Creativity, Inc. – managing creativity in film

Ed Catmull: 
Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration. 

Random House, 2014. Co-written with Amy Wallace

In the previous blogpost Kocienda described the inspiring, supportive and creative culture at Apple, but also mentioned that when this culture lingered soon after the death of Steve Jobs, he decided to leave the company. This to me clearly shows how important it is to not only create but also to upkeep a creative culture in an organisation. If it disappears people just leave. In this book we share the story of someone who has explicitly set out to build and to upkeep this creative corporate culture.

Ed Catmull at Lucas Films in 1979

Ed Catmull originally graduated in 1969 with degrees in physics and computer science. He completed his doctorate in computer science in 1974 and after several more research-driven positions started working for Lucas Films and their Star Wars productions in 1979, with the intention to bring in technology into the film industry. 

Although Catmull was hired to set up a computing department at Lucas Films, and he notes that in the 1970’s there were many challenges with technology that didn’t exist yet, he still claims that the biggest challenge was the human resistance to change within an organisation. Eventually, Lucas Films decided to sell out the computer department. The Pixar Image Computer was then the strongest asset of the department, but no-one wanted to buy it. After years of discussions the department was eventually sold to Steve Jobs, and Pixar as a company was born in February 1986. It was led by Jobs, Catmull and John Lasseter, with a background at Disney. 

Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs, John Lasseter

Each member of the trio had their own strengths – Jobs was notorious for his business skills and abilities to pursue new business opportunties, Catmull was a pioneer on the technology and Lasseter strong on the storytelling and the artistic side. Their strengths provided different perspectives. Or as Catmull puts it: “One of the advantages we had at Pixar, from the beginning, was that technology, art, and business were integrated into the leadership, with each of the company’s leaders -me, John and Steve- paying a fair amount of attention to the areas where we weren’t considered expert.“ Different viewpoints supported each other, or like Lassater said: “Art challenges technology, technology inspires art”. 

Pixar Animation Studio (Pixar) was (and is) a huge success. In 2006 Pixar was sold to Disney Animations, and Catmull continued as President for both companies. Although it is not mentioned in the book, Catmull retiered from both positions in late 2018 and early 2019.

The first breakthrough feature film for Pixar was Toy Story. Five years was spent working on it, and in addition to the new technology, Catmull sees it as an example of what can happen when artists trust their guts. Toy Story made $358 million worldwide, and became iconic for the new rise of animated films. 

As President of Pixar, Catmull says he felt empty when Toy Story, which had been a dream from childhood, was completed and a success. The company was also economically sound, had recently been listed and everything was fine, but Catmull had doubts of whether just keeping something on track would be equally interesting as developing it.  

Simultaniously, he had observed the development of many new startups in Silicon Valley. He has an interesting viewpoint to how the trajectory went for many of these new startups. Or a pattern, as he says. This was the time of early development in Silicon Valley (see Katz for more on this), and Catmull – who identified himself more a scientist than a manager at the time – had the opportunity to study this dynamic development on close distance. First, someone had a creative idea. They obtained funding, brought on a lot of smart people, and developed and sold a product that got a boatload of attention. That initial success brought more success, luring the best engineers and attracting customers. As the companies grew, much was written about their paradigm-shifting approaches, the CEO landed on the cover of Fortune magazine and the companies were coined “Titans of the New”, all with a huge confidence. Despite this confidence, many of the companies did not see problems arising, and often failed in the end. “Why?”, Catmull wonders.

After the success with Toy Story, and in order to avoid this faith, Catmull set out creating a culture at Pixar. A creative culture with the aim to outlast its founders; Steve Jobs, John Lasseter and him.

Most of the book is about how this culture is built, what the challenges have been and how they have been overcome, and what any company could do in order to achieve such a culture in their organisation. Some of the insights are more general and philosophical, but many examples are also very hands-on and practical.

Creativity – posing questions, openness and trust

Catmull sees the job of the manager as to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it. He claims that everybody has potential to be creative, whatever form that creativity takes, and to encourage such development is key. Additionally, we have to focus on the blocks that get in the way, often without noticing, and hinder the creativity that resides within any thriving organisation.

The best leaders acknowledge and realize that we need to make room for what we do not know – not just because humility is a virtue but because until we adopt this mindset the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur. We must accept risk, trust people we work with and strive to clear the path for them, and must always pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear. We also have to admit that we and our models may be wrong. Only when we admit we do not know, we learn. 

As part of this learning approach Catmull states that their purpose was not merely to build a studio that made hit films but to foster a creative culture that would continually ask questions. (The acknowledgement of the importance of asking questions comes very close to Colomina&Wigley’s approach). He also emphasises that a sustainable creative culture is not a singular assignment, it is a day-in-day- out, full-time job. In his opinion, this requires two important mindsets. We should put people first – not ideas. And trust people, not process. 

