Sunday, October 11, 2009

In Search of a New Paradigm—Part 2: Pixar’s “Collective Creativity”

The view that good ideas are rarer and more valuable than good people is rooted in a misconception of creativity—Ed Catmull, Pixar

Recently, Piet Voute, my neighbor and a cool animator (you may have read my interview with him here) passed me an article on Pixar in the September 2008 Harvard Business Review. It was a timely sharing, given that Pixar’s business model follows an alternative to the traditional parochial Capitalism model discussed in my previous post. It is a model and culture based not on a hierarchy of closed-minded greed and secrecy but on “collective creativity”. Here’s their story and their model:

In the 1990s Pixar was the leading technological pioneer in the field of computer animation with Toy Story, released in 1995, being the world’s first computer-animated feature film. They released eight other films in the following 13 years. Cofounder and president of Pixar Ed Catmull describes one of the qualities promoted by George Lucas that Pixar embraced. “George didn’t try to lock up the technology for himself and allowed us to continue to publish and maintain strong academic contacts. This made it possible to attract some of the best people in the industry.”

Catmull describes three operating principles that underpin the structure and operation of Pixar’s creative organization.
 These are: 1) everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone; 2) it must be safe for everyone to offer ideas; and 3) we must stay close to innovations happening in the academic community. He recommends that people be able to walk into any department and talk to anyone to solve a problem, without the need to follow “proper” channels. He suggests that managers “don’t always have to be the first to know about something and …it’s okay to walk into a meeting and be surprised.” Catmull shares that people at Pixar are constantly showing their works in progress to others, regardless of discipline or position and within a safe environment for criticism.

One of the keys to a vitally creative organization, says Catmull, is letting people take risks at all levels of an organization from the computer animator to the top executive. The other is “getting talented people to work effectively with one another,” says Catmull. “That takes trust and respect,” something that must be earned over time. “What we can do is construct and environment that nurtures trusting and respectful relationships,” which unleashes the creative spirit. In keeping with his philosophy of good people vs. good ideas, and in nurturing a culture of creativity, Catmull contends that “If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they’ll screw it up. But if you give a mediocre idea to a great team, they’ll make it work.” Good people and a good team are the prerequisites to good ideas and the fulfillment of a successful project. This philosophy contradicts that of most corporations, which promote product first and people second.

It starts with giving “Power to the Creatives” which resides with those creating the project (e.g., director, writer, artists and storyboard people), not corporate executives or development department; what Catmull calls “filmmaker led”, such as the partnership of director and producer, within a “peer culture”. In such a culture “each person on the film [has] creative ownership of even the smallest task.” Catmull takes pride in Pixar’s “all-level” support network and what’s called “the brain trust”. Showing unfinished work each day, says Catmull, “liberates people to take risks and try new things because it doesn’t have to be perfect the first time.”

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

Pixar has always been seen as a leading light in animation. There have been good reviews of the new 'Up' movie. I thought the marriage to Disney may ruin it's creativity.

SF Girl said...

Did you see it, Jean-Luc? It is a wonderful and inspirational film. I recommend it. And, like you, I'd have thought the same... But, apparently not... :)

Anonymous said...

I agree with Ed, tha a group of good people are more important than one person with a few good ideas. Good people will generate the more ideas over time.

Pixar was leading the pack back in 1986 (also the same year that Steve Jobs bought it and named it Pixar). 1st short film Luxo Jr was nominated for an Academy award.

Regarding Disney, it has come full circle - Disney animator, John Lasseter leaves Disney to join Lucas Films CGI team. 2006 Disney buys Pixar.
In the tech world, software developers are usually encouraged to sit and talk with anybody and everybody. I believe that is de rigeur at both Microsoft and Apple. Even in school and small IT shops, if you are struggling with something for more than a few hours, you are always encouraged to get up and talk about it with someone else. Heck, back in high school, I struggled with a program bug, a non-computer science teacher stopped by - as I started to explain what my problem was, BOOM!! I figured it out.

On the flip side, most "artists" (painters, composers, sculptors) tend to create in solitude. Pop-Music and Film tends to be more collaborative, but even then the creative idea tends to come from one person then hopefully enriched by the team.

Authors tend to create the initial work on their own then bring in editors and reviewers to help fine tune things.

Most movie studios started out as Creative Collectives (MGM, UA, RKO, Disney) but as accountants and investors started taking over the purse strings, fiscal control became more important than creative freedom.

Hopefully, Pixar can remain independent of Disney, though I am sure that if money becomes an issue, Disney will take a firm hold on the reins.

Msr Frommage

mmmm Saganaki is good!

SF Girl said...

Yes, good summary, Frommage! As for how Pixar evolves over time with Disney, we'll see...

chewie said...

Pixar produced great movies.

SF Girl said...

They certainly did! I just hope they don't get lazy and go with a proven formula... So far so good...