Ed Catmull on Managing Creativity

Pixar Lineup

Ed Catmull is a co-founder of Pixar. He wrote this great articlein the Harvard Business Review this month about how Pixar approaches the intensely collaborative and creative process of producing a film. There are a lot of good parallels to the software process, especially as it relates to creative/technical workflow. It's an easy read and there's a lot of great insight. Don't miss it.

I met Ed Catmull a few years ago and I actually got a personal tour of Pixar from him. He and my dad were college pals and then office mates in graduate school so he set it up for me. My dad, in fact my dad did the 3D lettering in one of Ed's earliest movies. We always called it the "hand movie" because it's a 3D model of a hand, and I believe was among the first digital movies ever!

Well, the tour of Pixar left a tremendous impression on me. At the time, they were working on Monster's Inc. and the digs had been dressed accordingly. The team sat in a warehouse-like inner sanctum in the middle of the building that was filled with Styrofoam caves, monster sketches, giant storyboards, and crazy models. More to the point, though, it was lit up with conversation and a bewitching kind of collaborative energy.

So given that, I have an admitted bias when reading the article. I can't help but read it through the lens of that experience, trying to extract something about how they created such an intensely creative environment. For me, the article doesn't disappoint, although it gets there with some ideas that rub against grain a little. Here are some of the tamer ones.

On the collaborative nature of creativity:

People tend to think of creativity as a mysterious solo act, and they typically reduce products to a single idea... However, in filmmaking and many other kinds of complex product development, creativity involves a large number of people from different disciplines working effectively together to solve a great many problems. The initial idea for the movie—what people in the movie business call “the high concept”—is merely one step in a long, arduous process...

On taking risks:

To act in this fashion, we as executives have to resist our natural tendency to avoid or minimize risks, which, of course, is much easier said than done... If you want to be original, you have to accept the uncertainty, even when it’s uncomfortable, and have the capability to recover when your organization takes a big risk and fails. What’s the key to being able to recover? Talented people!

On managing creative people:

Of course, most executives would at least pay lip service to the notion that they need to get good people and should set their standards high. But how many understand the importance of creating an environment that supports great people and encourages them to support one another so the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts? That’s what we are striving to do. Let me share what we’ve learned so far about what works.

Creative power in a film has to reside with the film’s creative leadership. As obvious as this might seem, it’s not true of many companies in the movie industry and, I suspect, a lot of others. We believe the creative vision propelling each movie comes from one or two people and not from either corporate executives or a development department. Our philosophy is: You get great creative people, you bet big on them, you give them enormous leeway and support, and you provide them with an environment in which they can get honest feedback from everyone.

On the magic of technology (nerd) + art:

Getting people in different disciplines to treat one another as peers is just as important as getting people within disciplines to do so. But it’s much harder. Barriers include the natural class structures that arise in organizations: There always seems to be one function that considers itself and is perceived by others to be the one the organization values the most. Then there’s the different languages spoken by different disciplines and even the physical distance between offices. In a creative business like ours, these barriers are impediments to producing great work, and therefore we must do everything we can to tear them down.

Walt Disney understood this. He believed that when continual change, or reinvention, is the norm in an organization and technology and art are together, magical things happen. A lot of people look back at Disney’s early days and say, “Look at the artists!” They don’t pay attention to his technological innovations. But he did the first sound in animation, the first color, the first compositing of animation with live action, and the first applications of xerography in animation production. He was always excited by science and technology.

Alright, I'll let you read the rest. Don't miss this one.


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