Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull

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The Oscar-winning co-founder of Pixar and president of Disney Animation recounts lessons learned about creativity in his successful career.

A computer animation pioneer, Ed Catmull has contributed to many important developments in computer graphics. He brought that background to the entertainment world and co-founded Pixar Animation Studios, which, for almost 20 years, has dominated the animation world. He's marshalled such films as Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up and the Toy Story trilogy—changing animation forever. He's also won five Oscars for his work, including two for technical and engineering achievement and an Academy Award of Merit. He shares what he's learned in his award-winning career in Creativity, Inc., a book for managers who want to lead their employees to new heights.


Tavis: Ed Catmull has worked with innovators such as George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Steve Jobs, and John Lassiter. Along the way he’s earned five Academy Awards for innovative technology and engineering, as well as for content excellence.

He’s now president of both Pixar and its parent company, Disney Animation, teams that brought us such wonderful films as “Wall-E” and “Frozen.” He’s written a new tome titled “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration” that gives us insights into how to harness disparate personalities to achieve artistic goals. Ed Catmull, good to have you on this program.

Ed Catmull: Thank you.

Tavis: I should start with congratulations. I think we all just saw the news, those of us in Hollywood at least saw the news about the ultimate success of “Frozen.” You guys set a record.

Catmull: Yes, “Frozen” just became the highest-grossing animated film of all time.

Tavis: Beat your own record.

Catmull: Yes, beat “Toy Story 3” (Laughter) So.

Tavis: How’s that feel, to set records beating your own records?

Catmull: Well, we have a new challenge in front of us.

Tavis: How does it feel, speaking of feelings, how does it feel to be the guy who’s been on the team – because I think this is part of leadership. You’ve been on this team since the very beginning.

I think for a lot of different reasons, Americans know the names of these other guys more than they know your name, and yet you’ve been there every step of the way. You run this whole operation now. But obviously, your ego must not be an issue.

Catmull: Well I actually feel awkward being at the center of attention.

Tavis: Right.

Catmull: I love solving the problems of having groups work together and removing barriers. But to actually turn around and be in the center of that is an awkward place to be.

Tavis: That seems so antithetical, though, to the way we view leadership these days.

Catmull: Well it is, but I would have to say at Pixar and at Disney Animation that most of the people are that way. They really want to be part of something that’s great.

There’s a cultural ethic, which is that we’re making films that touch the world. That’s what we want to do, touch them emotionally. For me, there’s something grand about that view of the world.

Tavis: Yeah. Anyone who works in any operation, I suspect, is viewed as, or should be viewed as, or wants to be viewed as a member of the team. I do a TV show here every night, and no way I could do it by myself.

A lot of people help me pull this off every single night, and so we’re a team. Again, I suspect that’s true of any organization or entity, and yet I can’t think of a field where the work is more collaborative than the field that you work in. How do you process that?

Catmull: Well I believe that it has to be the team. In fact the people there, as you know, understand that it’s a team, that everybody is involved with it. But from the outside point of view, from the world, they only see one or two people.

So the outside view is a distortion of what happens, and yet inside everybody, the directors truly appreciate everybody around them, because they bring things that they wouldn’t get themselves, and it’s what makes it work.

Tavis: Yeah. I want to go inside your text in just a second and get some of the good advice that you share in this book, “Creativity, Inc.” But one other personal question, if I might. What’s the takeaway, what’s the life takeaway for you, given the kind of work that you do?

You’re in animation. We all love animation, kids and adults. But aside from setting records and getting box office, what do you get out of being animator-in-chief, as it were? What’s it do for you?

Catmull: Well I like to say John Lassiter is the animator-in-chief. For me personally it is the way people respond to problems. I know internally when we’ve got successes, I feel good about that, as anybody would.

But there’s something about when there’s a crisis and a group comes together to solve the problem, that’s when I feel the best. It’s the strangest thing, I don’t know how to describing.

I’ll be walking out of the meeting where everything’s falling apart, and that group owns the problem. They’re not looking to John or me and say, “Solve the problem.” They own the problem. There’s a special kind of feeling when you see that.

