Copyright © 2014 by Edwin Catmull
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint and division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House
Company, New York.
RANDOM HOUSE and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Catmull, Edwin E.
Creativity, Inc. : overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration / Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace.
eBook ISBN 978-0-679-64450-7
1. Creative ability in business. 2. Corporate culture. 3. Organizational effectiveness. 4. Pixar (Firm) I. Wallace, Amy. II. Title.
Jacket design: Andy Dreyfus
Jacket illustration: © Disney • Pixar
Introduction: Lost and Found
Chapter 1: Animated
Chapter 2: Pixar Is Born
Chapter 3: A Defining Goal
Chapter 4: Establishing Pixar’s Identity
PART I: GETTING STARTED
PART II: PROTECTING THE NEW
Chapter 5: Honesty and Candor
Chapter 6: Fear and Failure
Chapter 7: The Hungry Beast and the Ugly Baby
Chapter 8: Change and Randomness
Chapter 9: The Hidden
PART III: BUILDING AND SUSTAINING
Chapter 10: Broadening Our View
Chapter 11: The Unmade Future
Chapter 12: A New Challenge
Chapter 13: Notes Day
PART IV: TESTING WHAT WE KNOW
Afterword: The Steve We Knew
Starting Points: Thoughts for Managing a Creative Culture
About the Authors
INTRODUCTION: LOST AND FOUND
Every morning, as I walk into Pixar Animation Studios—past the twenty-foot-high sculpture
of Luxo Jr., our friendly desk lamp mascot, through the double doors and into a spectacular
glass-ceilinged atrium where a man-sized Buzz Lightyear and Woody, made entirely of Lego
bricks, stand at attention, up the stairs past sketches and paintings of the characters that have
populated our fourteen films—I am struck by the unique culture that defines this place.
Although I’ve made this walk thousands of times, it never gets old.
Built on the site of a former cannery, Pixar’s fifteen-acre campus, just over the Bay Bridge
from San Francisco, was designed, inside and out, by Steve Jobs. (Its name, in fact, is The
Steve Jobs Building.) It has well-thought-out patterns of entry and egress that encourage
people to mingle, meet, and communicate. Outside, there is a soccer field, a volleyball court,
a swimming pool, and a six-hundred-seat amphitheater. Sometimes visitors misunderstand the
place, thinking it’s fancy for fancy’s sake. What they miss is that the unifying idea for this
building isn’t luxury but community. Steve wanted the building to support our work by
enhancing our ability to collaborate.
The animators who work here are free to—no, encouraged to—decorate their work spaces
in whatever style they wish. They spend their days inside pink dollhouses whose ceilings are
hung with miniature chandeliers, tiki huts made of real bamboo, and castles whose
meticulously painted, fifteen-foot-high styrofoam turrets appear to be carved from stone.
Annual company traditions include “Pixarpalooza,” where our in-house rock bands battle for
dominance, shredding their hearts out on stages we erect on our front lawn.
The point is, we value self-expression here. This tends to make a big impression on visitors,
who often tell me that the experience of walking into Pixar leaves them feeling a little wistful,
like something is missing in their work lives—a palpable energy, a feeling of collaboration
and unfettered creativity, a sense, not to be corny, of possibility. I respond by telling them
that the feeling they are picking up on—call it exuberance or irreverence, even whimsy—is
integral to our success.
But it’s not what makes Pixar special.
What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of
them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so
means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we
marshal all of our energies to solve it. This, more than any elaborate party or turreted
workstation, is why I love coming to work in the morning. It is what motivates me and gives
me a definite sense of mission.
There was a time, however, when my purpose here felt a lot less clear to me. And it might
surprise you when I tell you when.
