#34 Creativity Inc The Autobiography of the founder of Pixar

Summary Notes


In this insightful discussion, Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, delves into the creative and management philosophies that have been pivotal to Pixar's success. Catmull emphasizes the importance of embracing change, fostering a culture of candid feedback, and maintaining a beginner's mindset. He reflects on the necessity of adaptation, the value of a supportive team, and the courage to persist through challenges. Highlighting stories from Pixar's history, including Steve Jobs' strategic foresight and the implementation of the Braintrust, Catmull reveals how allowing room for failure and valuing people over ideas are essential for innovation. He also discusses the "Hungry Beast and the Ugly Baby" concept, illustrating the balance between nurturing new, fragile ideas and satisfying the constant demand for output. Through practices like postmortems and encouraging a startup mentality, Catmull underscores the continuous pursuit of excellence and learning from mistakes as key drivers of Pixar's enduring excellence.

Summary Notes

Adaptation and the Need for Change

  • Change is a constant and necessary aspect of both personal and professional life.
  • Adaptation, fresh thinking, and sometimes a total reboot are required in the face of change.
  • Support from families and colleagues is crucial during times of change.
  • Animator Austin Madison's letter highlights the ebb and flow of creative work and the importance of persistence.

"Things change constantly, as they should. And with change comes the need for adaptation, for fresh thinking, and sometimes for even a total reboot of your project, your department, your division, or your company as a whole."

This quote by Ed Catmull emphasizes the inevitability of change and the corresponding need for flexibility and innovation.

"The important thing is to slog diligently through this quagmire of discouragement and despair, put on some audio commentary, and listen to the stories of professionals who have been making films for decades going through the same slings and arrows of outrageous production problems. In a word, persist."

Austin Madison's words, as quoted by Ed Catmull, stress the importance of perseverance through the challenging aspects of creative work.

The Ongoing Journey of Creativity

  • Creativity is a continuous process; it's about figuring things out constantly, not just once.
  • Persistence is key to facing future challenges and adapting to them.
  • Excellence, rather than ease, is the goal in managing a creative culture.

"How we persist the future is not a destination, it is a direction."

Ed Catmull conveys that the future is an ongoing journey that requires constant persistence rather than a fixed endpoint.

"Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear."

This quote outlines the necessary conditions for fostering a creative environment, highlighting the need for trust, risk tolerance, and addressing fears.

The Role of Leadership in a Creative Culture

  • Leaders must be introspective and aware of the problems within their companies, including those that are not immediately visible.
  • Solving problems requires marshaling all energies and resources.
  • The willingness to make oneself uncomfortable is part of uncovering and addressing issues.

"We will have problems, many of which are hidden from our view. We must work to uncover them and assess our own role in them, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable."

Ed Catmull discusses the responsibility of leaders to actively seek out and solve problems, even if it involves self-reflection and discomfort.

Inspiration and the Foundations of Creativity

  • Ed Catmull was inspired by Walt Disney and Albert Einstein, representing two poles of creativity: invention and explanation.
  • The experience of watching Disney animate Donald Duck sparked Catmull's interest in animation and the power of bringing characters to life.
  • The desire to understand and participate in the world of animation became a driving force in Catmull's life.

"The definition of superb animation is that each character on the screen makes you believe it is a thinking being, whether it's a T Rex or a slinky dog or a desk lamp."

This quote illustrates the essence of animation and its impact on viewers when characters are infused with emotion and intention.

The Innovator's Dilemma and Learning from Others

  • Observing the rise and fall of tech companies led Ed Catmull to ponder why smart people make poor decisions.
  • The pattern of initial success followed by a failure due to blindness to problems intrigued Catmull.
  • Understanding and avoiding these pitfalls became a new challenge and focus for Catmull.

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

Ed Catmull reflects on the tendency of successful leaders to make critical mistakes, sparking his interest in preventing such errors within his own company.

The Importance of a Collaborative Environment

  • Collaborative and supportive communities are crucial for both enjoyment and quality of work.
  • Balancing individual creative contributions with group dynamics is a key dynamic in creative environments.
  • Ed Catmull's experience in a collaborative academic setting influenced his approach to building a creative culture at Pixar.

"This collegial, collaborative environment was vital not just to my enjoyment of the program, but also to the quality of the work I did."

