#317 Ed Catmull Pixar

Summary Notes


In this episode, the host reflects on the influential figures of Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs, and George Lucas, highlighting their shared obsession with product quality. He discusses his personal experience with the innovative sleep technology company Eight Sleep, emphasizing the transformative impact of its temperature control feature on his sleep quality. The host also teases an upcoming live show with Patrick O'Shaughnessy, where they'll share insights from years of podcasting and host a Q&A session. Additionally, the episode delves into the professional journey of Ed Catmull, exploring his early ambitions, the pivotal role of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in his career, and his determination to merge technology with filmmaking. Catmull's narrative is intertwined with anecdotes about industry pioneers like George Lucas and Steve Jobs, revealing a pattern of brilliance followed by missteps in Silicon Valley. The episode culminates in Catmull's realization of the importance of introspection and learning from others' mistakes to create a sustainable creative culture, as chronicled in his book "Creativity, Inc."

Summary Notes

Shared Obsession for Quality

  • Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs, and George Lucas all had an obsession with the quality of their products.
  • The focus on quality is a common trait among successful founders.
  • Building relationships with advertisers is easier when there is a shared understanding and respect for quality.

"So the three founders I talk about most in this episode, Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs, and George Lucas, all shared the same obsession for the quality of the products that they were making."

The quote emphasizes the shared value of quality that these three influential founders held, which is a key factor in their success.

Product Endorsement and Personal Experience

  • Mateo, founder of eight Sleep, personally uses and believes in his product.
  • The ability to change bed temperature with eight Sleep significantly improved sleep quality.
  • Successful founders like Jeff Bezos, James Dyson, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg endorse eight Sleep.
  • The speaker believes in the value of eight Sleep and promotes it with a discount link.

"Mateo is living and breathing his product. And you see this because there's nothing in the same class as eight sleep."

This quote illustrates the authenticity of the founder's belief in his product, which translates into a superior offering.

Upcoming Live Show

  • A live show in New York City featuring Patrick O'Shaughnessy is scheduled for October 19.
  • The event will cover lessons from seven years of podcasting and feature a live Q&A.
  • Tickets are selling quickly, indicating high interest from both "founders" and "invest like the best" listeners.

"I am doing a live show in New York City on October 19 with Patrick O'Shaughnessy from invest like the best."

The quote announces an upcoming event that will provide valuable insights from experienced podcasters and is expected to attract a significant audience.

Silicon Valley and Hollywood Intersection

  • Ed Catmull had a unique perspective on the intersection of Silicon Valley and Hollywood.
  • Observing startups and technology companies gave Catmull insight into patterns of success and failure.
  • Catmull sought to understand why smart people made poor decisions that led to company failures.

"My professional life seemed destined to have 1ft in Silicon Valley and the other in Hollywood."

The quote reflects Catmull's dual involvement in the worlds of technology and filmmaking, which provided him with a broad perspective on innovation and creativity.

Learning from Others' Mistakes

  • Catmull was determined to protect Pixar from common pitfalls that affected other companies.
  • He was curious about the disconnect that caused smart, creative companies to fail.
  • Catmull's goal was to build a sustainable creative culture at Pixar.

"What was causing smart people to make decisions that sent their companies off the rails?"

This quote poses a central question that Catmull aimed to explore, highlighting the importance of learning from the mistakes of others to avoid similar downfalls.

Creativity, Inc. Overview

  • "Creativity, Inc." is a book by Ed Catmull that discusses building a sustainable creative culture.
  • The book explores Catmull's personal journey and the founding story of Pixar.
  • It addresses the question of what to do after achieving one's goals.

"It is called Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration."

The quote introduces the book "Creativity, Inc." which is a study of how to overcome obstacles to creativity and inspiration, particularly in the context of a successful organization like Pixar.

