Pixar Animation Studios is one of my favorite companies. Not only do I love their movies (Finding Nemo is my favorite, but it’s a tough call), but their offices, creative process, and history are some of the best and coolest, ever. So how could I pass up reading a book about Pixar written by co-founder and President Ed Catmull (with Amy Wallace)? This isn’t just a book about the inner workings of Pixar (but those parts are fascinating!). This is a book about creativity, and, most of all, this is a book about leadership.
I thought that sounded odd, a book titled Creativity, Inc. being about leadership. But maybe that’s just because I’m not the manager/business leader type. Once I got into the book, I realized how important leading was to building an entire animation studio. Not only that, but Catmull had a dream since he was a kid to make the first computer-animated feature film, and through numerous failures (you read that right–failures), he created one of the most successful, creative, and innovative companies in our world today, who also made the first computer-animated feature film.
How did he do that? A large part of it was by being a great leader.
Catmull begins the book with an overview of how he got from being a kid who loved how Walt Disney always strived to do the next big thing with the newest technology, to founding the company that made the first computer-animated feature film, to building and leading a sustainable creative culture within Pixar.
If you’re creative, or best friends with a creative, or know a creative, or have met one, then you know that we’re taking over the world. And in our world, we don’t want to be put into a box or have to follow the rules. 97% of the time we’re beating our heads against the walls feeling like we’ve failed at everything in life, and that beating we just gave ourselves fuels the 3% of our time where we create something truly spectacular.
While Catmull may not be the animator he initially wanted to be, he knew he had to find a way to make an animated film. He takes us through the story of majoring in physics and computer science (so that he could animate…don’t tell me creatives aren’t intelligent!), then going on to graduate school by studying computer graphics – a new and growing program. He worked with a diverse and talented group of students, which led him to make his first short animated film.
From working at the New York Institute of Technology, then Lucasfilm, Catmull met a few talented people, began learning what it meant to manage them, and got closer and closer to his dream. I’ll let you read the book for all the details, but out of these contacts and George Lucas selling Catmull’s department (enter Steve Jobs), Pixar was born.
Through this time Catmull began observing and learning three very important elements to leading that he still carries with him as head of both Pixar and the Disney Animation department today.
For all the care you put into artistry, visual polish frequently doesn’t matter if you are getting the story right.
Fail early and fail fast.
Whether you’re creating, marketing, leading, or anything else, story is going to make a difference. And if you’re going to really get it right, you’re going to get it wrong first.
It’s fascinating to read the anecdotes about Pixar’s process in creating a movie. They hire the right people, they spend loads of money, they develop their own software, and then out pops this gorgeous movie!
Oh, so wrong. I’m creative: I write, play violin, mix sound, have kids, and sing (in the shower, but it counts, okay?), so I understand that to get it right there is a process and it’s hard work. But even I had no idea.
For example, the original story of Up had a castle floating in the sky. In it lived a king and his two sons, quite opposite of each other, who were vying to inherit the kingdom. One day they both fell to earth. As they wandered around trying to get back, they came across a tall bird who helped them understand each other.
From that came one of Pixar’s most emotionally rich and original films full of adventure!
Each film goes through a process: first, get the story right. Well, I say “first.” Getting the story right overlaps with the start of animating. There are at least a million steps in animating (designing characters, lighting, new software and techniques, shading, color…I could go on). Then, inevitably, the story changes. Between the dailies, the Braintrust meetings, the things that go really right, and the things that go really wrong, the story evolves over time until you get the most heart-wrenching 4 minutes and 15 seconds you’ll ever watch…at the beginning of the movie. (You know you also cried again at the end…at least once.)
After all of this creative process, then you get a beautiful movie. And what makes the movie truly beautiful is the story. The directors, producers, etc. all know the story is right not because they looked at a beautiful film at the end of a few years of work; they know the story is right because they’re looking at the director’s crappy sketches and listening to his pitch and are moved. Most often, this isn’t what happens in the first story pitch. Somehow they had to get from castle in the sky to Carl Fredricksen and his floating house.