On November 22, 1995, Toy Story debuted in America’s theaters and became the largest
Thanksgiving opening in history. Critics heralded it as “inventive” (Time), “brilliant” and
“exultantly witty” (The New York Times), and “visionary” (Chicago Sun-Times). To find a movie
worthy of comparison, wrote The Washington Post, one had to go back to 1939, to The Wizard
The making of Toy Story—the first feature film to be animated entirely on a computer—had
required every ounce of our tenacity, artistry, technical wizardry, and endurance. The
hundred or so men and women who produced it had weathered countless ups and downs as
well as the ever-present, hair-raising knowledge that our survival depended on this 80-minute
experiment. For five straight years, we’d fought to do Toy Story our way. We’d resisted the
advice of Disney executives who believed that since they’d had such success with musicals,
we too should fill our movie with songs. We’d rebooted the story completely, more than once,
to make sure it rang true. We’d worked nights, weekends, and holidays—mostly without
complaint. Despite being novice filmmakers at a fledgling studio in dire financial straits, we
had put our faith in a simple idea: If we made something that we wanted to see, others would
want to see it, too. For so long, it felt like we had been pushing that rock up the hill, trying to
do the impossible. There were plenty of moments when the future of Pixar was in doubt.
Now, we were suddenly being held up as an example of what could happen when artists
trusted their guts.
Toy Story went on to become the top-grossing film of the year and would earn $358 million
worldwide. But it wasn’t just the numbers that made us proud; money, after all, is just one
measure of a thriving company and usually not the most meaningful one. No, what I found
gratifying was what we’d created. Review after review focused on the film’s moving plotline
and its rich, three-dimensional characters—only briefly mentioning, almost as an aside, that it
had been made on a computer. While there was much innovation that enabled our work, we
had not let the technology overwhelm our real purpose: making a great film.
On a personal level, Toy Story represented the fulfillment of a goal I had pursued for more
than two decades and had dreamed about since I was a boy. Growing up in the 1950s, I had
yearned to be a Disney animator but had no idea how to go about it. Instinctively, I realize
now, I embraced computer graphics—then a new field—as a means of pursuing that dream. If
I couldn’t animate by hand, there had to be another way. In graduate school, I’d quietly set a
goal of making the first computer-animated feature film, and I’d worked tirelessly for twenty
years to accomplish it.
Now, the goal that had been a driving force in my life had been reached, and there was an
enormous sense of relief and exhilaration—at least at first. In the wake of Toy Story’s release,
we took the company public, raising the kind of money that would ensure our future as an
independent production house, and began work on two new feature-length projects, A Bug’s
Life and Toy Story 2. Everything was going our way, and yet I felt adrift. In fulfilling a goal, I
had lost some essential framework. Is this really what I want to do? I began asking myself. The
doubts surprised and confused me, and I kept them to myself. I had served as Pixar’s
president for most of the company’s existence. I loved the place and everything that it stood
for. Still, I couldn’t deny that achieving the goal that had defined my professional life had left
me without one. Is this all there is? I wondered. Is it time for a new challenge?
It wasn’t that I thought Pixar had “arrived” or that my work was done. I knew there were
major obstacles in front of us. The company was growing quickly, with lots of shareholders to
please, and we were racing to put two new films into production. There was, in short, plenty
to occupy my working hours. But my internal sense of purpose—the thing that had led me to
sleep on the floor of the computer lab in graduate school just to get more hours on the
mainframe, that kept me awake at night, as a kid, solving puzzles in my head, that fueled my
every workday—had gone missing. I’d spent two decades building a train and laying its track.
Now, the thought of merely driving it struck me as a far less interesting task. Was making one
film after another enough to engage me? I wondered. What would be my organizing principle now?
It would take a full year for the answer to emerge.
From the start, my professional life seemed destined to have one foot in Silicon Valley and
the other in Hollywood. I first got into the film business in 1979 when, flush from the success
of Star Wars, George Lucas hired me to help him bring high technology into the film industry.
