By Ed Catmull (2014)

Pages: 340, Final verdict: Should-read

What makes Pixar such a magical place? For all of us born in the 80’s and 90’s, Pixar has a special place in our hearts. For the past 20 years, whenever we see that lively white lamp jump before us, we know something special is about to burst through our screen.

But how do you build and sustain such a place? From its inception to our current days, Ed Catmull takes us through the life of Pixar.

"This book is for anyone who wants to work on an environment that fosters creativity and problem solving" - Ed Catmull, Creativity Inc

Ed was fascinated with animation from a young age. His lifelong dream was always to work for Disney, drawing inspiration from watching Walt Disney on TV. As a prelude for the creation of Pixar, we are taken through a few highlights from his life:

  • How he used to create flipbooks during high school
  • Graduating from university with a computer science and physics degree
  • At the age of 26, setting a goal of making computer animated images to be used in movies (we were in 1971)
  • Being turned down by Disney, who rejected the idea of having technology to animate their movies
  • Joining Lucas Films to lead a new computer division (later named Pixar), to bring computer animation to Silicon Valley

At the heart of Silicon Valley, Pixar is born to solve the challenge of digitally separating elements of an image. The software that would help change the world of animated films came to life, through the Pixar Image Computer. However, the new technology was not enough to keep the division afloat, and the need to streamline Lucasfilm in 1983 meant that Pixar was for sale.

Steve Jobs joins the picture and the world of animation is disrupted

Enters Steve Jobs, and the future of Pixar was about to change. After intense negotiating, Steve Jobs acquires Pixar in 1986, which by then had not only some of the most talented and creative people in the world, but also the vision and willpower of Steve Jobs. The pavement to produce the first computer animated film was laid.

Through a (very) difficult partnership with Disney and, after 5 years of development, Toy Story comes out and almost immediately becomes a landmark of its industry, grossing more than 350 M$ worldwide. Even now, more than two decades after its release, we nostalgically still remember Buzzlighter and Woody's fight for Andy's love, and mumble "You've got a friend in me".

Creating a culture that breathes creativity

Pixar is more than talking toys and friendship songs. From the many stories and principles that we get in contact with throughout the book, I believe that the 3 most decisive and impactful to Pixar's culture and success are:

BrainTrust | Candor | Fear and Failure

Braintrust embodies the idea of giving early constructive feedback throughout any creative endeavor. The Braintrust was a group of the best creative and problem solvers at Pixar, who would regularly meet with the film's teams to provide feedback (not order changes) to all movies.

Candour is the art of being open and honest. Crucial to the creative process, this can be the most difficult principle to apply in any organisation. In Ed's words, all movies suck early on, and giving people the freedom to speak their mind can be the difference between a box office hit and an astronomical failure.

Fear and Failure. Oh, failure. We all hear how being open to failure is key, and how some companies encourage their people to fail fast. But how do you make failure into something that people face without fear? According to Ed, it starts by having leaders openly talk about their mistakes. And while you might not want to encourage failure, you need to have people who are able to assess risk, and not be afraid to face the unknown.

"To be a truly creative company, you must start things that might fail" - Ed Catmull, Creativity Inc

Pixar's success did not come without its hiccups tough. We are taken through the time Pixar needed to lay off 1/3 of his crew and the emotional and physical burnout of his team during the making of Toy Story. We are also reminded how randomness can play a defining role in success, almost losing the footage of Toy Story 2.

The 8 habits for highly effective companies

Closer to the end of the book, we are presented with 8 ideas to help bring the best in people:

  • Dailies - The habit of having daily team meetings where problems are solved together
  • Research Trips - Did you know that in the making of Ratatouille, the film team spent 2 weeks dining in Michelin-starred restaurants and visiting their kitchens? Awesome, right? Oh yes, they also walked through Paris sewers, to get to know the main character for the movie
  • The Power of Limits - Always keeping in mind the trade-off between effort and impact
  • Integrating Technology and Art - Creating ways to approximate the two worlds
  • Short Experiments - Pixar uses short films to experiments new concepts, without the pressure of delivering business value
  • Learning to See - Training people to lean away from their preconceptions
  • Postmortems - Meetings held after every movie to openly discuss the lessons learned
  • Continuing to Learn - Initiatives like the Pixar University to facilitate a continuous pursuit of knowledge

The continuous work to sustain these methods and principles did not end at Pixar. When Disney finally acquires them for 7.4 B$, Ed and his team face the challenge of brining more of Pixar's culture into Disney Animation, at a time where the studio was struggling.

The book ends with an homage to Steve Jobs and the impact he had on the company. Rescuing it from Lucasfilms and becoming its oxigen tank for a few years, Ed moves away from the idea that Steve was a blunt man who would never change his mind. Now, their gratitude to the genius of Steve Jobs is present everyday at Pixar, by bearing its name in the main studio.

Bottom line

Pixar is an atypical organisation, and Creativity Inc shades us some light into why. Ideological and even romantic at times, the book will help you reflect on your own job, and how it could benefit from a little more magic. And while travelling through the world Toy Story and Nemo, you will feel that working Pixar might be pretty exciting, and find yourself downloading one your favorite Pixar movies.

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