Childhood Inspirations

  • Walt Disney and Albert Einstein were Ed Catmull's childhood heroes.
  • Disney's weekly television show and his technological innovations in animation inspired Catmull.
  • Einstein's mastery in explaining the universe fueled Catmull's pursuit of knowledge.

"Disney's animators were at the forefront of applied technology."

This quote highlights Disney's role in pioneering technological advancements in animation, which served as an inspiration for Catmull's own career.

The Influence of ARPA

  • The U.S. government's creation of ARPA in response to Sputnik aimed to support scientific innovation.
  • ARPA's philosophy of getting smarter in the face of challenges influenced Catmull's approach to problem-solving.

"We'll just have to get smarter."

The quote captures the proactive and intelligent response to competition and challenges, which Catmull admired and applied in his own work.

Education and Career Path

  • Catmull's father's emphasis on education and hard work was a significant influence.
  • Catmull excelled academically, earning degrees in physics and computer science.
  • He initially aimed to design computer languages but was redirected towards computer animation.

"At the age of 26, I set a new goal, to develop a way to animate not with a pencil, but with a computer."

This quote marks a pivotal moment in Catmull's career where he sets a groundbreaking goal that would eventually lead to the creation of computer-animated films.

George Lucas's Influence

  • George Lucas was seen as a rebel and a misfit who always bet on himself.
  • Lucas's decision to incorporate high technology into filmmaking was revolutionary at the time.
  • Catmull admired Lucas's practicality and independent thinking.

"George had relentless practicality. He wasn't some hobbyist trying to bring technology into filmmaking for the heck of it."

The quote underscores George Lucas's practical and purpose-driven approach to integrating technology into filmmaking, which had a lasting impact on Catmull.

George Lucas's Philosophy on Building a Company

  • George Lucas compared developing Skywalker ranch to a damaged ship still determined to reach its destination.
  • He saw building a company as a journey with a shared purpose, akin to a wagon train heading west.
  • Lucas believed in the importance of the process and the journey towards a goal, rather than just the arrival.
  • He idealized the notion of moving towards something, even if the destination had not yet been reached.

"We're still going to get there, he would say, just grab the paddles and let's keep going."

This quote illustrates Lucas's determination and optimism even in the face of adversity, emphasizing the importance of perseverance.

"The process of moving towards something, of having not yet arrived, was what he idealized."

Lucas valued the journey and the growth it brings, suggesting that the act of striving for a goal can be more fulfilling than the goal itself.

The Emotional Journey of Founders

  • Ed Catmull felt lost and possibly depressed after achieving his goals, highlighting the emotional struggle founders face post-success.
  • The need for a new mission is crucial for personal fulfillment, regardless of wealth.
  • A quote from the Bugatti book emphasizes the necessity of devotion to a purpose in life.

"A human life by its very nature has to be devoted to something or other, to a glorious or humble enterprise, an illustrious or obscure destiny."

This quote reinforces the idea that having a purpose or mission is essential for a meaningful life, and losing it can lead to a sense of emptiness.

George Lucas's Long-Term Vision and Self-Belief

  • Lucas had a long-term vision and believed in his ability to shape the future.
  • He invested in himself by retaining licensing and merchandising rights to Star Wars, which was a pivotal decision for his career and the industry.

"George Lucas unapologetically invested in what he believed in the most, himself."

Lucas's self-belief and unconventional decision-making set the stage for his future success and changed industry norms.

Ed Catmull's Partnership with Steve Jobs

  • Ed Catmull worked with Steve Jobs for 26 years, providing unique insights into Jobs's character.
  • Jobs valued the power of storytelling and its role in business and product development.
  • The importance of clear communication and having a "singleness of purpose" was a key part of Jobs's approach.

"The storyteller is the most powerful person in the world."

Jobs recognized the influence of storytelling in shaping perceptions and driving business, highlighting its importance in entrepreneurship.

