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An animated leadership talk with Pixar’s president

Ed Catmull is photographed on January 15, 2010 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

If you were to make a dream team of people — living or not — who'd have solid advice for running a successful creative operation, Steve Jobs would be on the list. So would George Lucas, the movie maker and entrepreneur. A director of one of Pixar's or Disney's blockbusters, such as Toy Story or the recent runaway success Frozen, would also be a natural choice.

Or, you could just ask Ed Catmull, who's worked with all of them. Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, shares the lessons he's learned running innovative businesses in his new book, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True InspirationIn it, he details the arc of his 40-year career — from running a small research lab focused on bringing computers into the animation process to partnering with Lucas, meeting Jobs, co-founding Pixar and helping to revive the vaunted animation studios at Disney.

We spoke recently with Catmull about his new book, the creative culture at Pixar, and what it was really like to work with Jobs. The interview below has been edited for space and clarity.

Q. Why did you decide to invest the time to write the book? 

A. As I look back on my career, I had a goal, which was to build the first feature computer animated film. When that goal was achieved, what emerged a year later was a goal to have a sustainable environment for making those films, based on what I had learned both at Pixar and at other places. I was very aware that a lot of creative companies with bright people fall apart afterwards, and I wanted to understand that in order to protect our environment here.

Then eight years ago Disney acquired us. Disney Animation, while it had had two golden ages, at that point had failed. This was an incredible opportunity to take the principles we had worked out over the years and apply them to an entirely different group of people. We started with the assumption that the people were talented and well intentioned. But would these principles work with a group of people we didn’t know at all?

It has been this amazing experience to find there are things we can do to get rid of the blocks that allow people to be more creative. What I wanted to do with the book was to capture these ideas and then see if they can have an effect outside the entertainment industry.

Q. Filmmakers at Pixar get help from the "Braintrust" — a group of experienced directors, writers and heads of story who come together to offer candid feedback on each film. Why does this work so well?

A. Our first "Braintrust" started off with essentially five people who worked together phenomenally well. They were funny. They were focused. They were intense, but their intensity was applied toward the problem and not toward each other. We began to call this the Braintrust, and we thought we would apply the principle to other areas, like the technical areas.

But we found when we tried it in other areas that it didn't work as well, and it took a while to figure out what the difference was. We finally realized one of the reasons the initial Braintrust worked so well is that it didn't have any authority. If you’re a director presenting a new idea, and the person who can judge whether or not it goes ahead is in the room, that makes you somewhat defensive. But if the person who's actually responsible for the project has the final say, and nobody overrides them, then it allows them to be free to listen, because they don't have to take the notes that are given.

Q. How do you make it clear they don't have to take that feedback?

A. If you walk into one of these rooms, you'll see that people are pointing out problems, but they’re not giving the solutions. If you refrain from telling people how to solve the problem, then you're saying to the person: "Your job is to solve it. My job is to help give you clarity." The person telling a story or actually in charge of a project has emotion attached to it. They lose objectivity. You want peers who can recognize when you're drowning, or when you've lost objectivity, and who can provide you guidance without at the same time taking over.

Q. What are the opposing forces of the "hungry beast" and the "ugly baby" that you write about in the book?

A. One term that's used in this industry a lot is this notion of "feeding the beast." You've got all of these people whose livelihoods are dependent on it. There are enormous pressures to keep material going into it, and the pressures to feed it are not irrational. They’re the basis of your business.

But in an industry where things are coming out that are new, somebody has to do the work that is new. In our case, it's making a film. When you first conceive of it, it typically isn't good. It's flawed. It’s incomplete. It may show some promise, but it’s not ready for the big time yet. If you’re run by the feed the beast mentality, then that mentality says, "Come on, guys. Let's get this going, we’ve got to keep things on schedule to meet our requirements." That mindset will typically stomp on the fragile ideas, because they're not ready.

Our approach is to say that the front end — where we’re coming up with something new — is very fragile. It might be an idea that looks like it’s going to be commercial, like making Toy Story 2 or Toy Story 3. But it also might not be obvious that you should do it at all, like making a movie about a rat that cooks. There's nothing obvious about these ideas. When they start off, the fact is they don’t sound all that promising. So what are you going to do? For us, it’s the recognition that our job is to protect these new ideas when they’re ill formed.

Q. What's the biggest mistake companies make in their efforts to be more creative or innovative? 

A. When companies are successful or not successful, they almost immediately jump to the wrong conclusions about how they got there or why they got there. The reality of what we do is in fact exceptionally complex, and there are a great number of problems that get in our way that we can’t see. It's one of the reasons most companies fail. Even if you look out for hidden problems, they're still extraordinarily difficult to tease out and to find. If you don’t look out for them, then you're hopelessly lost.

Q. What’s most misunderstood about what Steve Jobs was like to work with?

A. He went through this remarkable change in his life. He became a very empathetic person and a very wise person. He learned from the mistakes that he had made. This was about 15 to 20 years ago. But after he went through this change, the people who were with Steve stayed with him for the rest of his career. He was their friend. They weren't going to psychoanalyze him to people on the outside. So the change that took place in Steve was not captured, because nobody told the story. Steve didn't ask people not to — it was just out of respect to Steve.

Our relationship was completely different than it was to begin with, and until I wrote this book I never told anybody about the changes in Steve. You wouldn’t do that. But the consequence was people have gotten these mis-impressions of who Steve was, and the mythologizing started about him.

The fact is he had ideas he was passionate about and he’d change his mind quickly. Steve said a lot of stuff on both sides of every issue and his genius was that after pursuing an idea, if it didn’t work, he would change. Or he would come back to it. Or he would drop it for a while and revisit it. There was no fixed point. There was no "the genius spoke," and we were done. That wasn’t the way he thought. It’s hard to capture, but for those of us who knew him, he went through this phenomenal arc in his life.

Q. There are so many stereotypes about creative people, from the kind of desk they maintain to what time of day they do their best thinking. Do you have a messy or a clean desk?

A. The truth is it’s in the middle. I’m in a position where I know world-class artists and I know world-class technical people. And if I was to correlate their management abilities or their cleanliness abilities, I would find they were not correlated with whether or not they are technical or creative.

Q. Do you do your best work at night or in the morning?

A. I typically get up about a quarter to six. I'm also a meditator, so I meditate every morning and I work out five hours a week. My most creative thinking tends to be earlier. By the end of the day, enough has gone on that I’m running out of energy.

Q. What have been some of your biggest influences, such as books you've read?

A. One is The Great Courses. Many years ago I started listening to these lectures — essentially getting the grand sweep of all of world history and literature and economics by listening to these lectures every day for like 15 years. I find it very formative.

The other was observing friends in Silicon Valley who started companies, and observing what took place at Pixar and Disney and Apple, and just trying to understand what was behind the surface-level story. I read a few business books early on, but I recognized that the bulk of them weren't written by people who had really done it.

Q. Can you name your favorite Pixar movie?

A. You'd never tell a child who your favorite child was. But setting that aside, the fact is the movies mean something different to me because I was here while they were made. I can’t look at them in the same way that somebody else does. Toy Story 2 was a phenomenal growth experience, and for me that's what the movies meant — the things that happened in the making of them that were so fascinating, or informative or emotional. I've lost all objectivity of the movies themselves. 

Read also:

The consigliere of Silicon Valley

Leadership books to watch for in 2014

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.



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