What's the secret to Pixar's string of amazing films, from Wall-E to Toy Story? In the new book Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace delve into just how Pixar made hit after hit, revealing how the film industry changed as they did.
The first thing to know about Creativity Inc., is that it's not a biography or history of Catmull or Pixar, although there's a lot of that in there. The primary mission of this book is as a managerial text for business leaders looking to foster a creative and successful team, company or organization. This isn't a dry book, simply filled with advice for mid-level managers: Catmull starts at the beginning, when he became interested in computers, and quickly runs through Pixar's founding.
Coming from the founder of one of the best story-companies in the world, it's an engaging story. Catmull began his management work at the New York Institute of Technology, and attended the University of Utah, where he found himself at the beginnings of the computer industries in the early '70s. He helped to create one of the first computer-generated animations, and decided at that point that he would create the first entirely computer generated film. From the NYIT, he was hired by a young filmmaker named George Lucas, who had just come off of a major success with Star Wars.
It was here that Catmull had begun to drift from the day to day work of creating things with computers, and began to oversee larger groups that did. At Lucasfilm, they demonstrated the ways in which computers would be useful in film. At Lucasfilm, he headed up a Computer Graphics division at LFL, where he helped to develop the hardware that would create the images needed for the big screen. The result was the Pixar Image Computer, a high-end, specialized computer that helped with imaging. The computer didn't sell well: it was prohibitively expensive, but the potential was there.
Around the same time, George Lucas and Lucasfilm hit hard times: recently divorced, Lucas and the company faced a number of cash-flow problems, and the division, spun off into its own company, was to be sold. The company had been passed over by everyone in the business, until Steve Jobs appeared. Recently fired from Apple, he purchased the company and spun it off into its own entity. Pixar had its start, and using the technology they developed, began to create their first film. Catmull describes the process in which they worked to create not only the first CGI film, but more importantly, a film with a superior story.
Story and creativity is at the heart of this book, and it's emphasized throughout: the story is what matters, and this is why I'll point to this book as an essential one for all creative types, working in the film industry and out. In Pixar's world, creativity isn't a shot in the dark epiphany that strikes their writing teams and animators: it's a team effort. Catmull is frank about the problems that they face as a team: their first efforts, he notes, are all terrible. Toy Story's Woody, in the early days, was a nasty, mean toy. Through a lot of work, that changed, as did the film, for the better.
Catmull looks at the creative process through the eyes of a manager, and there are some interesting lessons to be learned from his experiences. Predominantly, his goal is to foster a successful story. Hard with the forty or so people who were with Pixar at the start, it becomes a much more difficult prospect when your company grows to over a thousand. The role of the manager, in this instance, is to allow one's employees to continue to be creative, in spite of the barriers that a corporate structure provides. How do you get multiple teams with different priorities to all align toward the same goal, even as their own needs and interests compete with one another?
They key, Catmull explains, is effective communications, which is more than simply telling people to talk with one another. It's his, and the company's management's job to facilitate a workplace that is open and transparent between each of its individuals, ensuring that people are listened to, understand the larger and distant goals, and work together to achieve it. The book notes that this is harder than it looks, and it's full of examples of where Pixar has run into issues with each film. Each time, they make adjustments, and move forward, taking the lessons they learned in stride. A key message that's imparted is to not be afraid of failure: it provides vital lessons for the next time you find yourself in a similar situation.
While the book is open and frank about Pixar's evolution, mistakes, triumphs, there's a couple of select points that I wish we saw a little more on. Cars 2, widely regarded as Pixar's first 'bad' film, gets a single mention in the entire book. While it's not a Pixar production, I'd hoped that there might be some talk about Andrew Stanton's John Carter, which would have been interesting to see in this context. Similarly, it would have been interesting to see some discussion on Disney's Mars Needs Moms enormous failure.
Along the way, Catmull broadly covers the mid-90s of Pixar and their relationship with Disney and Jobs, before making headlines when Disney purchased Pixar. Catmull explains just why they made the sale, but more importantly, shows just how different Pixar was in the industry. With Pixar's acquisition, Catmull and John Lasseter were put in charge of Disney Animation, which had stagnated. With this new change, Catmull jumps into action, taking the management style of Pixar to inject a new life into Disney's floundering animation company.
The differences are stark: teams worked in a competitive environment, which didn't foster trust between employees. Catmull notes that employees are encouraged to decorate and personalize their workplaces to an incredible degree, whereas the Disney cubefarms were stark and lifeless by contrast. Quickly, changes were made on the management level to help fix some of the glaring, organizational problems, and Catmull credits these changes with unleashing the studio's pent-up potential and creative drive. The studio's 2008 film Bolt was a box office and critical success, followed by Tangled, which did even better, while follow-up films Wreck It Ralph and Frozen has continued their winning streak.
Ultimately, Creativity, Inc. is a book that shows that coming up with a good story is really hard, before you throw the massive infrastructure required to create it into play. On one level, this is a book that shows how Hollywood can take steps to really focus on what's important in the long run: creating a good story time after time, rather than chasing after shorter-term box office reports. Tell a good story, and people will respond to it, not just at the box office, but years later. The book isn't a proscriptive solution: like coming up with a good story, the management of such an environment requires continual attention and work, but it pays off in the long run. As someone who works in a regular day job with small teams, it was an excellent book to read.
There are also a number of small, unexpected points throughout the book that I found interesting to read, most notably Catmull's tribute to Steve Jobs, painting a vivid and complicated portrait of the man who saved the company, one that runs counter to the general image of him and his personality. The book is full of interesting recollections of individuals, organizations and films that make up the industry, which makes this book far more interesting than any other management text I've ever picked up.
On another level, the book does contain enough history and biographical details to be a really interesting read for anyone not interested in management books. The history and development of Pixar is an absolutely fascinating one, and as someone who loves film and the history of the film industry, it's an interesting look into how Pixar has become a dominant force at the box office for their excellent stories.
Pixar's transition from a hardware section of Lucasfilm to a major animation studio is an astounding success story, but one that's built by hard work, sweat and tears. This is a book that every creative individual should read at least once. Hopefully, the lessons it imparts will make for a stronger and more creative entertainment industry for years to come.