Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, presents a memoir full of wonderful film production stories and incredibly valuable lessons in leadership, humility and mindfulness.
Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, has won five Academy Awards. His creativity, management ability and strategic thinking skills remade animated film and generated billions in box office receipts. Catmull – with co-author Amy Wallace – weaves reminiscence, production tales and studio politics around a functional, bare-bones history of the rise and reign of computer-animated narrative.
Though the cover lists Amy Wallace as a co-author, this is Catmull’s book and he tells it in his first-person voice. Wallace, a magazine writer, took on the task of sorting, editing and composing Catmull’s tales, ideas and mores into an organized form and she does a fine job. She is a solid standard prose stylist; all the punch comes from Catmull. And, indeed, the essence of Wallace’s collaboration was to stay out of his way, and she succeeds.
She succeeds so well that The Huffington Post, the Financial Times, Library Journal and Inc. all named this New York Times bestseller as one of the Best Books of the Year. The reviews were uniformly raves, with Forbes claiming that it “just might be the best business book ever written.” Professor Gary P. Pisano of the Harvard Business School said, “The most practical and deep book ever written by a practitioner on the topic of innovation.” Star Wars creator, producer and director George Lucas said, “What Ed Catmull shares…is his astute experience that creativity isn’t strictly a well of ideas, but an alchemy of people.”
Catmull relates how much Pixar – the animation studio responsible for Toy Story, Monsters University, The Incredibles and many more hits – values self-expression. Catmull emphasizes that denying errors or protecting people’s feelings at the expense of open communication harms an organization and stifles creativity.
I would devote myself to learning how to build not just a successful company but a sustainable creative culture.Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace
For example, he describes the way director Andrew Stanton once rearranged seating cards at a large meeting. Department heads ended up sitting with frontline employees. This removed obstacles to multi-level conversations. Catmull explains that it reflects Pixar’s main problem-solving tactic: unfettered communication regardless of rank.
Ed Catmull explains that he grew up idolizing Walt Disney and Albert Einstein. He studied physics and computer science at the University of Utah with Jim Clark, the future founder of Silicon Graphics and Netscape, and John Warnock, co-founder of Adobe. Catmull relates the way he and his colleagues developed computer animation by building on each other’s breakthroughs.
In 1979, Star Wars director George Lucas launched a computer division of Lucasfilm, and Catmull was a candidate for the job of running the new unit. When the interviewer asked about other worthwhile possible leaders, Catmull remembers that he named several people and cited their accomplishments. Turns out that of all the interviewees, only Catmull sang his colleagues’ praises. This became a factor in his hiring.
When it came to naming Pixar, a co-worker of Catmull’s suggested a word he erroneously thought was a Spanish verb: “Pixer.” Another suggested “Radar.” That, Catmull swears, is the origin of the name Pixar.
Steve Jobs acquired Pixar in 1986, and Catmull recalls how it was to work with Jobs daily for years.
When I don’t see eye to eye with somebody, I just take the time to explain it better, so they understand the way it should be.Steve Jobs
Catmull recounts that as Jobs embraced his shared humanity, he became an even better leader.
Lessons of Success
When Toy Story and A Bug’s Life became enormous hits, Pixar and Catmull faced the challenge of success. Catmull made certain that Pixar’s “artists and technical people” always regarded one another as equals, and he avows that he never treated either group as a favorite. Catmull underscores that Toy Story generated Pixar’s two defining, enduring “creative principles”: “Story Is King” and “Trust the Process.”
Catmull details how Pixar rigorously examines the process of making each film. Catmull believes that “hindsight is not 20-20.” He’s found that creative people can look back with as much delusion as they look forward. Postmortems are designed to eliminate illusions about the creative process and its flaws. They are never easy, Catmull reveals, because “people are resistant to self-assessment.”
Catmull’s wife Susan gave him a one-week, silent-meditation retreat at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado. He admits he couldn’t adjust to the silence. Catmull acknowledges that when he accepted that amid constant change his thoughts are “fleeting and subjective,” he saw how little he control had – and how that may prevent him from perceiving what’s happening right now.
When experimentation is seen as necessary and productive, not as a frustrating waste of time, people will enjoy their work – even when it is confounding them.Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace
The less “inner chatter” distracts you, Catmull maintains, the more freely your creative impulses can flow. Relieving blocks to creativity, he asserts, demands the same process and philosophy whether the issue is big or small.
Catmull’s filmmaking war stories are great fun, but with Wallace as his on-the-page interlocutor, he proves even more readable as a management philosopher. His tales set the context for his overriding lesson, which is how to develop and sustain a creative work environment. Catmull shows remarkable insight, self-knowledge and humility as he describes the traps, pitfalls and routine errors that plague every creative endeavor, large or small.
His descriptions of how he and his colleagues dealt with these issues provide rare, valuable guidance. Few people at Catmull’s level of power or success are this determined to remind you that they don’t have all the answers. His insistence that he always makes mistakes – and usually can’t identify them as such – proves especially inspirational.
As for ancillary reads, those intrigued by Pixar will enjoy Pixar Storytelling by Dean Movshovitz; readers looking for more counterintuitive leadership guidance might benefit from Steven B. Sample’s The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership.