Monday 21 April 2014

Ed Catmull Takes Us Inside Pixar

A Creativity, Inc. Review

I'm not usually one for management books. To be honest, I don't recall reading one in the past. I don't think I ever thought to myself 'Yowzah! This management book looks so exciting I can barely restrain myself from exploding with joy!' - by the way, if you have said these exact words to yourself at any point in your life, you're an interesting subject matter.
And yet something in Disney and Pixar president Ed Catmull's book, Creativity, Inc., (co-written with journalist Amy Wallace) felt weirdly attractive: the promise of learning more about the two studios, as an animation fan, seemed exciting; Mr. Catmull should have great insight on these companies and on the films they produced in the recent years. And, unsurprisingly, when you read Creativity, Inc. you find out quite a lot of things about just that. What takes you by surprise, though, is how much you relate to the management segments.

Ed Catmull

Creativity, Inc. is first and foremost about how to find and deal with hidden problems in a creative environment - such as Pixar. About how to maintain a healthy culture, a safe workplace. This may sound like an abstract and unrelatable prospect, but Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace consistently find ways to make their points accessible and interesting. And I believe everyone can find applications in their own lives. Not just managers or animators.
For example, after a mandatory introduction, the book opens with the statement that not every problem is easily visible at first. More than that: a problem can be right in your face for years without you noticing it. To make this notion more approachable, Ed Catmull tells the story of a table that had been at Pixar for several years before anyone realized there was something wrong with it.
"Over the course of a decade, we held countless meetings around this table in this way - completely unaware of how doing so undermined our own core principles. Why where we blind to this? Because the seating arrangements and place cards were designed for the convenience of the leaders, including me. Sincerely believing that we were in an inclusive meeting, we saw nothing amiss because we didn't feel excluded. Those not sitting at the center of the table, meanwhile, saw quite clearly how it established a pecking order but presumed that we - the leaders - had intended that outcome. Who were they, then, to complain?"
Each time a new idea, a new concept is presented to us, an anecdote or a quote from a member of the Pixar staff comes with it and informs it in a way that makes it resonate more vividly. 
One particular chapter about randomness being an important part in success, where Ed Catmull remembers how he and his family escaped a deadly car accident by a couple of inches, was especially gripping to me. Had the circumstances been just slightly different that day, the author tells us, Pixar wouldn't exist today. And he goes on by saying that a lot of things had to happen for the Emeryville studio to come into being; in other words, Pixar's success was far from inevitable. Pixar is successful because random things happen.
Creativity, Inc. is full of moments like this, each giving us clues on how to protect a creative culture. Most of them are leading to the same conclusions: creativity is a complex business and you never have all the answers.

But as I stated before, Creativity, Inc. is also good to animation fans - particularly Pixar and Disney ones.
If you are hungry for some tidbits about animated films, this book is made for you. Among other things, you'll learn why Newt was cancelled, how Disney's American Dog became Bolt, why Rapunzel's title changed to Tangled, that Up could have been very different...
Ed Catmull also takes you inside some key moments from the Pixar process. There's a chapter dedicated to a Braintrust session for Pete Docter's upcoming Inside Out where the story is hinted at. We can also witness a dailies session on Brave, led by director Mark Andrews. 
"For all the barking and levity, you could feel the focused concentration in the room. What these people were engaged in was the kind of detailed analysis - and openness to constructive criticism - that would determine whether merely good animation would become great. Mark bore down on ten frames in which Queen Elinor, the mom character who has turned into a bear, walks on stones while traversing a creek. 'She looks like she's stepping more catlike than heavy-bear-like,' he said. 'I like the overall speed, but I'm not feeling the weight. She's waking like a ninja.' Everybody nodded and - note taken - they moved on."
Marks Andrews

One chapter dedicated to the 2006 merger between Disney and Pixar proves particularly interesting, as we follow some of the steps that led the legendary Burbank animation studio to be great again. We find out about the tensions it created at Pixar, too.

The book also works in some ways as an (incomplete) autobiography, when we learn about the author's journey and how it led him to become the president/manager of such an important company. That wasn't always his goal. Originally, he wanted to be an animator.
While never forgetting the book's bigger, managing-orientated purpose, the author tells us a lot about himself: what drove him where he his today, from the University of Utah, to the New York Institute of Technology, to Lucasfilm; how he discovered texture-mapping, among other things; what motivated him before Toy Story was released, versus what motivates him today...
When the subject of computer graphics is brought to the table, Ed Catmull's comments remain extremely easy to comprehend, but not in a way that makes the reader feel like a complete idiot.
As you learn more about the man, one compelling notion quickly prevails: Ed Catmull seems like a perfect combination of cleverness and humility.

The final chapter of Creativity, Inc. is also one of its strongest: an afterword called 'The Steve We Knew,' where Mr. Catmull points out that all he's been reading about Steve Jobs - another Pixar co-founder - didn't match the man he knew.
So, he decides to show us what the Steve Jobs he knew was like - with his flaws and qualities - and how Pixar changed the charismatic leader of Apple for the better. It's a touching part of the book, and when John Lasseter remembers his goodbyes to Steve Jobs, it's even more than that; it's moving.

Steve Jobs

To conclude, I will say that Creativity, Inc. is simply a must-read for any Disney/Pixar fans, but in truth it should be a must-read for everyone. It's inspirational, entertaining and touching; when you finish this book you'll wish your boss was more like Ed Catmull.



  1. Great review! I am slowly reading the book, I don't want to rush through it! This is a book I've long wished for, I'm glad it's finally here! Oh, and by the way, I am sadly one of those "interesting subject matters" - I love *good* management books. I expect this will be at the top of that list.

    interesting subject matter

  2. Munir Abedrabbo22 April 2014 at 03:37

    Great review Damien! I'm in the final chapters and I must say is a wonderful and candid look to Pixar and how to create a culture of good management. The chapter that talks about Disney Animation's overhaul is both eye-opening and inspiring. One of the best books I've read!

  3. Thanks ! Other versions of the 'interesting subject matters' were 'you're pretty special', or 'you're awesome'. Take your pick ;)

  4. Thanks Munir ! Yep, it's a great book. I finished it on sunday and I - almost - want to read it again.