Ed Catmull explains the significance of a supportive and collaborative environment in fostering creativity and high-quality work.

Trust and Innovation

  • Trusting smart people to innovate without micromanagement is essential.
  • ARPA's approach to funding and supporting researchers without overbearing oversight was an influential model for Catmull.
  • The success of the ARPANET and the Internet demonstrated the value of trusting teams to innovate.

"ARPA's administrators did not hover over the shoulders of those of us working on the projects they funded, nor did they demand that our work have direct military applications. They simply trusted us to innovate."

This quote highlights the impact of ARPA's trust in its researchers, which Ed Catmull found profoundly influential in his own leadership style.

Trust and Freedom in Problem-Solving

  • Trust from others can be pivotal in providing the freedom to tackle complex problems.
  • Ed Catmull describes how trust allowed him to address various complex issues with enthusiasm.

"That kind of trust gave me freedom to tackle all sorts of complex problems, and I did so with gusto."

The quote emphasizes the importance of trust in enabling individuals to work effectively on challenging problems. Trust provides a sense of freedom that fuels passion and dedication to the work.

The Genesis of Computer Animation

  • Ed Catmull's journey began with the inability to draw by hand, leading to the exploration of computer technology for animation.
  • The goal was to create the first computer-generated animated movie, prompting the development of new technology.
  • Efforts were made to see if this new technology could be used in real-world applications, leading to meetings with production houses and movie companies.

"He starts working with the idea, hey, maybe this is where that kernel comes from. Hey, I can't draw with my hand. But maybe I can develop new technology."

This quote captures the moment of inspiration that led Ed Catmull to pursue computer animation, highlighting a key turning point in his career.

Anchoring with a "Why"

  • Understanding one's purpose or "why" is crucial in making career decisions.
  • Ed Catmull knew his "why" from a young age, which guided his choices and allowed him to stay focused on his goals.
  • Despite opportunities that appeared attractive on the surface, he declined them if they did not align with his "why."

"You need to anchor yourself with why, with your why, and then focus."

The quote underscores the importance of having a clear purpose that guides decision-making and provides focus in one's career path.

Resistance from Established Entities

  • Disney was dismissive of the idea of using computers for animation due to their long-standing success with hand-drawn techniques.
  • Ed Catmull was offered a job at Disney Imagineering but turned it down to stay true to his goal of animating with computers.

"So he's at a meeting with Disney, and they're just really dismissive. This is in the using computers for animation. They think the idea is ridiculous."

This quote illustrates the initial skepticism and resistance faced by Ed Catmull from established companies like Disney, which were comfortable with traditional methods.

People Over Ideas

  • Ed Catmull emphasizes that the right environment and people are more important than ideas alone.
  • A healthy environment that fosters autonomy and challenges individuals is key to nurturing great ideas.
  • The University of Utah provided such an environment, which was instrumental in the success of Ed Catmull and his peers.

"Therefore the environment must be healthy. So this whole idea that people trumps ideas is something that Ed Harps on in the book a lot."

The quote highlights the principle that a supportive and healthy environment is crucial for innovation and that people are the most valuable asset in any organization.

Leadership and Management Insights

  • Working for three different leaders provided Ed Catmull with a diverse perspective on leadership and management.
  • He learned about what encourages creativity and what stifles it, and the importance of granting autonomy to talented individuals.

"Working for three iconoclastic men with very different styles would provide me with a crash course in leadership."

This quote reflects on the valuable lessons Ed Catmull gained from working under different leadership styles, shaping his own approach to managing creative teams.

Hiring and Team Building

  • Hiring people more qualified than oneself can be intimidating but is necessary for the success of a project or company.
  • Ed Catmull hired Alvi Ray Smith despite feeling threatened by his qualifications because he knew it was crucial for the lab's success.

"I had conflicting feelings when I met Alvi because, frankly, he seemed more qualified to lead the lab than I was."

The quote demonstrates Ed Catmull's commitment to building a strong team, even if it meant hiring someone who could potentially replace him, underscoring the importance of putting the team's success before personal insecurities.

Resistance to Change and Human Nature

  • Humans often resist change, preferring the comfort of familiar methods.
  • This resistance can be a significant barrier to the adoption of new technologies and processes.

"But as challenging as that problem proved to be, it paled in comparison to the bigger and eternal impediment of our progress, the human's resistance to change."

