Ed Catmull sometimes wryly jests that he’s the Pixar co-founder no one’s ever heard of – the other two being the rather more well-known Steve Jobs, of Apple fame, and who acquired Pixar in 1986; and John Lasseter, the director, and Pixar’s long-standing Chief Creative Officer. If true, it’s more a consequence of Catmull’s endearing modesty; it certainly doesn’t reflect his massive contribution to Pixar’s astonishing success.

The quietly spoken Catmull is Mister computer animation. He loved Disney cartoons as a child and considered becoming a feature film animator, but didn’t think his drawing skills were good enough. So he studied maths and physics as an undergraduate and in 1974 completed a doctorate in computer science at the University of Utah. After a spell at the New York Institute of Technology, in 1979 Catmull was hired by George Lucas, of Star Wars fame, to see what computer graphics could do for movies. At Lucasfilm, Catmull pioneered texture mapping, a technique for adding details to a wireframe computer 3D model that is still used by Pixar today. Since 2001 he has been Pixar’s President.

Pixar has a stunningly successful record. To date it has grossed a cumulative £5.2 billion and snapped up 30 Academy Awards. It produces unsentimental yet heart-warming stories that appeal to children and adults alike; what parent could remain dry-eyed as Andy hands over Woody and the gang of his beloved toys to a little girl in Toy Story 3 (2010) before heading off to adulthood? Andy’s farewell to his toys is also his farewell to childhood joys. That moment – and dozens of others in films as varied as Ratatouille (2007) and Up (2009) – touched the hearts of cinema audiences worldwide. The computer genius of Catmull laid the foundation for all of them.

Catmull is also the managerial brain of the company, as becomes evident in his new book (written with Amy Wallace), Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration [1]. Part-Pixar autobiography, part-manual on how to sustain a creative culture, Catmull describes the book as “an expression of the ideas that I believe make the best in us possible”. It’s also full of fascinating anecdotes about Hollywood, Disney, Steve Jobs – “Steve, being Steve, had a compelling way about him” – and business life generally. Jobs was a notoriously stubborn individual in his early business life, although Catmull insists that he mellowed. Catmull was once asked how he avoided going crazy after 26 years with Jobs. Catmull replied: “I did ask him once, ‘So what happens, how does it work, if somebody doesn’t agree with you?’ and he said: ‘Well, I just explain it to them until they understand.’” [2]

When I spoke to Catmull in Los Angeles he talked of the difficulty of keeping creativity alive in an industry where creativity and originality are everything. In a world of sensitive egos, where experimentation and failure are vital, Catmull asks: “How do we make it safe for people to raise questions – and when things fail, make it OK for them to still raise questions?” Put at its simplest, Catmull is dedicated to taking the terror out of failure. The stigma attached to failure is so powerful that it inhibits creativity. As Catmull writes: “We need to think about failure differently … Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality).” This passionate belief that people must be allowed to make mistakes is all well and good – but how many chances to crash and burn do the creatives at Pixar get? “That’s a subtle and important question,” he responds. His answer is equally subtle, and he turns to the ‘Braintrust’, a key element in Pixar’s management of failure.

The Braintrust meets sporadically every few months to assess progress on a film project. The Braintrust arose by accident, and grew out of the close working relationship between the five who were responsible for the original Toy Story (1995) – John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich and Joe Ranft. As years have gone by, it’s evolved and includes a fluid, expanded group, with only two requirements – those involved need to have a knack for storytelling, and they must all believe in and practice candour.

What power the Braintrust has derived from its intangible authority as a collaborative forum – it can’t tell the director what to do, for example. “It’s a place,” says Catmull, “where experienced storytellers can help each other. Imagine starting a meeting by saying that we don’t want anything stupid or dumb. Telling people that at the outset is a really bad idea. Zero errors is a bad place to go. Having 40 stupid ideas, which are just using up valuable time, is an equally bad place to go. Zero errors and 40 dumb ideas – both bad. So where should you be? Our hard place is to deal with the middle – it’s ill-defined, nebulous, but we have no alternative to being in that mess in the middle. Making movies is a very structured, organised process; but you have to distinguish between that, and the disorganised generation of a large number of ideas, and that should be an open and fluid process.”

For Catmull, candour is critical to the creative process, because, as he puts it, the early stages of all Pixar’s movies “suck”. Honesty, openness, a willingness to accept robust feedback in an iterative process – working, reworking, and reworking again until the story and characters are right; this process is both a creative necessity and a managerial technique. The Braintrust puts the film, not the filmmaker, under the microscope. The idea is distanced from the person who comes up with it, reducing or – hopefully – eliminating the chances that the idea-generator will take offence.

In his book Catmull emphasises the importance of having trust in colleagues and staff, to empower them sufficiently to take risks and not fear mistakes: “Fear and trust are powerful forces, and while they are not opposites, exactly, trust is the best tool for driving out fear. Trusting others doesn’t mean that they won’t make mistakes. It means that if they do (or if you do), you trust they will act to help solve it. Fear can be created quickly; trust can’t. Leaders must demonstrate their trustworthiness, over time, through their actions – and the best way to do that is by responding well to failure … We believe that the most promising stories are not assigned to filmmakers but emerge from within. With few exceptions, our directors make movies they have conceived of and are burning to make. Then, because we know that this passion will at some point blind them to their movie’s inevitable problems, we offer them the counsel of the Braintrust.”

This openness guides Catmull in his choice of new talent. He told me that he only looks for “one thing. I am keen on potential over current ability – ability is not the most important thing. I’d rather have a person who is growing than one who has peaked. I want people who are continually learning and growing. It may not pay off, but in general I’ve found that this way, we get a person who far exceeds the minimum. We require people to work together in harmony – there’s no room for egos. If they can’t work with other people, then they don’t belong here.”

In a 2007 presentation to the Stanford Graduate School of Business [3] Catmull drew some profound conclusions that are relevant not just to the movies but to all businesses. He posed the question ‘why do successful companies fail?’. One key factor is that, as he put it, “success hides problems”. The tremendous success of the original Toy Story blinded Pixar when it came to the production process of Toy Story 2, where there was, in Catmull’s words, a “dysfunctional team”. Pixar wanted to throw it away and start again. But Disney was adamant – there was no time for that. The film had to come out on deadline. So they changed teams and worked “brutal hours” to get the film out on time. From that experience Catmull learned a critical lesson:“If you have a good idea and you give it to a mediocre group, they’ll screw it up. If you have a mediocre idea and give it to a good group, they’ll fix it.”

At the end of our conversation I ask Catmull if he has a favourite movie. He thinks a while, and then comes out with an answer that is both unexpected and instructive about Catmull’s dominant streak, which is his rationality. “Patton. At the time it came out I was a conscientious objector, protesting against the war in Vietnam. And yet I just loved that movie. And then I heard that Richard Nixon also loved that movie. And I thought to myself, ‘if that movie could unite people from such opposing positions, it must be a really fantastic achievement.’”

 

Gary Mead

Gary Mead is a business journalist and former commodities editor of the Financial Times

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