Table of Contents:
- How Steve Jobs played with his abrasive reputation
- Ed Catmull on creating foundational works of computer animation as a grad student
- How transparency can attract creative & talented people
- How Ed Catmull discovers the fallacy of “a perfect creative environment” at Lucasfilm
- How Lucasfilm’s computer division became Pixar
- How Steve Jobs and Pixar negotiated a three-picture deal with Disney
- How Pixar approached the development of Toy Story
- How Steve Jobs leveraged the success of Toy Story into something much bigger
- The power of Pixar’s Brain Trust
- Ed Catmull on Pixar’s scale challenges
- Inside Disney’s $7.4 billion acquisition of Pixar
Throw out your rules
How Steve Jobs played with his abrasive reputation
ED CATMULL: When Steve Jobs bought us, at the beginning, to be honest, we were nervous, because we didn’t know what Steve was like and what the reputation was. And I have to say, for several years, I didn’t see any sense of humor at all.
REID HOFFMAN: That’s Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, recalling Steve Jobs as a creative genius. Yes, but a genius who was demanding, brash, abrasive. And that’s putting it mildly.
CATMULL: I would say from ‘91-‘95 was a dramatic change in him as a person. He became more empathetic and caring. They paid attention to people. They actually began to see him having a sense of humor.
HOFFMAN: But this reputation stuck with Steve, even after the changes Ed is talking about.
CATMULL: So when the stories were written about him, they’re about the early public stories because frankly, it’s kind of sexy to talk about bad behavior or various things like that. It makes for more dramatic television.
HOFFMAN: A good example of that dramatic television is the 1999 TV movie, Pirates of Silicon Valley.
CATMULL: Noah Wyle had played Steve in a television movie that was fairly derogatory towards Steve.
NOAH WYLE: I want beauty, not incompetence. You listen to me. Are you listening?
MOVIE SOUND BITE: Yes, I’m listening. I’m so sick of your abusiveness. That’s all you know. Tearing people down for a tantrum, you miserable son of a *****.
HOFFMAN: Shortly after the film came out, was the annual Apple showcase, Macworld ‘99. It meant the image of Steve Jobs as an intense, humorless taskmaster was fresh in the minds of attendees. That didn’t stop them from going wild, as the lights dimmed and a turtleneck figure strode out to the center of the stage.
ANNOUNCER: Welcome to the Macworld ‘99 stage… Steve Jobs.
WYLE: This is going to be a great Macworld.
CATMULL: What you could hear in the audience, sort of this increasing titter, as people begin to laugh because they realized that it wasn’t Steve. In fact, it was Noah Wyle that came out.
WYLE: You know, everybody at Apple has been thinking different for the last couple of years. We’re selling a lot of computers, but there’s something else happening here… the resurgence of Apple.
CATMULL: So, this went on for a couple of minutes and then reached a point where Noah Wyle says something, like an extreme version of what Steve used to say.
WYLE: Some really great new products, some insanely great new products, some really totally wildly insanely great new products. We have got products that are going to…
CATMULL: And then Steve came out.
JOBS: That’s not me at all. That’s not me at all. You’re blowing it. Look, you’re supposed to come over here. Open the water.
CATMULL: Now, Steve, with this lighter sense of humor, thought it’d be a great idea to have Noah Wyle come out on the stage and pretend to be him. He just demonstrated the depth of humor to be able to do that.
WYLE: This insanely great thing, we stopped using that a hundred years ago.
HOFFMAN: This moment of levity was a clear indication of how Steve had changed. It’s a change Ed had been tracking for a long time, even if most of the world overlooked it. And it had a huge effect on how Steve worked.
CATMULL: Part of his change, over time, was that in recognizing why things weren’t going the way expected, he could then change the way he worked and thought about people. And throughout his life, he kept learning and growing, as we all should be doing. As a result of that, Steve and Apple had a major transformative effect in the world.