But he wasn’t based in Los Angeles. Instead, he’d founded his company, Lucasfilm, at the
north end of the San Francisco Bay. Our offices were located in San Rafael, about an hour’s
drive from Palo Alto, the heart of Silicon Valley—a moniker that was just gaining traction
then, as the semiconductor and computer industries took off. That proximity gave me a frontrow seat from which to observe the many emerging hardware and software companies—not
to mention the growing venture capital industry—that, in the course of a few years, would
come to dominate Silicon Valley from its perch on Sand Hill Road.
I couldn’t have arrived at a more dynamic and volatile time. I watched as many startups
burned bright with success—and then flamed out. My mandate at Lucasfilm—to merge
moviemaking with technology—meant that I rubbed shoulders with the leaders of places like
Sun Microsystems and Silicon Graphics and Cray Computer, several of whom I came to know
well. I was first and foremost a scientist then, not a manager, so I watched these guys closely,
hoping to learn from the trajectories their companies followed. Gradually, a pattern began to
emerge: Someone had a creative idea, obtained funding, brought on a lot of smart people,
and developed and sold a product that got a boatload of attention. That initial success begat
more success, luring the best engineers and attracting customers who had interesting and
high-profile problems to solve. As these companies grew, much was written about their
paradigm-shifting approaches, and when their CEOs inevitably landed on the cover of Fortune
magazine, they were heralded as “Titans of the New.” I especially remember the confidence.
The leaders of these companies radiated supreme confidence. Surely, they could only have
reached this apex by being very, very good.
But then those companies did something stupid—not just stupid-in-retrospect, but obviousat-the-time stupid. I wanted to understand why. What was causing smart people to make
decisions that sent their companies off the rails? I didn’t doubt that they believed they were
doing the right thing, but something was blinding them—and keeping them from seeing the
problems that threatened to upend them. As a result, their companies expanded like bubbles,
then burst. What interested me was not that companies rose and fell or that the landscape
continually shifted as technology changed but that the leaders of these companies seemed so
focused on the competition that they never developed any deep introspection about other
destructive forces that were at work.
Over the years, as Pixar struggled to find its way—first selling hardware, then software,
then making animated short films and advertisements—I asked myself: If Pixar is ever
successful, will we do something stupid, too? Can paying careful attention to the missteps of
others help us be more alert to our own? Or is there something about becoming a leader that
makes you blind to the things that threaten the well-being of your enterprise? Clearly,
something was causing a dangerous disconnect at many smart, creative companies. What,
exactly, was a mystery—and one I was determined to figure out.
In the difficult year after Toy Story’s debut, I came to realize that trying to solve this
mystery would be my next challenge. My desire to protect Pixar from the forces that ruin so
many businesses gave me renewed focus. I began to see my role as a leader more clearly. I
would devote myself to learning how to build not just a successful company but a sustainable
creative culture. As I turned my attention from solving technical problems to engaging with
the philosophy of sound management, I was excited once again—and sure that our second act
could be as exhilarating as our first.
It has always been my goal to create a culture at Pixar that will outlast its founding leaders—
Steve, John Lasseter, and me. But it is also my goal to share our underlying philosophies with
other leaders and, frankly, with anyone who wrestles with the competing—but necessarily
complementary—forces of art and commerce. What you’re holding in your hands, then, is an
attempt to put down on paper my best ideas about how we built the culture that is the
bedrock of this place.
This book isn’t just for Pixar people, entertainment executives, or animators. It is for
anyone who wants to work in an environment that fosters creativity and problem solving. My
belief is that good leadership can help creative people stay on the path to excellence no
matter what business they’re in. My aim at Pixar—and at Disney Animation, which my
longtime partner John Lasseter and I have also led since the Walt Disney Company acquired
Pixar in 2006—has been to enable our people to do their best work. We start from the
presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without
meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. Finally, we try to
identify those impediments and fix them.