In trusting people Catmull does an interesting comparison to Toyota’s way of production, where you gave ownership and responsibility to people who were most involved in the production. Workers could suggest changes, call out problems, and feel pride when they helped fix what was broken. Catmull especially highlights Toyota’s approach where you don’t have to ask permission to take responsibility. This is the attitude he’d like to see in any organisation. 

Toyota’s management models were very popular and broadly discussed during my studies in the early nineties, here’s the cover of an old textbook we had as a blast from the past. 🙂

Approaches to foster creativity

In order to achive this culture where people are trusted and creativity can occur, Catmull has several very practical approaches.

He starts off by emphasising the importance of candour to creativity. You have to dare to say what you think – in a frank way. In Pixar this was created through the Braintrust, a group of people whose role is to solve a problem and to be frank. Catmull claims that Braintrust was critical for the tradition of Pixar, and that frank talk, spirited debate, laughter and love are all crucial for a Braintrust meeting. The Braintrust was also seen valuable because of its ability to broaden the perspectives, allowing you to peer- at least briefly -through others eyes. 

Catmulls description of how the Braintrust works comes vary close to a normal learning environment in the arts: each film needs its viewing and the consequent discussion around it. Different people with different viewpoints pitch in. This is a very efficient method -to give constructive criticism- but also a very time-consuming way. Every piece of work needs their own attention. 

In an educational context each student share their thinking of their work, and then the rest of the group (teacher included) discuss it. These “crits” are used in many fields, from film to architecture. If you have attended one you also know the challenge of this method. Of course, you need an open attitude and the ability for people to share and associate freely, creating trust just like Catmull says. But there is something else that is even more important – the size of the group. As this way of going through work is very fatiguing (and also energizing) one cannot go through too many pieces of work before the whole group is drained. The last person to showcase their work risks getting a less thorough critique than the first person. And if we want to achieve the best possible quality -we cannot have too many projects to review. 

Crit with a fairly large group at the Architecture Department of ETH Zurich. As is often the case, most of the group is attentive and participates in the discussion, but the guy at the back is already tired and stretching….

Many people claim they cherish failure. Still very few people actually do. In a creative field the ability to fail safely is crucial. Catmull compares it to learning to drive a bike -don’t expect to be able to do it perfectly from the start- just get yourself a very low bike and a helmet and some knee-protection and give it a try. He also cherishes the failures of Pixar, claiming that the company meltdowns have been a necessary part of doing their business. Catmull sees them as investments in R&D, and urges everyone in the company to see them the same way. 

Interestingly, Catmull is also very critical to the traditional forms of planning done in many organisations. He says that people think they can carefully think everything through, plan meticulously and consider all possible outcomes. He says that this slow, deliberate planning is no escape from failure. According to him, this process just increases your chances of being unoriginal. And in addition, you cannot plan your way out of problems. He claims that overplanners just take a longer time to fail (as we all do fail) but by then have fallen so in love with their idea because they have been planning it for so long they have problems in discarding it even if it wouldn’t work. 

The challenges of the perfect process

Aiming for a better process (have the storyline completed first, start working on the film only when the storyline is finished) proved a failure in itself at Pixar. Finding Nemo was supposed to be the film in which this approach was cherished. In the end, the team did just as many changes to the script of Finding Nemo as they had to any previous film. 

Catmull concludes that this experience taught him that making the process better, easier and cheaper is an important aspiration but it is NOT THE GOAL. Making something great should be the goal. He continues that he sees this over and over again in other organisations. Streamlining the process or increasing production becomes the ultimate goal, and each person and group think that they are doing the right thing. In reality this process-searching keeps us from creating new ideas, and giving them the attention and protection they need to shine and mature. 

In many organisations, those in charge of the processes are the most organised people in the company – people wired to make things happen on track and on budget. According to Catmull it goes wrong when those people and their interests get too powerful. Then there is not always sufficient push- back to protect new ideas. The key is to find a balance. 

He says that we must keep our intentions -our values- but allow for our goals to change. It is essential for creativity to have a culture that protects the new. Catmull suggests that any time we impose limits or procedures, we should ask how they will aid in enabling people to respond creatively. If the answer is that they won’t, then the proposals are ill suited to the task at hand. He is in general very positive to the usage of data, but states that we should “measure what you can, evaluate what you measure, and appreciate that you cannot measure the vast majority of what you do. And at least every once in a while, make time to step back and think about what you are doing.” 