HOFFMAN: The MacBook, the iPod, iTunes and the iPhone. These are some of the vastly impactful things that Steve Jobs shepherded into the world. And I’d argue these were all so successful in part, because Steve learned to change his approach, his process, and even the way he saw himself. I believe you need to constantly tweak, hack and reinvent the ways you work to keep at the top of your creative game.
But imagine you managed to push through this initial frustration, perhaps alter your goal. Instead of teaching a kid chess, you’re going to use the pieces and the board to engage with them on their terms. Once you adapt to the new rules of the game and accept they’ll keep on changing, you can even have fun and start getting creative. As a leader, you need to be ready to do more than adapt to new ways of playing the game. You need to embrace them and then come up with your own rules in response. Accepting that the rules you play by, need to be constantly tweaked, hacked, or reinvented, opens you up to new ways of doing things. Instilling this attitude throughout your organization will help you be boldly differential in your experimentation.
I wanted to talk to Ed Catmull about this, because he literally wrote the book on creating a dynamic and sustainable creative culture. Creativity, Inc. has become a foundational text on how to presume dynamism throughout an organization. Ed was an early pioneer of computer graphics and went on to co-found celebrated animation studio, Pixar, which counts Toy Story, The Incredibles and Elemental among their many beloved hit movies. In his role as president of Walt Disney Animation Studios, his push to reinvigorate the creative process resulted in a string of successes, including Frozen and Zootopia. Ed was first switched on to the magic of animation by the art form’s most famous pioneer.
CATMULL: I grew up when Walt Disney was on television every Sunday night. And both showing programs that were available, plus animation, including how things worked, and it was pretty amazing. Even as a kid, I knew that they were stimulating something in my head. And what I imagined myself doing was becoming an animator.
HOFFMAN: The TV show that had Ed glued to the sitting room floor of his family home in Salt Lake City, was the wonderful world of Disney. The more Ed watched Walt reveal the tricks in the Magic Kingdom spell book, the more enthralled he became. But Walt wasn’t the only great mind of the 20th century to capture Ed’s imagination.
CATMULL: I loved taking science classes and physics. And the other iconic figure of that time was Einstein. There was something pretty magical about what he was doing and what he’d figured out. And so I would read the books about it.
HOFFMAN: Throughout his childhood, Ed dove deep into both these passions, becoming a skilled artist while pursuing his scientific curiosity.
While he was studying for his bachelor’s in physics at the University of Utah, Ed found himself drawn to another cutting edge field.
CATMULL: I’d always wanted to be at the frontier, where you discover something. And when I took a computer science course, I thought, well, this is like being at the front of the Easter egg hunt. You’re just going to go out and find things and gather them up. And it made it exciting.
Ed Catmull on creating foundational works of computer animation as a grad student
HOFFMAN: In 1969, Ed graduated with two degrees: one in physics and the other in computer science. He then doubled down on computing as his path.
CATMULL: When I returned to graduate school, it was initially to study computer languages, with some thought about artificial intelligence.
HOFFMAN: It’s tempting to take a brief pause and consider an alternative universe, in which I’m speaking with Ed Catmull, pioneer of AI, rather than pioneer of animation. There are deep parallels between the huge advances in computing underway at this point in Ed’s story and the seismic impacts of the current AI revolution. Like AI, the computational wave that Ed was immersing himself in was going to inform sweeping changes in technology, industry and society. And like AI, it was impossible for anyone to predict what these changes would be. People were feeling their way through the possibilities and potentialities of the computer revolution. For Ed, one of these roots proved especially tantalizing. Soon, another unplanned encounter changed Ed’s destiny.
CATMULL: The first course I took was one in computer graphics. And that blew me away and basically changed everything. It’s like all of a sudden, bam, things came together and the art and the technology and the physics, like, wow, they’re all mixed together and this is a new direction. And it was actually thrilling.
HOFFMAN: This new area of computer graphics was a dynamic combination of Ed’s passions: animation, science and technology. And the way the classes were taught reflected this, with students largely left to create their own projects and curriculum.