Steve Jobs's Intense Negotiation Style

  • Steve Jobs's assertiveness and focus on clear, direct communication were evident in negotiations.
  • His approach to disagreements was to explain his perspective more clearly to achieve understanding.
  • Jobs's strategic thinking was demonstrated in his handling of meetings and negotiations.

"When I don't see eye to eye with somebody, I just take the time to explain it better so they understand the way it should be."

Jobs believed in the power of clear explanation to resolve conflicts and ensure everyone was aligned with his vision.

Steve Jobs's Investment in Pixar

  • Steve Jobs invested heavily in Pixar, demonstrating his commitment to building great products.
  • His investment was a significant portion of his net worth, showcasing his belief in Pixar's potential.
  • Jobs's protective nature and strategic foresight were instrumental in guiding Pixar through challenging times.

"Steve paid $5 million to spin Pixar off of Lucasfilm and agreed to invest another $5 million to fund the company."

Jobs's financial commitment to Pixar was a major factor in the company's survival and eventual success.

Ed Catmull's Management Philosophy

  • Ed Catmull was influenced by W. Edward Demings's ideas on quality and problem-solving.
  • Catmull believed that every employee should be responsible for identifying and fixing problems.
  • This philosophy empowered employees and fostered a culture of ownership and continuous improvement at Pixar.

"You don't have to ask permission to take responsibility."

Catmull encouraged a proactive approach to problem-solving, allowing employees to take initiative without bureaucratic obstacles.

Pixar's Transition to Computer Animation

  • Pixar's initial business model focused on selling hardware, which was not successful.
  • The company's true passion lay in computer animation, leading to a strategic pivot towards this field.
  • The decision to focus on computer animation was driven by passion and a desire to innovate in an uncharted territory.

"The only thing that made this leap easier was that we had decided to go all in on what we yearned to do from the outset."

Pixar's shift to computer animation was fueled by the team's genuine interest and enthusiasm for the medium, despite the financial risks involved.

Steve Jobs and Pixar's Negotiations with Disney

  • Steve Jobs led negotiations with Disney, ensuring that Pixar retained ownership of its technological innovations.
  • The partnership with Disney was critical for Pixar's future, but it also involved navigating unexplored challenges in computer animation.
  • Jobs's negotiation skills and willingness to stand firm on key issues were vital in securing a favorable deal for Pixar.

"Steve said not to buy our trade secrets. What we brought here was our technical innovations, and they are not for sale."

Jobs's assertiveness in negotiations protected Pixar's intellectual property and set the stage for its future success in animation.

Pixar's Early Success and Strategy

  • Pixar was comprised of 'A players' in its early days, with around 400 employees, each an all-star.
  • The first movie Pixar created was "Toy Story," which has remained excellent over time.
  • Steve Jobs threw curveballs, which was expected when working with him.
  • Steve Jobs predicted Disney would see Pixar as a competitor after "Toy Story's" success.
  • Jobs wanted to renegotiate the deal with Disney for a 50/50 split on financial returns.
  • Pixar needed to go public to fund their half of production budgets.
  • Pixar's IPO was scheduled one week after "Toy Story" released, as Steve Jobs predicted its success.
  • The IPO was the biggest of 1995, raising $140 million.
  • Disney CEO Michael Eisner renegotiated the deal as predicted, accepting the 50/50 split.

"Let's assume that Toy Story is a success, he said. Let's actually assume it's a big success." This quote reflects Steve Jobs' confidence in "Toy Story" and his strategic foresight regarding Pixar's negotiations with Disney.

"We would go public one week after Toy Story." Steve Jobs' strategic plan to go public shortly after the release of "Toy Story" to capitalize on its anticipated success.

The Emotional Journey of Success

  • Despite achieving success with "Toy Story," Ed Catmull felt empty and adrift.
  • Catmull's new mission was to maintain the happiness of Pixar's talented team and manage the complexities of collaboration.
  • This mission is a central theme of Catmull's book, focusing on creating a sustainable creative environment.