The quote captures a fundamental challenge in innovation: overcoming the inherent human resistance to altering established habits and practices.

Entrepreneurial Lessons from George Lucas

  • George Lucas' practical approach to filmmaking and his entrepreneurial mindset were influential to Ed Catmull.
  • Lucas' strategic decisions, such as retaining merchandising rights to Star Wars, exemplified his foresight and business acumen.

"He bet on himself and won."

This quote succinctly conveys George Lucas' entrepreneurial spirit and the success that comes from believing in one's vision and taking calculated risks.

Introduction to John Lasseter

  • John Lasseter's passion for animation and drawing was evident from a young age, mirroring Ed Catmull's own journey.
  • Lasseter's discovery of animation as a career path was a pivotal moment, influenced by Disney's work.

"Like me, John remembered discovering that there were people who made animation for a living and thinking he had found his place in the world."

The quote highlights the impact that role models and idols can have on shaping one's career aspirations and the importance of finding one's passion.

The Sale of Pixar and Financial Realities

  • George Lucas' decision to sell the computer division due to financial constraints led to the first iteration of Pixar.
  • The need for additional funds to transition from prototype to product was a significant hurdle in finding a buyer.

"Lucasfilm wanted to walk away from the deal, meaning the sell of Pixar, with $15 million in cash."

This quote reveals the financial challenges and negotiations involved in the sale of the computer division that would become Pixar, emphasizing the importance of financial viability in business decisions.

Tape Company Advertisement

  • The advertisement featured an iconic image.
  • A man in a leather chair is being blown back by the sound from a stereo speaker.
  • Ed Catmull compares the experience of being with Steve Jobs to the man in the ad, with Steve being the speaker.

"A guy sitting low in a leather chair, his long hair being literally blown back by the sound from the stereophonic." "That's what it was like to be with Steve. He was the speaker. Everyone else was the guy."

The quote describes the powerful and overwhelming presence Steve Jobs had, similar to the overwhelming sound from the speaker in the advertisement.

Steve's Return to Business

  • After a period of silence following their initial meeting, Steve Jobs returns.
  • He was forced out of Apple due to a failed coup against John Scully.
  • Steve visits Lucasfilm and is inquisitive about the Pixar image computer.

"He tried to do a coup to overthrow John Scully, and they remove him." "He came to Lucasfilm one afternoon for a tour of our hardware lab. Again, he pushed and prodded and poked."

These quotes highlight Steve Jobs' return to business after being ousted from Apple and his intense curiosity and assertive nature when visiting Lucasfilm.

Steve's Ambition and Influence

  • Steve Jobs' domineering nature is highlighted.
  • He expressed a desire to take Ed Catmull's job, believing he could teach Ed a lot.
  • Despite this, Ed found value in conversations with Steve.

"At one point, he turned to me and calmly explained that he wanted my job." "He not only planned to displace me in the day-to-day management of the company, he expected me to think it was a great idea."

The quotes underscore Steve Jobs' confidence and his ambition to lead and teach, as well as the surprising and challenging nature of interactions with him.

Conflict with Ed's Vision

  • Steve Jobs' pitch to Ed Catmull was in direct conflict with Ed's personal vision.
  • Steve aimed to build a new generation of home computers, which was not aligned with Pixar's goals.

"As he spoke, it became clear to us that his goal was not to build an animation studio. His goal was to build the next generation of home computers to compete with Apple."

This quote highlights the divergence between Steve Jobs' vision and that of Ed Catmull and Pixar, leading to their decision to decline Steve's proposal.

Pixar's Trade Show and Steve's Changed Approach

  • Pixar showcases their image computer at a trade show.
  • Steve Jobs, now with his own company NeXT, appears more open-minded.
  • He recognizes the potential of Pixar's technology and suggests a walk to discuss further.

"Steve had founded a personal computer company, NeXT. I think that gave him the ability to approach us with a different mindset."

The quote demonstrates a shift in Steve Jobs' approach towards Pixar, influenced by his experiences with NeXT, which led to a more collaborative interaction.

Steve's Negotiation Tactics and Loyalty

  • Steve Jobs' negotiation tactics with Lucasfilm's CFO are recounted.
  • His strategic control of meetings and protection of Pixar are noted.
  • Steve emphasized loyalty after acquiring Pixar.