CATMULL: We were all discovering things together and providing support for each other. There was something about having to discover what to do, when there really wasn’t a curriculum. All they could say is solve the next problem. You figure out what the curriculum is.
HOFFMAN: This environment was radically different to what you would normally expect of a graduate class. The course leaders had tossed out the very notion of a curriculum, partly because the field was so new, but also because they knew that this was the best way to stimulate the creativity of their students. Ed was soon helping to push the boundaries of this new technology.
CATMULL: There’s some software so that people could make pictures, but I looked at that and said, you can’t do anything with that. So I decided to write my own software to make a model of my hand. So I made a plaster of Paris model. I then digitized it by looking through a piece of plastic with a grid on it to figure out where all the points were on the surface. I wrote a program to animate it, to move it around. Not only move the fingers, but also look around inside the hand with the camera. It had never been done before, and it was exciting.
HOFFMAN: You can see the results for yourself by searching for “a computer animated hand, by Ed Catmull” on YouTube. The video also contains the work of a fellow grad student of Ed’s, Fred Park.
CATMULL: He also wrote his own software and he digitized the image of his wife’s face. And we were the only two that stayed in computer graphics, because we were the ones that rejected what was already in place and said, we need something new.
HOFFMAN: These are foundational works in the history of computer animation. And they only came about because Ed and Fred were prepared to throw out the existing animation software available to them and then create their own. One of the first things I look at when considering an investment is whether the founders are rejecting the status quo. If I’d been asked to fund projects in Ed and Fred’s class, I’d have been drawn to the two students who are breaking out of the constraints of the tools available to them. Because when you see someone asking the question, “why this way?” it signals a willingness to create your own rules. This willingness is at the core of entrepreneurial success. Ed’s graduate work brought him back to his first love: animation. It inspired him to set a new goal to someday create a full length computer animated feature film.
CATMULL: Okay, this can get to the point where it’s going to change filmmaking, but I had no illusions about us almost being there.
HOFFMAN: The advice from one of Ed’s graduate professors meant Ed wasn’t deterred by this timeframe.
CATMULL: Ivan Sutherland, the father of computer graphics, who built the first AR and VR system… For Ivan, you can have a big vision, but you’ve got to go a step at a time. And so everybody understood, in this environment, that our task was to take the next step. And in the process, we may change what we think is going to happen, but we do it by taking these steps based upon what’s there.
HOFFMAN: Ivan Sutherland understood that no matter how revolutionary your scale idea is, you need a path to get there. The answer is largely through small iterative steps. You need to build your creative environment around this process. That graduate course gave Ed not just an ambition, but a guiding principle by which to achieve it.
CATMULL: When I graduated, the most important thing I got out of it was that this environment was awesome. I loved it. And while I had this vision of making an animated film, and it set the course of my life, the thing I wanted to do was to have this kind of environment wherever I went. And that needed to be something that was a principle for me… was how do you have this kind of environment?
How transparency can attract creative & talented people
HOFFMAN: In 1974, Ed earned his doctorate in computer science. Within a year, he took on the role of director at the newly-created Computer Graphics Lab. This was at the New York Institute of Technology, also known as New York Tech. Ed set about building his own creative environment. He took inspiration from his freewheeling graduate school, but he also added his own elements.
CATMULL: So, right at the beginning, at New York Tech, we said, we’re going to publish everything we do. And it turns out the president of New York Tech was fine with that. Because the most important thing we can do is to be engaged with the community, and if we’re engaged with them, then we get the best people.
HOFFMAN: Many times, being open is much better than being closed, because what gives you your competitive advantage is not your hidden secret thing. It’s the fact that you’re in motion with a great team. Creative people are attracted to places where they can innovate. Publishing their cutting edge animation techniques sent out a clear signal that Ed was building an environment that made creativity its top priority.
CATMULL: We had some rather phenomenal people come in, but we were not in a community that really understood filmmaking and storytelling. And we knew that was one of the weaknesses.
CATMULL: No studio was interested at all in anything that computers might do. I mean, there was zero interest. They didn’t even think it was relevant.