I’ve spent nearly forty years thinking about how to help smart, ambitious people work
effectively with one another. The way I see it, my job as a manager is to create a fertile
environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it. I believe, to my
core, that everybody has the potential to be creative—whatever form that creativity takes—
and that to encourage such development is a noble thing. More interesting to me, though, are
the blocks that get in the way, often without us noticing, and hinder the creativity that
resides within any thriving company.
The thesis of this book is that there are many blocks to creativity, but there are active steps
we can take to protect the creative process. In the coming pages, I will discuss many of the
steps we follow at Pixar, but the most compelling mechanisms to me are those that deal with
uncertainty, instability, lack of candor, and the things we cannot see. I believe the best
managers acknowledge and make room for what they do not know—not just because
humility is a virtue but because until one adopts that mindset, the most striking
breakthroughs cannot occur. I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten
them. They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the
path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates
fear. Moreover, successful leaders embrace the reality that their models may be wrong or
incomplete. Only when we admit what we don’t know can we ever hope to learn it.
This book is organized into four sections—Getting Started, Protecting the New, Building
and Sustaining, and Testing What We Know. It is no memoir, but in order to understand the
mistakes we made, the lessons we learned, and the ways we learned from them, it necessarily
delves at times into my own history and that of Pixar. I have much to say about enabling
groups to create something meaningful together and then protecting them from the
destructive forces that loom even in the strongest companies. My hope is that by relating my
search for the sources of confusion and delusion within Pixar and Disney Animation, I can
help others avoid the pitfalls that impede and sometimes ruin businesses of all kinds. The key
for me—what has kept me motivated in the nineteen years since Toy Story debuted—has been
the realization that identifying these destructive forces isn’t merely a philosophical exercise.
It is a crucial, central mission. In the wake of our earliest success, Pixar needed its leaders to
sit up and pay attention. And that need for vigilance never goes away. This book, then, is
about the ongoing work of paying attention—of leading by being self-aware, as managers and
as companies. It is an expression of the ideas that I believe make the best in us possible.
For thirteen years we had a table in the large conference room at Pixar that we call West
One. Though it was beautiful, I grew to hate this table. It was long and skinny, like one of
those things you’d see in a comedy sketch about an old wealthy couple that sits down for
dinner—one person at either end, a candelabra in the middle—and has to shout to make
conversation. The table had been chosen by a designer Steve Jobs liked, and it was elegant,
all right—but it impeded our work.
We’d hold regular meetings about our movies around that table—thirty of us facing off in
two long lines, often with more people seated along the walls—and everyone was so spread
out that it was difficult to communicate. For those unlucky enough to be seated at the far
ends, ideas didn’t flow because it was nearly impossible to make eye contact without craning
your neck. Moreover, because it was important that the director and producer of the film in
question be able to hear what everyone was saying, they had to be placed at the center of the
table. So did Pixar’s creative leaders: John Lasseter, Pixar’s creative officer, and me, and a
handful of our most experienced directors, producers, and writers. To ensure that these
people were always seated together, someone began making place cards. We might as well
have been at a formal dinner party.
When it comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless. That’s what
I believe. But unwittingly, we were allowing this table—and the resulting place card ritual—
to send a different message. The closer you were seated to the middle of the table, it implied,
the more important—the more central—you must be. And the farther away, the less likely
you were to speak up—your distance from the heart of the conversation made participating
feel intrusive. If the table was crowded, as it often was, still more people would sit in chairs
around the edges of the room, creating yet a third tier of participants (those at the center of
the table, those at the ends, and those not at the table at all). Without intending to, we’d
created an obstacle that discouraged people from jumping in.
Over the course of a decade, we held countless meetings around this table in this way—
completely unaware of how doing so undermined our own core principles. Why were we
blind to this? Because the seating arrangements and place cards were designed for the
convenience of the leaders, including me. Sincerely believing that we were in an inclusive
meeting, we saw nothing amiss because we didn’t feel excluded. Those not sitting at the
center of the table, meanwhile, saw quite clearly how it establis ...
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