the local ownership is really important. We put in place mechanisms to keep each studio’s culture unique.
It’s a model that Bob’s using at Marvel. Marvel has a completely different culture than Pixar does, or Disney Animation, and he lets them run it their way. You want to have mechanisms to bridge between them, but you don’t interfere with that local culture.
Do you think 3D animation is going to become democratized the way publishing has been? For instance, in the way that desktop publishing has made tools of design and layout accessible to anyone?
Well, the underlying hardware and software tools are continually changing and their price points are changing. What that means is that it will become increasingly easy for smaller groups to get together to try something and when that happens it will give certain people opportunities to be creative in unforeseen ways. The very existence of the tools and the changing cost structure means that you are more likely to have some unexpected event happen.
You can look at a lot of areas and say that. We’ve watched this in the music. We see it in publishing. There are a lot of people that try to resist it, but the underlying economics will basically overpower the resistance. The resistance is actually wasted time. If people accept the fact that it is coming, whether or not they like it, then try to learn from and adapt to it and get expertise in it, the better equipped they are to deal with it and help formulate what the new thing is.
The second part of the issue is what is that new thing? For years, I’ve had people ask me, “What’s the next big thing?” I’ve realized that although I had been part of a group that has helped change the technology, I’ve never predicted well the rate at which it’s going to happen or how it’s going to happen. I’ve relied upon general trends and openness to change. But my predicting powers are notably weak.
I will give an example. As I was leaving school, the University of Utah, it was clear to me that the next thing that was going to happen was computers would be used to help in manufacturing. It was crystal clear.
And it didn’t happen, or it took another 30 years. The reason it didn’t happen was that companies went for a more short-term gain, which was to go to lower-cost labor overseas. The people who did that are now retired; they consider themselves to be management geniuses, but they basically dismantled the U.S. manufacturing infrastructure.
In other words, we can look and say, “Okay, what does the technology allow?” But, in fact, it sits in an ecosystem of short-term gains, ego, misconception, fear of losing market position, and so forth, which can mess the process up and make it highly unpredictable.
source: Managing Creativity: Lessons from Pixar and Disney Animation April 09, 2014 at 05:00PM