HOFFMAN: That wasn’t until 1977, when a set of events from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away changed everything.
CATMULL: Star Wars had probably the single most impactful movie in the history of the motion picture industry. I mean, it really changed a lot of things.
How Ed Catmull discovers the fallacy of “a perfect creative environment” at Lucasfilm
HOFFMAN: One of those things was catapulting the bar for movie special effects. The spectacle of light sabers and space battles had audiences thirsting for more immersive mind-blowing sequences. To realize his vision, director George Lucas had set up his own special effects division, Industrial Light and Magic, or ILM.
CATMULL: George was successful with this newly formed group of ILM, who had just, really, basically taken special effects to a whole new level. George understood that technology was going to impact movie making. George was the first person with credibility in the industry who thought this was going to be important. And he was willing to fund it. So this was pretty special.
HOFFMAN: George Lucas had intently followed Ed’s work at New York Tech. Like Ed, George was frustrated at how slowly the film industry was adopting computer technology. So in 1979, George recruited Ed to establish and run Lucasfilm’s computer division. It was another opportunity for Ed to build a creative dynamic environment from the ground up. Again, he planned to build on what he had learned at graduate school and New York Tech.
CATMULL: When I left New York Tech and now went to Lucasfilm, I looked back at this period and said, well, you know about half of my theories about how to get the thing I experienced at Utah worked, and half of them didn’t work at all. So now in going to Lucasfilm, I’m going to come up with new ways of doing things, then I’m going to hang on to the things that work.
HOFFMAN: However, Ed soon discovered something at Lucasfilm: there’s no such thing as a perfect creative environment.
CATMULL: One of the important realizations coming out of that was that I thought that that ratio of about half right and half wrong would continue for the rest of my life. The value of it was that I knew that I was going to be wrong more than I thought I was. And I thought that was, in retrospect, I think it was a benefit to think that, because it’s true.
HOFFMAN: Well, having read Creativity Inc, I think part of the model that I came away from that was, that part of the goodness of the mindset of being half right and half wrong is it’s dynamic. It’s focused on learning. It’s focused on iterating to the next play. I presume that’s kind of what you mean here by that principle guiding you through your life about being half right and half wrong.
CATMULL: That is what it’s about. When you do something that’s new, by virtue of the fact that it’s new, it means that you haven’t done it before. Then if you define yourself in terms of being a leader who gets it right the first time, it’s like your ego gets in the way. That process of doing something new is an iterative process, and it requires a lot of people. The most damaging thing is if the leader thinks their job is to be right and to know the answer, well, you’re kind of shutting things off when you think that way. It’s like, well, I don’t know. Let’s work it out together. We’re all in this together.
HOFFMAN: Ed brought this collaborative approach to his work at Lucasfilm. He and his team set about applying increasingly powerful computer technology to special effects. One major project was a specialized machine that could digitally combine special effects with live action footage. They named it the Pixar Image Computer. However, while George shared Ed’s enthusiasm for using computers in movie making, he didn’t share Ed’s ambition to create a full length computer animated movie. Meanwhile, Lucasfilm was put under financial strain by George’s 1983 divorce settlement. Although Ed’s computer graphics division was making huge strides in technology, it wasn’t making money for its parent company. So George made the decision to spin it off.
CATMULL: Honestly, it was a brutal year. It was high stress. Things were not going right.
HOFFMAN: Ed was desperate, not only to find a buyer, but a buyer who would understand and preserve the dynamic approach to creativity that Ed had built. It turns out that just such a buyer was currently on the lookout for new opportunities, having recently parted ways with a computer company he’d founded. The company’s name was Apple and that buyer was Steve Jobs.
We’ll hear that story and more after the break.
