Book Review: Creativity, Inc – by Ed Catmull, and Amy Wallace
When it comes to the company PIXAR Animation Studios, it is often the names of two of its three founders who spring readily to mind. There’s Steve Jobs, who chose to purchase the company from Lucasfilm in the mid-80’s. There’s John Lasseter, a former Disney animator who saw potential in using the computer for animation.
And then, there’s Ed Catmull.
To many of us out there, Ed is the quiet enigma. More studious, and only willing to talk if he has something to say. Until the release of 2008’s The PIXAR Story, I had never really heard much of Ed’s philosophy on things, and even given his position in life, I was perplexed. How did this quiet man who dreamed big with computers, end up becoming the President of PIXAR Animation Studios, and in 2006, President of Walt Disney Feature Animation?
Like John Lasseter, Ed was also inspired by Disney. He claimed that he drew a lot, but felt he wouldn’t be able to reach the technical level needed to become a member of the company’s animation staff. Instead, he turned his attention to Computer Sciences at the University of Utah. Back in the day, there was a great deal of experimentation going on, and Ed saw something that many in the mid-70’s could probably never envision: use the computer in regards to animation. In fact, it was this idea that would become Ed’s lifelong goal: to some day create the first computer-generated feature film.
Of course, almost 20 years later, Ed would be part of that team that made history, when PIXAR released Toy Story. Since then, the company has become one of the most successful in history, relying less on executive decisions, and moreso on those of its creative staff.
After spending almost 3 decades being the President of PIXAR Animation Studios (and 8 at Disney), Ed has taken the time to put down most of his musings about running a company into Creativity, Inc, with the help of Amy Wallace. From the start, it becomes readily apparent that Ed is not here to egocentrically tell about his climb to greatness. Instead, he uses his life and memories to explain why many of the ideals and business practices he uses, are worth noting and sharing with his readers. Ed’s book is meant to prove that the business models he knows and has seen implemented at Pixar (and in the last decade, at Disney Feature Animation), can apply to other businesses out there.
Creativity, Inc strives to convince us that there is no sure way to avoid failure in a business, or to be pitch-perfect…and we should be okay with that. Given the company he’s worked for, we’ve heard numerous media personalities gush over every PIXAR success like the team just spent 3-4 years having fun after coming up with their film ideas one afternoon. But as Ed and several of the PIXAR staff have often repeated, “Every single film we’ve made has at one time or another, been the worst film we’ve ever made.”
Ed even gives examples of this, when he describes the original outlines for Monsters Inc, and Up. What he describes are story ideas significantly different from the final product, and would have sent the production off on many different tangents. I’m sure there are dozens of readers who went “…huh!?” after reading the original draft of Up that Ed describes.
Throughout the book, Ed recounts his time working on various productions at PIXAR, providing some great insight. He discusses why the company cancelled a film titled Newt, as well as giving a peek into the group of persons dubbed, “The Brain Trust.” Ed also pulls insight from each of the myriad people he works with at PIXAR and Disney, regarding how they respond to challenges and fears in their own ways. Oftentimes, others will take the same concept, but have their own metaphorical structure for it in their heads.
Of all the chapters included, the one that had me at the first word was Chapter 12: A New Challenge. This chapter chronicles a series of events that have been at the forefront of my wonderings since the fall of 2005: when Disney acquired PIXAR in a $7.4 billion acquisition, and brought Ed and John to Walt Disney Feature Animation, in hopes they could fix the struggling studio. It strays a ways outside of Ed’s more precise layouts in other chapters, but to hear his point-of-view from how those at PIXAR first reacted to the news, to what he and John found when they started trying to restructure Disney, is pure gold. The chapter also serves the duel purpose of informing us of a major event in Ed’s life, and seeing if the principles and examples he discussed in previous chapters, could be applied to Disney Feature Animation.
The chapter even addresses why the studios were not merged (or share technology, or personnel). There is some talk about the previous version of the film Bolt (when it was titled American Dog), and also what had seemingly stymied the creative process that had turned the studio into a second-guesser, far from the innovative powerhouse it had long been known for.
The book’s release also comes at an interesting time. 2013 was quite a shocker for you if you were a fan of Disney and/or PIXAR. Many were surprised when Monsters University was shut out of the Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Feature, but the most shocking thing that has come about, has been the runaway success of Frozen. To the general public, the film seemed to come out of nowhere, and took on a life of its own, unseen since the release of The Lion King almost 2 decades before. Even after 5 months, it has made over $1 billion worldwide, and its soundtrack has sold over 2 million albums since its release. To many, the film has become a symbol that Disney Feature Animation has found its footing again.
However, it should be advised that Creativity, Inc is not some sort of get-rick-quick book. Ed is not going to give you the secret formula for making billion-dollar movies (sorry, you idiotic executives). It will be interesting to see or hear if any companies out there take Creativity, Inc to heart enough to make major changes in their corporate structure. Much of what Ed proposes is much like a New Year’s Resolution in regards to company betterment: you can talk about it all you want, but you have to work to make sure that the guiding principles in place are actually helping, and not hindering.
In the end, Creativity, Inc proves to be a much different book associated with the legacy of PIXAR Animation Studios. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime mixture of observations both managerially and creatively. Just seeing those two words mixed together should not be compatible, but Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace manage to find a way.