"And yet he feels completely empty and adrift inside." The quote highlights the emotional paradox that can accompany achieving one's dreams, as experienced by Ed Catmull.

"The mission that he assigns himself and the one that still animates me to this day." Ed Catmull's dedication to his mission of fostering a creative and sustainable work environment at Pixar.

The Importance of Team Over Ideas

  • The success of a project depends more on the team than the initial idea.
  • A mediocre team can ruin a good idea, while a brilliant team can fix or replace a mediocre idea.
  • Getting the team right is a precursor to getting the idea right.
  • The organizational structure at Pixar was restructured to prioritize supporting talented individuals.

"If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up." This quote emphasizes the critical importance of having a strong team to execute ideas effectively.

"Getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the idea right." The quote underlines the priority of assembling the right team before perfecting the idea for success.

Balancing Work and Personal Life

  • Intense work on "Toy Story 2" led to a near-tragic incident with an overworked employee.
  • Catmull realized the importance of protecting employees from overwork.
  • The focus shifted to promoting healthy habits and work-life balance.
  • Pixar's long-term success required taking care of the team's well-being.

"A motivated, workaholic workforce pulling together to make a deadline could destroy itself if it's left unchecked." The quote illustrates the dangers of an unchecked workaholic culture and the need for balance.

"It is my job to protect our people from their willingness to pursue excellence at all costs." Ed Catmull's realization of his responsibility to ensure the well-being of his team at Pixar.

Quality as the Ultimate Business Plan

  • Pixar's commitment to quality meant not tolerating second-class films.
  • Quality became a part of Pixar's identity, a principle shared by Steve Jobs at Apple.
  • Quality is considered the best business plan, and everything associated with the company's name must reflect excellence.

"Quality is the best business plan." This quote, attributed to John Lasseter, encapsulates the philosophy that high-quality products are essential for business success.

"Every single interaction a customer might have with Apple, from using a Mac to calling customer support, to buying a single from the iTunes store and then getting billed for it, was excellent." Steve Jobs' philosophy at Apple mirrors Pixar's focus on quality, ensuring that all aspects of the customer experience are outstanding.

Embracing the Creative Process

  • Creativity involves starting with imperfect ideas and refining them through trial and error.
  • Pixar acknowledges that their movies are not good at first, and improvement is part of the process.
  • Candor is essential at Pixar, with a focus on critiquing ideas, not people.
  • The Brain Trust at Pixar provides candid feedback without authority over the director's decisions.
  • The separation of personal identity from ideas is crucial to handle challenges without taking offense.

"Early on, all of our movies suck." Ed Catmull's candid admission that the initial versions of Pixar films are far from perfect, highlighting the importance of the creative process.

"You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged." This quote encourages separating one's self-worth from their ideas to remain open to constructive criticism and improvement.

The Role of Problems in Business

  • Problems in business are inevitable and should be viewed as opportunities for growth.
  • Steve Jobs warned that a lack of problems is dangerous, as it suggests complacency.
  • Catmull sees problems as investments in R&D, essential for innovation and progress.

"Problems are inevitable. That's why I think the maxim that I learned from Henry Kaiser, like, years ago, that problems are just opportunities in workflows is such a fantastic maximum." The quote from Ed Catmull reflects a positive perspective on problems as opportunities for learning and improvement.

"Watch out, he said. That is a very dangerous place to be." Steve Jobs' cautionary advice to Ed Catmull about the risks of not encountering problems indicates the necessity of challenges for growth and vigilance.

Business Focus and Avoiding Process as a Proxy

  • The ultimate goal in business is to create something great, not just improve processes.
  • Jeff Bezos' writings support the idea that focusing on processes can detract from the main goal.
  • Companies must be wary of allowing process optimization to overshadow the objective of excellence.

"Making something great is the goal." Ed Catmull's assertion that the primary objective in business should be to create excellent products or services.