How Lucasfilm’s computer division became Pixar
HOFFMAN: We’re back with Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull on how to keep the creativity flowing. And just a reminder that once you finish this episode, you can see more of my interview with Ed on the Masters of Scale YouTube channel. Before the break, we heard how Ed found himself in the midst of a brutal year. Although his computer division at Lucasfilm was making huge strides in technology, it wasn’t making money for its parent company. So George Lucas made the decision to spin off Ed’s division. Ed was desperate to find a buyer who would realize the potential of what his team was doing and also let them preserve their dynamic creative environment. After over a year of searching, they found their buyer.
CATMULL: Steve Jobs did believe that the potential for graphics was going to become important in the future. Steve wasn’t saying, I know how to make a business out of this right now. This is going to be of value in the future, so let’s figure out what we do to get there.
HOFFMAN: In February 1986, Steve Jobs paid $5 million to buy Lucasfilm’s computer graphics division of 40 or so staff and establish it under a new name: Pixar. It meant Ed and his team were financially secure, for now.
The newly established Pixar now desperately needed clients. It didn’t take long for one of the biggest names in the business to come knocking.
CATMULL: This was Roy Disney Jr., Walt’s nephew.
HOFFMAN: Roy had recently rejoined the Disney company as Vice Chairman. Disney’s output was creatively stagnating and its films were doing poorly. Roy was determined to inject some dynamism back into the family business.
CATMULL: Roy said he knew that Walt Disney believed that changing technology of filmmaking brought energy into the creative process. It wasn’t in the rest of the company.
HOFFMAN: Roy was prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to reignite Disney’s creative spark.
CATMULL: They wanted us to write software to color the cells for hand-drawn animation. Now, the truth was, they did a financial analysis, and the financial analysis says there’s no benefit to using computers. And Roy said, I don’t care. We’re going to do it anyway, because we need that energy coming in.
HOFFMAN: Roy saw the shakeup as a vital long-term creative investment, even if it meant taking a short-term financial hit.
CATMULL: And then as technology changed over time, we made sure their software continued to work. So essentially, we were building a level of trust with Disney, as people who were going to stay with them all the way through to make sure everything worked.
HOFFMAN: The partnership to supply software to Disney was a creative success. However, Pixar’s main focus at the time was selling hardware, namely its specialist, Pixar Imaging Computer. With an initial price tag of $122,000, the low volume of sales wasn’t enough to keep Pixar afloat.
CATMULL: It was difficult for Steve. We were costing a lot of money. We put together what we thought was a long-term plan, because we knew that underlying this industry was the exponential change in computer power, and that the economics were not right and wouldn’t be for several more years. But we had a plan to get ready for it. And Steve believed there was value in that. So he supported us as we did this, even though we were hurting on the business side. In the end, he actually did stick with us.
How Steve Jobs and Pixar negotiated a three-picture deal with Disney
HOFFMAN: Part of Ed’s long-term plan was to keep making short films along with commercials to showcase the technical and creative advances that Pixar was spearheading. In 1986, Pixar released the animated short film Luxo Jr. It featured the desk lamp that would go on to become the company’s mascot. It was also the first 3D animated computer film to be nominated for an Oscar. Then, 1988’s Tin Toy won an Academy Award for best animated short film. This caught the attention of Pixar’s partners at Disney.
CATMULL: Disney had already had this resurgence, so they were doing very well. They thought they would do some boutique films. So, the president of Disney animations, Peter Snyder at the time, called me into his office, and said, “We’d like you to do a feature film.” And I said, “Well, you know, we’re not quite ready yet. We plan to do a half hour special first, and then we’ll be ready to do a feature film.” And Peter said, “If you can do a half hour, you can do 75 minutes.” And my instant reaction was, “yeah, you’re right.” So at this point, Steve, recognizing the advantage that was there, came in and negotiated with Pixar to do a three picture deal with Disney.
HOFFMAN: Notice how Ed quickly overcame his initial reluctance to take on the making of a feature film, so soon. It’s easy to internalize arbitrary limits and restrictions that hold us back. You need to be able to quickly identify those self-imposed constraints and throw them aside. So in 1991, Pixar and Disney struck a new deal. Disney would fund three Pixar movies, which Disney would distribute and own. Now there was the simple task of making the film.