Building and sustaining a creative culture

Catmull presents some some of the specific models employed at Pixar to prevent their disparate views from hindering their collaboration. He says that eight mechanisms are used to put their collective heads in to a different frame of mind. 

  1. Dailies, or solving problems together (share what you are working on in the group, with openness and constructive criticism)
  2. Research trips (you’ll never stumble on the unexpected if you stick only to the familiar)
  3. The power of limits (focus on quality were it makes a difference, but don’t try to make everything perfect)
  4. Integrating technology and art (different perspectives foster new innovation)
  5. short experiments (try new stuff and approaches in a fast way)
  6. Learning to see (Creative classes -like drawing, live- action filmmaking, computer programming, design and colour theory were introduced for everyone in the company. Catmull says that this changed the culture for the better and is a key part of remaining flexible- keeping our brains nimble by pushing ourselves to try things we haven’t tried before.)
  7. Postmortems (take a moment to reflect and learn from what you did)
  8. Continuing to learn (remember to keep a startup mentality or beginner’s mind, by trusting and making room for the views of others) 

In addition, Catmull also describes some very concrete places in which this thinking has been implemented. The company spaces are geared for creativity, where animators are encouraged to decorate their own home space – so in the end cubicles might look like a pink dollhouse or a tiki hut of real bamboo. They have a yearly “Pixarpalooza” – event with in-house bands competing, and value self- expression in all its glory. CatmuII continues that this creativity shown in the spaces also tends to make a big impression on visitors, who admire this first-hand experience of energy and possibility. He continues that this sense of exuberance or irrelevance, even whimsy, is integral to their success. 

Creating the unknown together

In finding new solutions and strategic direction for the company, Catmull says that if everyone’s opinion is to be cherished then the whole company should participate in finding these solutions. This thought led to the invention of Notes Day. 

Notes Day was prepared in advance by anyone being able to submit topics that they wanted to be divested or developed. For the actual day these topics were developed into workshops, were all the staff participated, in mixed groups, and shared their experiences and insights afterwards. 

The idea of Notes Day reminds me of something we did many times during my years in Umeå. In order to develop our joint strategy and future curricula, anyone could propose which areas we should look at for the future. These topics were then developed into one-week workshops, all executed the same week as part of a project called Prototyping the Future. (if you want to check out the project more, you can hear me present it at TedX and similar events here: here:

Prototyping the Future project at Umeå Institute of Design, engaging everyone in discussion and development on strategic choices.

Everyone, faculty, staff and students alike, participated in one of these workshops during the week, and after it we had a lot more material to strategically discuss what we should include in our future curricula and what we shouldn’t. 

Interestingly, my insight with the Prototyping the Future weeks was very similar to Catmull’s insight from the Notes Day. Yes, the project gave a lot of good thoughts that could be implemented directly and would improve the results. But even more important than that, it made everyone in the organisation feel committed and involved in the development of the company. The mixed groups working together during the day at Pixar also helped in people getting to know each other across the different groups within the company, and this spirit was just as important as the “actual” results that came out of the exercise. My experience with the Prototyping the Future weeks in Umeå were exactly the same – Yes, we did get good strategic material to develop, but more importantly, the commitment and spirit for striving towards excellence together was on a completely different level after them. 

Steve Jobs, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull

As part of the story Catmull also touches on working together with Steve Jobs, which he did for 26 years. His relation to Jobs was very different to Lee’s, in Catmulls case Jobs was the owner of Pixar, but also a peer. They stood on equal basis, and Catmull admired what he did well, but also shows his frustration with his less admirable features. In the end, Catmull talks about him with warmth, and concludes that Jobs always kept his passion for excellence.

In the end of the book Catmull also confesses that he is intentionally not defining the word creativity. He claims that we all have the potential to solve problems and express ourselves creatively and quotes a colleague who said that creativity might be about “unexpected connections between unrelated concepts or ideas”. He also concludes that working with change is what creativity is all about,and says that we frequently support the idea of pushing the boundaries in theory, ignoring the trouble it can cause in practice. 

This doesn’t mean we should stop trying. Persisting in reaching our goals is part of the deal. As is the constant quest to loosen our controls, accept risk, and trust our colleagues; all necessary for unleashing creativity. 

Catmull points out that a characteristic of creative people is that they imagine making the impossible possible. That imagining – dreaming, doodling, audaciously rejecting what is (for the moment) true – is the way we discover what is new or important. 

I still haven’t seen a single organisation that would look at how much their people are able to imagine the impossible as part of their success criteria. I am eagerly looking forward to see where this first happens (and please let me know if it already does).

What have you imagined, dreamt or doodled about today, this week or this year?

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