Creativity, Inc.


Grab a copy on Amazon for yourself! 

 I love reading. Especially about creative people and about movies I loved as a kid. Over Christmas, I read a recently published book, Creativity, Inc. (I had to finish it before Christmas since it was a gift for my brother :-). This book is a definite must for anyone who wants to work in film, be it live action or animation. I’d say, it’s probably a good book for you to read no matter what industry you’re in because there comes a time when we all have to be creative to advance ourselves and our team. Pixar is such a fun company, it seriously made me want to go work for them. Ed Catmull, creator and CEO of Pixar, is a genius…truly! But sometimes the road to “genius” has to take a bunch of detours before you know where you’re going. 

Ed Catmull, Pixar

Just like with our film “reviews,” we won’t make this article a review, however, I want to reiterate what I felt were the most important tidbits (along with some added notes), some of which I was already convinced of and some that enlightened me. I have to admit, I feel kind of embarrassed by some of the concepts I didn’t know…I’ll humble myself and share which was which.

So….when it comes to running a happy and creative culture while maintaining a successful enterprise like Pixar, I always believed in the following…and so did Ed Catmull apparently… 

  • Fellow artists sometimes are the most inspirational part of the creative process and experience (I completely agree with this, especially when I think back of the plays I’ve been in or working with other writers. Creative people need to be around other creative people to be creative-true story!)
  • Hire people smarter than you and give a ton of freedom to highly self-motivated people. They’ll get much done in a short time (It is always better to be working with people you have to keep up with, NOT people you have to constantly motivate). 
  • When someone else asks “who would be good for this job?” list everyone you know who is better than you. It implies confidence and cooperation/compatibility (Exactly the kind of attitude you want everyone else to have). 
  • Visuals will NEVER trump story (Can I get an “AMEN”!)
  • Decide what to focus on (We all know that life’s not simple and that you can’t prevent chaos from happening from time to time, but do try to keep things simple anyway. Never forget your end goal).  
  • Find, develop and support good people, and in turn they will find, develop and own good ideas (The proof is in the pudding). 
  • Protect and guide your people. Encourage them a healthy life outside of work (Some companies forget that their workers are people with lives and families. What they do at the company will never be more important than that). 
  • If you feel overwhelmed, make a list of what’s not working or actually a problem (If you like making to-do lists, then you’ll love this). 
  • You can’t just repeat your mantras. You have to exemplify them (Having a “company values” plaque on the wall or a morning cheer drill is nice but it’s the things you actually do in your job that make your company flourish).
  • Always have the mind of a child that is open and eager to learn with no fear of failure (Probably the hardest concept for people to grasp and yet it is the most important one! When it comes to creativity and dreams coming true, logic can often be a hindrance. You MUST embrace risk). 

Now comes the embarrassing part…the following consists of concepts I’ve never been introduced to but makes total sense and which you see sustainable companies exemplify…
  • When it comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless (This was new to me and I liked it. There is no inspiration unless everyone is able to contribute). 
  • Unhindered communication is key no matter what you’re position (Which kind of goes hand and hand with the first point but we all forget that don’t we? Even in companies that claim to have an “open door” policy. You can not let “organization trump communication”). 
  • Sometimes the good things hide the bad things (This was an eye opener! When everything seems to be going right, it’s possible you don’t see the iceberg you’re about to hit. I’ll be on guard now because of this). 
  • Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important that getting the right idea (I’ve put way too much emphasis on ideas before, but I do see from the companies I’ve worked with how it’s the people that make that company stand out). 
  • In the beginning, all stories suck. Great people make them better (Ouch. Ok…’nuff said).   
  • Every company needs the “Brain Trust,” where everyone is involved to evaluate and speak freely on how the developing film at hand can improve. Frank talk, spirited debate, laughter and love  (This actually reminds me a little bit of the “notes period” we would have at the end of each rehearsal in theatre. The spirit was to make you better but also to keep it fun. When I finally realized this, I found that I looked forward to the notes at the end of each rehearsal. However, Ed proposes that the Brain Trust not just be honest with each other, but candid. You have to be ready to speak what you think and vice versa with your team and not get hurt by their critiques nor be afraid to voice your opinion to anyone else. Everyone is involved in the Brain Trust. The director can take or leave whatever notes he receives but everyone must be free to speak their mind. Candor, safety, research, self assessment and protecting new ideas is what the Brain Trust is all about. 
  • Give workers room to fail and learn from smaller, expected problems. Always be looking for problems and ask for input from the entire team. Never try to prevent screw ups. Aim at ensuring your team can solve problems (Ok, this is counter intuitive to everything that you and I have been taught. It just sounds wrong doesn’t it? Aren’t we always supposed to aim for problem and stress free procedures? But then again, is that asking for the impossible? Do we really learn when things go smoothly, or when problems arise? The latter of course. It’s true in life, it’s just as true in a creative company).    
  • The new ideas need protection (Now this was probably the most liberal idea I heard yet. We all want to work with what’s been tested and has a proven track record, right?  Or do we? According to Catmull, it’s the new ideas that grow and move your people in ways that they could not before. Success and growth require risk). 
  • Pure intentions and great talent brought about success but so did the unexpected elements (While it is true that hard work and determination achieve success, sometimes the unexpected events play a key role in bringing about success just as much as hard work does. Whether good or bad, the unexpected offers a learning experience. Like the time Toy Story 2 almost got deleted from their servers…you’ll have to read about that yourself). 
  • Research adds invaluable stuff to your movie (Even though I’m a firm believer in doing your research, I was amazed at the lengths Pixar would go in order to make, not only the most convincing and thorough movie possible, but also the most fun. From director Mark Andrews sporting a kilt and the entire animation team taking archery lessons during the making of Brave, to John Lasseter taking the animators of The Princess and the Frog to experience the sights and sounds of New Orleans on a two week vacation {After the merge with Disney}). 
  • You have to raise leaders who will lead when you are gone (I know that might sound like common knowledge but most people don’t like to picture what their companies or families will look like when they are gone. When Pixar merged with Disney, they had a set list of priorities they wanted protected, even after their deaths. The company had to run on the same principles it always had {even the insignificant ones like no assigned parking}. People had to be free to ask, to grow, to be individual, to bond and create.
 And what I found to be the most important lesson of all…

“You must value the day-to-day communication”

I believe that lesson is so important that I put it in big quotations. Were it not for the trust and commitment Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs and John Lasseter had for each other, it’s hard to believe that a company that started on such a wing and a prayer could become one of the most beloved producers of such unforgettable, animated films. People often mistake day-to-day communication as taking too much time to “over communicate,” or they don’t want to bother their already overwhelmed partners, or that it’s not being independent and assertive in their role so they break from the team, go be productive and only contact each other when there’s a problem. But that is where a relationship (be it romantic, parental, or creative) becomes something solid, beautiful, and lasting. In the every day moments where we make decisions and experience all the joys, sorrows and adventures of solving problems together.