CATMULL: Inside of Pixar, nobody had ever made a computer animated film before, or anywhere. So, none of us knew what we were doing.
HOFFMAN: There was much more riding on the film’s success than Ed’s ambition to make a feature film. Pixar was a loss-making enterprise. Steve Jobs had kept it alive through numerous cash injections. Steve was now expressing frustration at the situation. So failing now could mean the end for Steve’s support, and by extension, the end of Pixar.
CATMULL: If we didn’t get the film done, if we didn’t solve the problem, then that was it. It was all over. And everybody knew it. So, everybody had to figure it out with nobody having any experience whatsoever. And there was something about having to do that which was transformative to people. I’ve always liked this like, okay, don’t forget that. Don’t assume that you have to have all this experience to get something done. You get some smart people who are on the right arc — they can do more than you expect.
How Pixar approached the development of Toy Story
HOFFMAN: Ed had faith that the dynamic collaborative environment he built at Pixar would let them succeed, but he also realized they needed to set some constraints.
CATMULL: The film focused on toys, because toys are all on flat surfaces and they’re made of plastic, so it’s easier to do. So some of what drove the topic was the limitations, what can be done with computers at the time.
HOFFMAN: Pixar had its creative template set for the film and began developing a story. It would revolve around a toy cowboy named Woody, who becomes jealous when his owner gets a new toy named Buzz Lightyear. Disney greenlit the concept, but Ed and his team still had to manage Disney’s expectations.
CATMULL: At Disney, all the films should be musicals with five to seven musical numbers and a funny sidekick. But there were certain things about that that just was not something that the people at Pixar wanted to do.
HOFFMAN: Ed and his team were determined to hew to their vision. They spent over a year storyboarding the new film, but through those early drafts, they also took feedback from Disney, and the story and characters began to drift away from Pixar’s original vision. The creative crisis came to a head when they showed the first version of the movie to Disney execs.
CATMULL: The first version just didn’t work. Even Roy Disney, when he looked at our first cuts, he’d say, “oh, this isn’t going to work. This is bad.” At one point, I get a call saying, “you guys need more help. Move the entire company down to Los Angeles.”
HOFFMAN: Ed declined the offer, knowing that inviting more help from Disney would dilute the dynamic, if unorthodox, creative process at Pixar. Ed also knew that this crisis point could actually fuel, rather than deflate his team.
CATMULL: We knew it didn’t work. If we don’t turn this around quickly and demonstrate that it’s going to work, it all falls apart. The team figured out a take that was theirs, and they turned it around fairly quickly. In doing that, they also gained some confidence about what they wanted, and what it meant to be a good filmmaker.
How Steve Jobs leveraged the success of Toy Story into something much bigger
HOFFMAN: This is one of the key advantages of being prepared to constantly revise your creative processes. Your team knows that the one reliable constant is change. This will make them more resilient and adaptive when crisis hits. Ed and his team sprinted to overhaul Toy Story.
CATMULL: As we start to get near the end, it was then apparent that we had something which was really big.
CATMULL: Steve said, “This is a big deal. This is actually really going to change animation.”
HOFFMAN: In typical Steve Jobs fashion, he had an audacious plan that none of Ed’s team saw coming.
CATMULL: We need to go public, just after the film comes out.
HOFFMAN: To which Ed and his team had a response.
CATMULL: That’s kind of nuts. Let’s do a couple more first.
HOFFMAN: Steve Jobs also predicted that a successful IPO would mean a change in the relationship for Pixar with Disney, and its then CEO, Michael Eisner.
CATMULL: Steve demonstrated his brilliance in how he thought about this, which was that, when the film comes out, then Michael Eisner realized he’s just created his worst nightmare, because with two more films, the deal’s over with. But now we’re a free and independent company, and so we then become a competitor. So Steve said, this is going to happen, so he will want to renegotiate.
HOFFMAN: But this didn’t simply mean asking for more funding or film deals from Disney.
