Inside Pixar’s Creative Culture
29th April 14
Author: Richard Helyar, Head of Research, BBH London
Last week Disney’s icy fairytale Frozen became the 6th highest grossing film of all time. It had already taken more money at the box office than any other animated film in history, relegating Pixar’s Toy Story 3 to second place. Incredibly, a two-man leadership team is behind both films and their respective studios: Ed Catmull and John Lasseter.
So BBH was highly animated when we welcomed one half of this duo, Ed Catmull, Pixar’s co-founder and President of both Pixar and Disney Animation, to talk to us last week on his two-day visit to London promoting his new book Creativity, Inc.
Together with the backing of Steve Jobs, Ed and John built Pixar from scratch and I doubt if anyone reading this hasn’t seen, and loved, one of their films. Pixar’s 27 Oscars and $7bn revenue is a pretty compelling demonstration of the creative and commercial yin yang, but what is truly remarkable is that when Disney acquired Pixar in 2006, Ed and John were put in charge of Disney Animation, then on its knees, and pulled off the same trick again. Frozen is testament to their methods and it’s these methods that were the subject of Ed’s remarks.
What I found fascinating listening to Ed was that he talked more of failure than success. Sure, we’re all well versed in the merits of failing fast, it’s practically an internet meme, but the scale here is epic and the anecdotes are richer. Ed shared stories about how so many iterations of new movies suck. Really suck. “On Up, the only thing to stay the same from the start was the bird and the word Up”.
He went on to talk about how the best people know how to rip up months of hard graft and start again if it’s not working and how there has only been one film when the reset button was not pressed (Toy Story 3 for the record). He concluded that “failure isn’t a necessary evil. It’s not evil at all, but a necessary consequence of doing something new”.
Ed went on to describe Pixar’s ‘Braintrust’. Basically a steering committee, but one where absolute candour and a shared investment in success, ensure that even the gnarliest problems are worked through and solved.
And what made him most proud? Not Toy Story or Frozen, nor the awards and the revenues, but how his people react when things go wrong. Like for instance an employee accidentally deleting 90% of Toy Story 2 during production. Two years work by 400 people gone and the back-up failed (you’ll have to read the book to find out what happened).
Another topic he warmed to concerned people and process. “Give a great idea to a poor team and they’ll screw it up. Give a poor idea to a great team and they’ll either fix it or throw it away and start again”. People trump process every time. His barometer for how a movie is progressing? Not the quality of the work (it will probably suck, see above), but the spirit in the team producing it.
And it was a person not a process that Ed talked most passionately about. No-one worked with Steve Jobs longer than Ed Catmull and he was clearly moved when talking about the compassionate side of Steve that never made the biography. Ed finished with an observation that was pure Steve Jobs: “Making processes better and more efficient is a vital task, but it’s not the goal. Excellence is the goal”.