Tavis: You’ve got some interesting and fascinating stuff in here that we can all learn about how to better run our operations or how to better be players in the operation. One of these concepts I found funny – the ugly baby.

Catmull: Yes.

Tavis: You want to expound on that for me?

Catmull: Okay. So I first heard this back when Disney was successful in the ’90s where they had those four fantastic films that changed motion picture history.

But they had this term “feed the beast,” and the beast isn’t any company, it’s in broadcast, right? You’ve got to keep stuff coming in, so hence the term feed the beast.

It’s creative, it has a lot of our costs, generates the revenue, it’s really important. But then there’s a question of where does the new stuff come from, where does the creative come from.

There’s a concept that most people have that the beginning of a movie is like a young child or like a little thing that’s growing up, and it must be fun to watch that pretty little baby grow up to be this film. That’s sort of the mental model.

But what if the baby is ugly, right? (Laughter) And this is the real point, is all of our films at the beginning look terrible. I don’t see this to be self-effacing or modest.

They really don’t look good. They suck. And at that point, that team of people have got something which looks like this smoking heap of rubble on the floor and it doesn’t work.

Our job is to protect this group and this thing when it isn’t working, and we have to go through iteration after iteration, and it takes years, actually, to get this. So there’s a time when you’re protecting this thing when it’s ugly.

But you can’t do that forever. At some point that thing has got to mature into something which is good and looks good and which does work. So we’ve got this continual balance between feeding the beast and protecting the baby, and it’s that in-between place that’s hard, because people want to swing towards feed the beast, make the decisions now, and it can screw your front end up.

Tavis: So what if the baby stays ugly, or what if the ugly duckling never turns into the beautiful swan? If the baby never gets cuter in the process of development, how do you know that you need to get out of this?

Because as a moviegoer, I go to movies sometimes and I say to myself who in the world thought this was going to work? They spent millions of dollars on this and you’re telling me at no point in this process, nobody in the studio thought this is a bust, we’re going to lose on this big time, let’s put out of this.

Sometimes I’ve heard that when you’re in so deep, you can’t pull out. You’ve got so much money invested; you at least push it out and try to go to DVD or something. But in your business, how do you know when that ugly baby ain’t going to get no cuter?

Catmull: Okay, so we have an advantage. The one you’re describing is the live-action model. Group of people, creative people, come together, write the script, shoot it, edit it together, and at that point they find out oh, I’ve got something pretty good here.

Or uh-oh, we’re in trouble. If they see they’re in trouble, it’s usually too late to fix it. With animation, we have a different model.

Tavis: Okay.

Catmull: That is we’ll have the idea, we’ll put the team on it, team will work on it, put it up there, it doesn’t work right, all right? But we didn’t actually make the movie yet. We just did drawings and put them up with temporary voices and temporary music.

So it’s like we did a beta version of it, and it doesn’t work. So we get together and we rework it, come back three months later, and do it again. Ah, this works, but this still doesn’t work.

So we repeat this several times, like six, seven, eight times, so we have a way of correcting it when it has gone off the rails. Now that being said, your original question, what happens if after all these steps we don’t get there, because we have been in that place?

We were there with “Toy Story 3,” we were there with “Ratatouille.” Now the difficulty is, what makes this hard is you’ve got to protect the team when they’re wandering around in the wilderness.

So when do you stop the protection when you have go to in and make changes. There’s not a sudden cut-off point. So what it is is initially, if the team isn’t working well together, the first thing you do is you cast the warning flags and you bolster the team.

Usually, that works. But after a lot of bolstering it doesn’t work, you reach a point where the director loses the crew, loses the confidence. At that point we have to do something very painful, which is change the director.

Tavis: See, that’s amazing to hear that story, because you’re telling me that “Toy Story 3” was a really, really ugly baby, and it goes on eventually to be a huge blockbuster.

Catmull: Yes, although I must say “Toy Story 3” was the only one of our 14 films that didn’t have a major meltdown along the way.