CATMULL: Steve realized that it wasn’t a matter of getting a good deal over somebody else. You actually need to think of them as equal partners. So, in order to do that, we have to be able to put up half the money for the films, so that we can genuinely say, coming into the negotiation, we are partners at every level.
HOFFMAN: Steve knew that for the creative magic of Pixar to continue to work, it needed to be on an equal footing with Disney, both creatively and financially.
CATMULL: So, sure enough, when the film came out, it was a big success. One week later, we went public.
HOFFMAN: Toy Story was a creative triumph and investors flocked to Pixar stock. The listing raised $140 million for Pixar and beat Netscape as the biggest IPO that year. Steve had been right about the appetite for Pixar stock after the release of Toy Story. He was also right about something else.
CATMULL: Sure enough, a few months later, Michael Eisner wanted to renegotiate the deal. Oh, Steve called this exactly right. That’s impressive.
The power of Pixar’s Brain Trust
HOFFMAN: With a deal renegotiated, Pixar was now in an equal partnership with Disney. Ed and his team set out working on their next films: A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2.
CATMULL: So, we’re drawing on things we learned from Toy Story. And again, trying to correct the things that went wrong and then making a new set of errors.
HOFFMAN: Ed needed to quickly scale up his team, while keeping the high level of creativity that had made Toy Story such a success.
CATMULL: This particular group that had made Toy Story, was extraordinarily good at helping people solve problems. So we called it the Brain Trust.
HOFFMAN: The creative team behind Toy Story couldn’t simultaneously take the lead on Toy Story 2, A Bug’s Life, and the other projects in development. So Ed developed a method for making that team’s creative excellence available to the rest of the company. That’s not to say production on Toy Story 2 went smoothly… far from it. You can learn the fascinating details from Ed’s book, Creativity Inc. What I want to focus on here, is how Ed and his team iterated on what the Brain Trust was and how it operated, as Pixar grew and faced new challenges. One example is the composition of the Brain Trust.
CATMULL: So this Brain Trust actually morphed from an identifiable group into a way of thinking about solving problems.
HOFFMAN: The Brain Trust roots lay in the original creative team behind Toy Story, and initially it was made up of those specific people. But keeping it that way would’ve been impractical as Pixar scaled. So instead, the Brain Trust became a method, rather than a group. It became a way of sharing candid and objective criticism with directors and their teams every few months during a production. Over the years, the precise way the Brain Trust operates has changed, but some basic principles have emerged.
CATMULL: One of them is that this really needs to be composed just to filmmakers. They’re peers who are talking with each other. Another principle was, you just have to be truthful. The other one was a recognition that the directors know they have a problem, so they’re a little bit vulnerable.
HOFFMAN: The next principle is one you should file under “genius creativity hack.”
CATMULL: We had to remove the power from the room. So, people who were powerful were not supposed to talk for 15 minutes. Because if a person with authority starts the room, then everybody sort of lines up behind it. The agenda’s been set. If the person with power doesn’t say anything, then entering the discussion has an entirely different dynamic. The Brain Trust, what they were supposed to do was to point out the problems, to discuss it, make suggestions, but they couldn’t tell people how to solve the problem. They couldn’t override the director. And all of this, frankly, was just to get it so that the director was free to listen to what was being suggested.
HOFFMAN: For Ed, the Brain Trust is all about sparking and sustaining creative magic.
CATMULL: For me, the magic means that people throw out ideas and they’re not attached to them. If they help and they’re accepted… good. If they don’t help and they’re not used, that’s okay too, because you’re not attached to them. And what we’re trying to do is to figure out how to get more in the state, where people are not attached to what they’re saying, which also makes people more likely to listen. And it just sort of changes the dynamic of the film. So, that’s an ongoing process.
Ed Catmull on Pixar’s scale challenges
I asked Ed to go into more detail about the challenges Pixar faced when it came to scaling the creative process.
Well, one of the things that I think is part of the amazing story about what you led at Pixar is how to systematize an environment, where you have creative solution to unknown problems as you’re encountering them. So Brain Trust was one of the things. What are the other things that then made that scale and repeat process with Pixar?