"In one swift move, Steve had not only foiled the CFO's attempt to place himself atop the pecking order but he had grabbed control of the meeting."

The quote illustrates Steve Jobs' strategic and assertive approach in negotiations, which played a significant role in his leadership and protection of Pixar.

Ed Catmull's Learnings from Japanese Manufacturing

  • Pixar, initially a computer manufacturing company, learned from Japanese manufacturing history.
  • Edward Deming's approach to quality control influenced Pixar's operations.

"The responsibility for finding and fixing problems should be assigned to every employee, from the most senior manager to the lowliest person on the production line."

This quote explains the decentralized decision-making approach inspired by Edward Deming, which was adopted by Pixar to improve quality and empower all employees.

Pixar's Transition to Animation

  • Pixar faced financial struggles and decided to focus on computer animation.
  • Steve Jobs invested heavily in Pixar, and the company pursued its passion for animation.

"As the losses mounted, it became clear that there was only one path forward we needed to abandon selling hardware... The only option left was to go after it with everything we had."

This quote captures the pivotal moment when Pixar decided to pivot from hardware to animation, a decision driven by financial necessity and passion.

Steve Jobs' Valuation of Pixar and Negotiation with Microsoft

  • Steve Jobs attempted to sell Pixar but valued the company highly.
  • He sought external validation rather than an exit strategy.
  • His high valuation led to a refusal of Microsoft's offer.

"Steve wanted 120 million and felt their offer was not just insulting, but proof that they weren't worthy of us."

The quote reflects Steve Jobs' high valuation of Pixar and his belief in the company's worth, which influenced his negotiation strategy with potential buyers like Microsoft.

Steve Jobs' Relationship with Pixar

  • Ed Catmull reflects on the complex relationship with Steve Jobs.
  • Steve's growth over 26 years is acknowledged.
  • The misconception of Steve being difficult is challenged.

"I worked with Steve Jobs for 26 years, so longer than anybody else did continuously."

This quote provides context for Ed Catmull's long-term working relationship with Steve Jobs, highlighting the depth of their interactions and the evolution of Steve's character.

Steve Jobs' Negotiation with Disney

  • Steve Jobs negotiated a three-picture deal with Disney for Pixar.
  • He anticipated Disney's desire to renegotiate and prepared by taking Pixar public.
  • The success of Toy Story validated Steve's strategy.

"This wasn't just about a movie. This film, he believed, was going to change the field of animation. And before that happened, he wanted to take us public."

The quote reveals Steve Jobs' foresight and strategic planning in positioning Pixar for success and leveraging its relationship with Disney.

Importance of Team Over Ideas

  • Ed Catmull emphasizes the importance of team dynamics over individual ideas.
  • The right team can improve or replace mediocre ideas.
  • Getting the team right is a precursor to getting the ideas right.

"If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better."

This quote highlights the crucial role of a well-functioning team in the creative process and the belief that talented teams are more important than individual ideas.

Candor in the Creative Process

  • Candor is essential for Pixar's creative process.
  • Early versions of movies are often poor, and candid feedback helps improve them.
  • The iterative process is key to transforming ideas from bad to good.

"Our job is to make them go from suck to not suck."

This blunt quote from Ed Catmull emphasizes the importance of honesty and the iterative process in developing successful creative projects at Pixar.

The Braintrust Mechanism

  • The Braintrust at Pixar is a group that provides candid feedback.
  • It helps directors gain clarity and perspective on their projects.
  • The director retains final decision-making authority despite the Braintrust's input.

"People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process... The Braintrust helps directors to navigate through the confusion."

This quote explains the purpose of the Braintrust at Pixar and its role in guiding directors through the complexities of the creative process.

Emergence of Stories

  • The most promising stories are born from the filmmakers themselves, not assigned to them.
  • Personal investment and passion are key to successful storytelling and entrepreneurship.
  • The process of creation is deeply personal and must originate from within the individual.

Most promising stories are not assigned to filmmakers, but emerge from within them. It's your idea. It comes from you.

The quote emphasizes the importance of internal motivation and personal connection to the creative process. It suggests that the best stories come from a place of personal passion rather than external assignment.