Next time I think, “Meh. Good enough,” about any of my work, someone kick me. I’m sure with a little bit of hard work and failure I can do so much better.
The thing is, if that’s all I think (“Good enough”), then I really haven’t failed enough. I love what Catmull says about creating:
In order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for awhile, and that near-fusing with the project is an essential part of its emergence.
That is beautiful. And it’s an amazing feeling to have that much passion about creating something. The problem with this, Catmull says, is that it is also confusing. Have you ever become so wrapped up in in a creation that you can’t tell what it looks like to someone else? In marketing that is always our goal – to see what the audience will see. It means that even though we’ve gotten close to a project, we can’t see through our perspective anymore; we have to look through someone else’s eyes.
Often you can’t tell that you’ve reached this point until you’ve already failed. At Pixar failure is a fundamental part of the creative process, and it starts at the top.
The fascinating thing is that this ‘ability to fail’ that is fostered at Pixar leads to fearlessness. When Catmull, Andrew Stanton, John Lasseter, Brad Bird and the other leaders own their failure, so do those watching them. And when you’re allowed to fail, you become fearless because you know that there is always a way to pick up the pieces, and your boss will protect and support you in that.
This brings me to the third thing Catmull is continually learning while he leads…
That’s how much candor matters at Pixar: it overrides hierarchy.
Not only are you and I and those in charge allowed to fail, but anyone is allowed to stop a project in its tracks if they sense something is wrong. Anyone. And we are allowed, no – instructed – to be candid about it. If an employee can’t tell the truth, the whole truth, then leaders are going to have trouble figuring out how to fix what is wrong because you can’t perceive the whole picture. This takes a lot of trust among employees. Trust that not only goes down, but also up the hierarchy. Pixar people learn quickly that criticism isn’t personal — everyone wants the story to be better; everyone wants the film to be better. Each director and producer must be receptive to new ideas or risk catastrophe.
At Pixar there is this idea that each person is unique and sees everything from a different perspective. Not long ago Pixar was trying to reduce costs in the company. They had grown from 45 employees to about 1200. The amount of time, and therefore money, it took to continue innovating and making better movies was growing, and they wanted to fix that. Rather than the leadership planning in a bubble what do to about rising costs, they presented it to the company. The whole company.
A day was taken off of work so that every single employee, from animators to lawyers and everything in between, could discuss what the possibilities were, what needed fixing, and how to go about it in a healthy way. The day itself — they called it “Notes Day,” and it’s now an annual tradition at Pixar — was a massive undertaking for those planning, but they came away with a few ideas to implement immediately, a few to implement soon, and a few ideas to develop.
Catmull says these ideas were better than if the leadership kept the issue to themselves for three reasons:
1. There was a clear and focused goal.
2. This was an idea championed by those at the highest levels of the company.
3. This was led from within.
The people trusted this process, were excited to be included, and were encouraged and instructed to be candid. And they were.
Catmull isn’t saying that every company should be run just like Pixar. He does say that how it was run when it began is different then now, and he is still learning how best to run it. Catmull actually talks about how much trouble he had writing Creativity, Inc. because he would write about how something works at Pixar only to have it change on him the next day.
People are constantly changing, and so are the places where they lead. While every company may not be a creative one in the sense that Pixar is, we all need creativity to be parents, or to plan a gathering, or to approach an employee.
Catmull says two things I want to leave you with (before you go buy the book to read every anecdote and great leadership moment):
I believe that we all have the potential to solve problems and express ourselves creatively. What stands in our way are these hidden barriers – the misconceptions and assumptions that impede us without our knowing it.
While experimentation is scary to many, I would argue that we should be far more terrified of the opposite approach. Being too risk-averse causes many companies to stop innovating and to reject new ideas, which is the first step on the path to irrelevance.
Go out and take a risk. “Fail early and fail fast.” Allow candor. Be creative.