CATMULL: We went through a process of growing our output. And frankly, growing our output was very difficult, because we had to figure out: what are our bottlenecks? There are so many unknowns that are going on. We have to approach each problem. Something that’s new to us, why is it not working? What are the obstacles? What are the impediments? There aren’t really any fast answers. Most problems actually require going down a few levels just to understand them and pick at the problem.
HOFFMAN: Bottlenecks can be hard to spot, especially as you scale, but it’s important that you do spot them and resolve them. They’re a sign that there’s a deeper problem with the processes you’ve established in your company. Some of these will be conscious processes that you set up for a very good reason, but have now outlived the usefulness. Others will be things you do unconsciously that have become an unnoticed part of your culture. Either way, once you identify them, you need to change them. But be aware… the better you get at identifying bottlenecks, the more you’ll spot, something Ed knows full well.
CATMULL: We put together a culture that was supportive, that other people owned the problem. So if you walked into a meeting with people, they weren’t saying, okay, who’s going to solve this problem for me? Or who’s responsible for this? They all owned it. And it’s a different kind of discussion when everybody owns the problem.
HOFFMAN: This will also make for an environment in which people will proactively identify problems. Just as importantly, people won’t be afraid to give input on your decisions. Of course, owning the problem is just part of the challenge. You need to be able to act quickly to solve it. I asked Ed how to do this as an organization scales.
What are some of the ways that you try to keep the organization and the leadership and the problem solving nimble to that next problem and realizing the game would be constantly changing?
CATMULL: In the case of nimbleness, it turns out that different groups have different notions of how to be nimble. And I like the fact that they’ve got their own approaches to it, because they’re going to bring something to the table, without a notion that is always going to be uniform across the company.
Inside Disney’s $7.4 billion acquisition of Pixar
HOFFMAN: In 2006, Disney acquired Pixar for $7.4 billion. Ed remained president of Pixar and also became president of Walt Disney Animation Studios. It was one of the many title changes across management that signaled a closer merging of Disney and Pixar, including Steve Jobs taking a place on the Disney board of directors. There was a clause in the deal, guaranteeing that Pixar remain a separate entity. Ed believed this stipulation was vital in preserving Pixar’s dynamic approach to creativity, although with some important guidelines.
CATMULL: You could not do production work for the other. But on the other side, you could beg, borrow, and steal ideas from each other, because we did not want them to be an existential threat to each other. We wanted them to have a good relationship and want the others to succeed and to feel ownership that they fixed their own problems.
HOFFMAN: This helped Pixar’s culture of constant refinement spread across all Disney’s filmmakers.
CATMULL: Which is then includes ILM and Marvel, in terms of the sharing of information. In an industry that’s changing quickly as this one is, we’re far better off if the individual studios can actually bring their own view to it and move quickly and not become ponderous because we’ve merged everything together.
HOFFMAN:The conventional move would’ve been to merge those different production units to save overhead, but Ed knew there was incalculable value in preserving the different creative approaches of Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and others, while still encouraging them to reach out to each other for help.
CATMULL: They just call up their counterpart at the other place. They’ll give an idea, they’ll say what they’re doing, and we ended up with this really healthy ecosystem, and it worked. And I feel very proud about that.
HOFFMAN: As your organization scales, there’s a tendency for silos to form, visions to narrow in scope, and layers of management to pile up. But that’s precisely why you need to instill a willingness to constantly reassess and retool your creative process. It will help you cut through all these layers, short circuit creative blocks and clear bottlenecks. You’ll just need to accept one thing.
CATMULL: There isn’t the recipe, there isn’t that sweet spot, and you get there and you’ve made it. This stuff is fundamentally unstable. There is no stable point. You have to keep doing this, over and over again. And it’s always different.
You go down a path and you really commit to it, but while you’re committing to it with passion, if it doesn’t work, you change.
HOFFMAN: I am Reid Hoffman. Thank you for listening.