Braintrust and Feedback Mechanism

  • The braintrust consists of individuals with a deep understanding of storytelling and personal experience in the process.
  • Directors value feedback from peers who have storytelling expertise.
  • The braintrust has no authority to mandate changes, leaving the director to decide how to incorporate feedback.
  • The lack of power dynamics in the braintrust encourages open, candid discussions and allows for the best ideas to be challenged and tested.

There are two key differences. The first is the braintrust is made up of people with a deep understanding of storytelling, and usually people who have been through the process themselves. The second difference is that the braintrust has no authority.

The quote outlines the unique structure of the braintrust, highlighting the expertise of its members and the non-hierarchical approach to feedback that fosters a dynamic and constructive creative environment.

Candor Over Hierarchy

  • Candor is prioritized over hierarchy in the feedback process.
  • Powerful personalities, like Steve Jobs, were excluded from braintrust meetings to maintain open and honest dialogue.
  • The presence of influential individuals can inhibit candid feedback, which is essential for creativity and innovation.

Candor overrules hierarchy, and one of the reasons the brain trust. They realized you can't have too powerful of a personality.

This quote illustrates the importance of ensuring that all voices can be heard without the influence of hierarchy or powerful personalities, which can stifle honest feedback and hinder the creative process.

Definition of Failure

  • A company's attitude towards failure can indicate whether it will be innovative or derivative.
  • A negative definition of failure leads to a fear-based, risk-averse culture and derivative work.
  • A positive approach to failure encourages risk-taking and innovation.
  • Blaming and scapegoating in the face of failure are signs of a culture that vilifies failure.

There's a quick definition to deter, and it has to do with if you have a negative or positive definition of failure.

This quote suggests that the perception of failure within a company is a critical factor in determining its capacity for innovation and creativity. A positive definition of failure is essential for fostering a culture that embraces risk and innovation.

The Hungry Beast and the Ugly Baby

  • The "hungry beast" represents the pressure to create quickly and produce consistently, often at the expense of quality.
  • The "ugly baby" symbolizes new, original ideas that are fragile and require time and nurturing to develop.
  • A balance must be struck between the demands of the beast and the needs of the ugly baby to ensure creativity and originality.
  • Companies often prioritize feeding the beast, leading to derivative work, rather than nurturing original ideas.

Ugly babies do not mesh well with hungry beasts.

This quote metaphorically contrasts the nature of new, original ideas with the relentless pressure to produce, highlighting the challenge of nurturing creativity in a demanding production environment.

Addressing Hidden Problems

  • Uncovering hidden problems is essential for effective leadership and the longevity of a company.
  • Being prepared for the unknown and unexpected is crucial, as failures are inevitable.
  • Openness to new perspectives and challenging the status quo can reveal hidden problems and lead to innovative solutions.

If you don't try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.

The quote stresses the importance of vigilance and the proactive search for hidden problems in order to lead effectively and ensure the resilience of an organization.

The Beautifully Shaded Penny Problem

  • Artists may focus too much on insignificant details (the "beautifully shaded penny") that do not contribute to the overall product.
  • The problem arises from a lack of understanding of the context in which their work will be used.
  • The challenge is to encourage high standards without wasting resources on unseen details.
  • Setting constraints can help prioritize and foster creativity.

The desire for quality had gone well beyond rationality.

This quote captures the paradox of striving for excellence to the point of irrationality, where the effort expended on minor details outweighs their significance in the final product.

The Importance of Experimentation

  • Not everything needs to be justified; leaving room for the unexpected is necessary.
  • Experimentation is crucial, even if it doesn't always lead to breakthroughs.
  • Short experiments and postmortems are tools to improve processes and understand failures.
  • Learning from errors and being open to change are key to a creative culture.

You must always leave the door open for the unexpected.

The quote underlines the value of maintaining flexibility and openness to experimentation, recognizing that not all outcomes can be predicted or justified in advance.

Maintaining a Startup Mentality

  • A startup mentality involves being open to everything and embracing a beginner's mind.
  • Success can lead to complacency and resistance to the beginner's mind.
  • Continuously adopting a beginner's perspective helps prevent repetition and fosters the creation of new ideas.

By resisting the beginner's mind you make yourself more prone to repeat yourself than to create something new.

This quote warns against the dangers of becoming too comfortable with success and emphasizes the need to maintain a sense of openness and curiosity to continue innovating.

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