LFC Book Club: Overseeing the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

  Book Review: Creativity, Inc.

A book by Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation with Amy Wallace

On 22 November 1995, Toy Story debuted in Cinemas in the United States. It became the largest Thanksgiving opening in movie cinematic history and was the top grossing film of the year. Let’s lay the landscape. The year prior Disney Animation released its highest grossing animation movie in 1994: The Lion King. After this, Pixar Films went on to release 14 computer animated movies– all reaching number 1 releases. Disney Animation had not come close Pixar territory for a long time, until recently, with the mind-numbing title song “Let it Go”, in Frozen!  Disney was back on track! However, this is due to the author of the book ‘Creativity Inc.’ by Ed Catmull and Creative Director John Lassenter who went to head up Disney Animation once Disney bought Pixar in 2006.

Creativity Inc Book

Wow.

What makes the leadership under Ed and John so vital to be able to reach commercial successes and creative feats that both young and old movie goers can connect with?  I can imagine most businesses would love to be able to stay on the top of their game for over 10 years and then inspire a nearly 100 year old business to take that claim back again!

Interestingly, John Lassenter was sacked by Disney in 1984 for being too progressive in suggesting that Disney should go to computer animation. However, when he returned to Disney Animation, as the Creative Director, an animator at Disney said “it was amazing to find myself at Disney, I’d never seen people work so hard and complain so little. They were really invested in this thing - they knew it was the first movie under John – and they wanted it to be great.”

Wow.

Before reading this book, I had little knowledge of Ed or John. I knew a lot about Pixar movies. They were engaging, interesting, clever and inventive! Qualities you would love to say about anyone, any team, any organisation – or even have it said about you! This was the reason I decided to read this book. I wanted to understand how to create, lead and inspire a creative culture.

This book is a record of the effort Ed and individuals associated with Pixar contributed, including his lessons for success and failings, to ensure a creative culture is alive and well. The individuals that Ed refers to (including direct quotes) in the book could in their own right write a book about this topic. To give you a list of a few of those individuals:

  • Pete Doctor - Director of Monsters Inc and Up
  • Brad Bird - Director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille
  • Andrew Millstein - President of Disney Animation 
  • Alvy Ray Smith - Cofounder of Pixar
  • Steve Jobs - Apple 
  • George Lucas - Lucas Films

The book is a must read. I read it in less than a week and will repeat; this is a must read!

Here are some insights into the book:

Ed Catmull shares the story of his early days in computer graphics and his first role in management, which was leading a team of computer graphic technicians. He is a very deep thinker (given his academic background and university upbringing). He talks about his insights as to why businesses, which are successful, often reach a point of complacency and take away the flexibility to innovate at a certain point – they lose their spark, their drive, their creativity. Then they plateau and fold up. He always wanted to be an animator for Disney. He could draw okay, but he was quite a smart man in the areas of computer science. But he kept his passion alive; he wanted to be a computer animator; a concept that was extremely futuristic and something only the foolish would attempt.  

Ed created a technology that could animate a hand, which is when, in comes George Lucas straight off the back of Star Wars. George really believed computer generated imagery (CGI) could enhance the look and feel of the movie so he asked Ed to head up a division at Lucas Films. Ed thought he was closer to his dream. He did the first thing (which also remained a key management strategy), to ensure creativity and innovation would thrive in his team: he employed the brightest, smartest people. Even though it initially intimidated him he truly believed his role as a leader was to foster creativity and to do that he needed great minds to come up with great ideas.  

First great quote:

Pixar Image 1

“If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. 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.”

In the next part of the book, Ed explains the beginnings of Pixar after George Lucas had to sell the division he was running due to a messy divorce. So in comes Steve Jobs fresh out of being booted out of his company and starting out NeXT. Steve purchased Pixar on February 1986. Steve pulled Ed and Alvy Ray Smith (Cofounder of Pixar) aside and said "Whatever happens, we have to be loyal to each other”.

The book details the journey for defining the core business of Pixar, eventually securing John from Disney studios and becoming the animation company Ed dreamed of. After this, the book talks of trials and triumphs under Ed and John’s leadership, aiming to create an inspirational culture where computer technicians (science) and animators (art) balanced and pushed each other to become a creative force.  

The book catalogues key strategies to foster creativity. Here are some that I thought could apply to everyday humans!  

  1. Candour - “If there are people in your organisation who feel they are not free to suggest ideas, you lose. Do not discount ideas from unexpected sources. Inspiration can and does come from anywhere”. A tradition at Pixar is meetings called “Braintrust”. Every employee comes together and considers the directors vision for the latest film and provides very constructive feedback and suggestions. Some of these braintrust sessions are brutal, but never heated. Brutally honest about why a film doesn’t seem to ring true but never personal. Everyone is invested to create the best film – no egos. The directors take the feedback (the Hollywood term is “notes”) and don’t necessarily action the suggestions, but they come up with a solution to the problems people see in the vision for the film. Another quote that fits for candour is, “If there is more truth in the hallways than in meetings, you have a problem”.
  2. The unmade future - “Failure isn’t necessarily evil. In fact, it isn’t evil at all. It is necessary consequence of doing something new”. Ed discusses how creative and innovative people often push through the uncomfortable feelings and darkness that surrounds them when they go on a creative process. Directors often talk about very dark days where they are very unsure if they are creating something great or not, given there is no point of reference – it truly is inventive. However, pushing through the barrier and accepting the fear, is a chance for greatness. Nothing explains this more than the movie Up as it nearly didn't go anywhere because it wasn't feeling right, and then what the original concept was, and where it ended up, were completed different (except for the elderly male character). He makes another powerful quote on this “Our job as managers in creative environments is to protect new ideas from those who don’t understand that in order for greatness to emerge, there must be phases of not-so-greatness. Protect the future not the past".
  3. Problem solving - “the desire for everything to run smoothly is a false goal – it leads to measuring people by the mistakes they make rather than their ability to problem solve.” The creative process is a series of problems to be solved and pushed forward; allowing the environment to see it like that creates the opportunity for people to think. Allowing people to think and then create is not only fundamental to the animation business but any business.  
  4. The hidden - “There are many valid reasons why people aren't candid with one another in a work environment. Your job is to search for those reasons and then address them”. Ed explains that to lead a creative organisation, it is important to understand that there will be things you can’t see, or things in the future that you can’t anticipate that may hamper innovation. Whilst you don’t have a crystal ball and can’t be everywhere all the time, you must know that creativity and ideas are there and you must fight to uncover them. Be vigilant to protect the creative culture.  
  5. The goal - “Don’t confuse the process with the goal.  Working on our processes to make them better, easier and more efficient is an indispensable activity and something we should continually work on – but it’s not the goal. Making the product great is the goal”. Getting caught up in the rules, processes and regulations won’t allow for greatness. Be willing to adapt, let go, listen, change, and rearrange.  

The book goes into a lot of examples, suggestions and techniques. The conclusion is there is no easy answer to fostering a creative environment or set rule book – however being open, questioning, and striving to protect the culture are integral in creating a great innovative culture.  

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“To infinity and beyond” - Buzz Lightyear

Kelly Maniatis

Managing Director and Organisational Psychologist

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