"The process becomes the proxy for the results you want. You stop looking at outcomes and you just make sure you're doing the process right." Jeff Bezos' observation about the danger of prioritizing process over results aligns with Catmull's focus on the end goal of greatness.

The Importance of Conflict in Growth

  • Conflict should not be viewed negatively but as an essential part of growth and development.
  • The metaphor of a sunny day illustrates that constant ease and lack of challenge can hinder growth.
  • Conflict tests ideas and ensures that the best ones survive and thrive.

"To view lack of conflict as optimum is like saying a sunny day is optimum. A sunny day is when the sun wins out over the rain. There's no conflict. You have a clear winner. But if every day is Sunny and it doesn't rain, things don't grow."

This quote emphasizes the necessity of conflict in the natural world and implies its importance in intellectual and creative environments. Without conflict or challenge, there is stagnation rather than growth.

The New Needs Friends

  • New ideas and talents require support and defense against criticism.
  • The speech from "Ratatouille" by Brad Bird, delivered by the character Anton Ego, highlights the risk and courage involved in embracing and defending new creations.
  • The speech resonated deeply with Ed Catmull, reflecting the challenges faced by innovators.

"The new needs friends."

This succinct quote encapsulates the idea that innovation and new creations need support and advocacy to survive in a world that might be resistant or unkind to change.

The Power of Limits

  • Imposing internal limits can inspire creativity and smarter work.
  • Limits force a reevaluation of work methods and prioritization.
  • Deadlines and resource constraints necessitate a focus on what is absolutely necessary.

"Limit forces us to rethink how we are working, and this is why it's so important."

This quote explains that limits are not just obstacles but tools that can lead to innovation and efficiency by requiring a reexamination of how work is approached.

Understanding Exceptionalism

  • Companies and individuals become exceptional not by believing they are exceptional but by recognizing their shortcomings.
  • Creative geniuses often cannot articulate their vision at the start but discover and realize it over time through struggle.

"Companies, like individuals, do not become exceptional by believing they are exceptional, but by understanding the ways in which they aren't exceptional."

This quote suggests that self-awareness and the recognition of one's flaws are critical to achieving true excellence and innovation.

Embracing the Challenges of Entrepreneurship

  • Andrew Stanton's metaphor about sailing emphasizes the need to embrace challenges and unpredictability in business.
  • The goal of an entrepreneur should not be to avoid difficulties but to navigate through them to reach their objectives.

"If you're sailing across the ocean and your goal is to avoid weather and waves, then why the hell are you sailing?"

This quote metaphorically illustrates the entrepreneurial journey, highlighting that one must be prepared to face and overcome challenges rather than avoid them.

The Pixar-Disney Merger and Steve Jobs' Role

  • The merger between Pixar and Disney was influenced by the realization of Disney's need for Pixar's creativity.
  • Steve Jobs' unconventional approach to negotiation with Bob Iger, involving transparency and honesty, was pivotal to the merger's success.
  • Jobs' largest shareholder position in both Pixar and Disney is highlighted as a significant outcome of the deal.

"We're screwed. And I immediately like the guy because that's how I work, too. Let's just immediately put all the cards on the table and see where they fall."

Steve Jobs appreciated Bob Iger's forthrightness in negotiations, which mirrored his own preference for transparency, leading to a successful merger.

Steve Jobs' Transformation and Legacy

  • Ed Catmull reflects on the profound change in Steve Jobs over 26 years, challenging the one-dimensional portrayal of Jobs as stubborn and imperious.
  • Jobs' growth into a fairer, wiser individual with a deeper understanding of partnership is highlighted.
  • The impact of Pixar on Jobs' development and his aspiration to create joy through his work is emphasized.

"The change in him was real, and it was deep."

This quote from Ed Catmull summarizes the significant personal and professional transformation that Steve Jobs underwent during his life, particularly influenced by his experiences with Pixar.

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