Creativity, Inc.

How does Pixar turn out movie after movie that's praised for originality and character development? The studio's co-founder and president Ed Catmull offers an inside look at how Pixar nurtures creativity.

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    Creativity, Inc.,
    by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace,
    Random House,
    368 pp.
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You are now entering the world of Pixar. Creativity, Inc., by Pixar co-founder and president Ed Catmull and writer Amy Wallace, is an inside look at the organizational principles behind the animated inspirations.

In the book, we learn how a new mom saved "Toy Story 2" from a fatal computer crash with a backup drive because she’d happened to be working at home a lot; how the beautiful story of "Up" contains a chronological discrepancy no one seems to have noticed; and how "The Incredibles" director Brad Bird’s Velcro popsicle sticks helped keep his films on budget. There’s also Friday kilt-wearing days and the varied Pixar vocabulary for meetings – the "Braintrust," "Notes Day," and the “dailies,” where animators and writers show work early, whether the work is beautiful or not. (And, Catmull insists, it’s not).

Catmull has enjoyed a ringside seat at the creation of some of the coolest cultural achievements our society has produced in the past 19 years: Pixar films. These include "Up," "The Incredibles," "Finding Nemo," "WALL-E," and the "Toy Story" franchise of films that seem to get better each time. And, after the 2006 sale of Pixar to Disney, Catmull's list as president of Walt Disney Animation expanded to include "Brave," "Tangled," and, most recently, "Frozen."

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But this book is not a celebration of success. It turns out, Catmull isn’t that interested in success. Success, in Pixar’s upside down world, is a pain. It brings attention, complacency, raises the stakes, and brings unexpected surprises like finding oneself president of Disney Animation. All these are things, for Catmull, that can distract from the creative process, and the journey toward excellence.

From the beginning, when "Toy Story" was released in 1995 to become not only the first animated feature film but also to critical and box office applause, Catmull writes that he responded promptly with a personal crisis, deciding to spend the rest of his career watching for the ways that both a creative culture and a start-up culture can be inhibited by its own success.

Catmull is, by training, a physicist and computer scientist who once wrote a dissertation entitled "A Subdivision Algorithm for Computer Display of Curbed Surfaces." Here, he tackles the physics of management. He explains how humans tend to be a pattern-seeking species and how that can act against creativity and good business. How "stochastic" self-similarity deceives us as managers.

On the other hand, while success is to be suspected at all times, Catmull is fine with failure. It’s much more important, it seems, than success. At Pixar, it's crisis – and the urgency it lends to solving problems – that gets people working together. And this observer of computer algorithms and human dynamics has noticed that "individual creativity is magnified by the people around you."

"Creativity, Inc." is best when Catmull’s science-engineer’s brain is applied to the observations he’s made about the process behind creativity and creative people: How directors like Pete Doctor ("Up") and Brad Bird ("The Incredibles") continue to excel – what facilitates great work, and what might kill it.

 “Ugly babies,” or bad work, for instance, is part of the process.

"Why?" writes Catmull, "Because early on, all of our movies suck."

For Catmull, creativity is not a burst of inspiration, it’s a marathon run as a team. Here, we get the inside scoop behind the process of finalizing the story of Pixar's 10th feature, "Up." Unlike the product it created, the story-building process was not elegant, or simple, and it was a process that took not months, but years, to evolve.

Perhaps Catmull's most inspiring and surprising tenet is that the stories, and the people working hard together to create them, should always be the focus. Catmull writes that he and the Pixar team loved it when, after finally realizing their dream of creating the first digitally-animated feature film with "Toy Story," critics didn’t even mention the technology, at least as he remembers it: Instead, they talked about the story. For a team working with the ultimate in tools, the technology was beside the point.

There is occasional drama in Catmull's accounts, particularly in a later chapter detailing the process of the sale of Pixar to Disney, which offers a startling, brief glimpse of Pixar co-founder Steve Jobs bursting into tears of relief and gratitude. But this book contains little of the endearing quirkiness or surprising poignancy of Pixar stories. The color and quirk of the films are left out, in favor of a focus on the hard work, anxiety and tedium that make up the creative process. "Creativity, Inc." is not a book for film fans.

But, for anyone managing anything, and particularly those trying to manage creative teams, Catmull is like a kind, smart godfather guiding us toward managing wisely, without losing our souls, and in a way that works toward greatness. Perhaps it's all "Up" from there.

Janet Saidi is a Monitor contributor.

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