Tavis: Wow.

Catmull: In fact, when we were making it, Steve called me once about it and I said, “I’m a little nervous, Steve, because -”

Tavis: Steve Jobs.

Catmull: Yeah, Steve Jobs. I said, “We haven’t had a single major problem with ‘Toy Story 3.'” He says, “Uh-oh, you better look out.” (Laughter) “That means we’re in trouble.”

Tavis: It’s been too easy, huh?

Catmull: Yeah, so I said, “Oh, I’m not too worried about it, because our next two films are disasters.”

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) Speaking of team, which you’ve talked a lot about, the weird thing about this book is it’s advice for those of us in the business world and beyond for how to make teams work better, born of the experiences that you’ve had.

How do you go about, as you discuss in the text, making sure you have the right team? How do you put the right team together?

Catmull: Well we have to judge the team and not the idea they’re working on. That’s the not-obvious thing, because people want to look at the product, say is this right.

Instead, you look – how well does this team work together? Are they laughing? Are they funny? Are they focused? If they’re working together, they will solve the problem.

That’s one of our fundamental tenets. If that team is working, then we’re going to trust them, even though they’re going to make a bunch of mistakes. Some of those great teams have made some horrendous mistakes.

I shouldn’t say horrendous; they were exploratory mistakes. But they ended up in a great place because they were protected when they went through this process.

Tavis: Some of us do work, Ed, that is rote. That is to say we come to work every day and pretty much do the same thing. But you all are in the space that some of us are in, of doing original work.

How does that change the whole notion of creativity when you’re doing original work?

Catmull: Well what I’d like to do, and the way I think about it, is creativity should be broader than just, say, expression or, you know, creating new products or whatever.

For me, creativity includes problem-solving. That’s the broad definition of it. So the question is how do we free people up? Because you go into most organizations, even when they’re doing things over and over again, and you find sometimes people, they won’t tell the truth, they won’t say what they think.

There are these barriers. If you look at people trying to address the problem of creativity, what they want to do is find the answer about how they can become more creative or how they can solve the problems.

But I don’t think that’s the fundamental issue. For me, the fundamental issue is that there are cultural and systemic barriers to change and creativity, and that what we want to do and what we try to address are the barriers and the blocks to change and honesty.

Tavis: Cultural and systemic – I could do this for hours; I don’t have that much time, but unpack that for me. I hear your point about these cultural and systemic barriers, but that’s such an open statement.

Catmull: Okay. So let’s take the notion of failure.

Tavis: Okay.

Catmull: It’s pretty popular today to say that everybody should learn to fail and that failure’s a good thing. Intellectually, it’s an obvious thing. But in fact, it gets conflated with another meaning of failure, so when we grow up as kids, failing in school was a really bad thing.

That’s deeply ingrained inside of us. Or if we look at the outside world, the political and the business world, where a failure of some sort is used as a hammer to damage your opponents.

So we’ve got the professional meaning of failure, which is well that’s part of learning, and the other one, which is like this is really bad. It’s a hammer to hurt somebody, or inside of me.

But these are emotionally combined, and the result is people will say one thing about failure, but deep down inside, they don’t want to do it. That’s part of the system. It’s an emotional one.

So what we have to do is say how do we make it so that it actually is safe, regardless of the words that we use? How do we make it safe for people to make mistakes?

They’ve got to walk in a room and do something and know that a lot of what they are presenting people doesn’t work, and nobody’s going to actually hold them down for it or hold it against them.

Tavis: As I said earlier, he’s done more collaborative work than anybody in this town, certainly as much as anybody, so he ought to know. He’s the president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation.

His name, Ed Catmull. The new text from Mr. Catmull is called “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration.” I promise you I have not done justice to the text, but I hope your appetite has been whetted for the book.

Ed, good to have you on the program, and congratulations on the “Frozen” success and all the future success to come.

Catmull: Well thank you very much.

Tavis: Good to have you on.

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Last modified: April 17, 2014 at 3:09 pm