!nsp!re – Creativity, Inc by Pixar’s Ed Catmull

Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull
Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull

I recently had the opportunity attend a Live Talk in downtown Los Angeles featuring Ed Catmull from Pixar Animation Studios. Ed has been promoting his new book, “Creativity, Inc”, and this talk was part of that promotional effort.

Ed Catmull participating in a Live Talk in downtown LA.
Ed Catmull participating in a Live Talk in downtown LA.

The talk lasted for an hour or so, with a host and Ed seated in front of a crowd of 100 or so attendees. Those in attendance were a wide variety of individuals; the full range of age, ethnicity, and experience, which was quite nice to see. During the talk, he related  a number of tales from the book and discussed how he came to believe what he believes. He discussed the success of implementing his ideas at Pixar, then expressing his concern at scaling them up to work at Disney; only to see them flourish in that environment as well.

Over the next few days, I finished the book. Upon thumbing back through it, I realized I had dog-eared more places in this book than many of the books I’ve read over the last few years. I’ve gone back to it a few times since to look up specific passages.

In some ways, it’s hard to remember that just 19 years ago, Pixar was a scrappy animation house fighting to make and release the first computer-animated feature film. The book holds numerous tales of that time period; when Ed, John Lasseter, and Steve Jobs were trying to figure out how to actually do what they wanted to do IN THE WAY they wanted to do it. Just convincing people it could be done was a Herculean task which Ed had been trying to pull off for years (which seems amazing now, given how far the industry has come in the last two decades).

In the beginning, the three heads had somewhat morphing responsibilities but ultimately; John was the story guy, Steve was the deal guy, and Ed ended up being the people guy.

He relates this in Chapter 4, “So for the next couple of years I made a habit, when giving talks, of posing the question to my audience: Which is more valuable, good ideas or good people? No matter whether I was talking to retired business executives or students, when I asked for a show of hands, the audiences would be split 50-50…To me the answer should be obvious: Ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas…It is the focus on people – their work habits, their talents, their values – that is absolutely central to any creative venture”

He goes on to talk about many facets of running a creative business; communication structure, rules, limits, perfection, stability vs balance, trust, “craft without art” and many others. One of the most fascinating is the concept of the “braintrust”. This is a group of creatives that meet with the director of the current film to exchange views on how to solve problems. The braintrust is expected to deliver candor, which is tough to do. No one really wants to tell a  director that his ending sucks; but if that’s the truth, someone needs to say it – and it’s this group of passionate, committed, artistic peers that does it. Another key element of the braintrust is that the director is required to hear and consider all of the feedback but is under NO obligation to act on it, if he chooses – BRILLIANT!

I think we could all implement our own version of a braintrust. I know I have mine – a small, select group of peers who aren’t afraid to be honest and lay it on the line – because we’ve established that the only consequences for honesty are a better product, or a better show, or a better photo; not retribution or petty grievance.

“Creativity, Inc” is a fascinating read for a number of different types of people; whether you’re a Disney-Pixar fan, a business leader,  a student, or a creative type, you’re bound to find numerous ideas and concepts here that resonate with you. I recommend it highly.