I find Pixar fascinating. Not only because they have produced some of my favorite movies including Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Wall-E and Up, but because of how they do it, their utter and absolute commitment to story, and as I discovered in my interview with Mary Coleman, head of their story department, their affection for great characters.
So when I saw that Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios, had co-written a book called “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration” (published April 8th), I immediately zeroed in on it.
As a taste of what the book offers, here are some tidbits I’ve aggregated for you. First, there is a first-person piece by Catmull in Fast Company: Inside the Pixar Braintrust:
A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Our decision making is better when we draw on the collective knowledge and unvarnished opinions of the group. Candor is the key to collaborating effectively. Lack of candor leads to dysfunctional environments. So how can a manager ensure that his or her working group, department, or company embraces candor? By putting mechanisms in place that explicitly say it is valuable. One of Pixar’s key mechanisms is the Braintrust, which we rely on to push us toward excellence and to root out mediocrity. It is our primary delivery system for straight talk. The Braintrust meets every few months or so to assess each movie we’re making. Its premise is simple: Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid. The Braintrust is not foolproof, but when we get it right, the results are phenomenal.
While I attend and participate in almost all Braintrust meetings, I see my primary role as making sure that the compact upon which the meetings are based is protected and upheld. This part of our job is never done because you can’t totally eliminate the blocks to candor. The fear of saying something stupid and looking bad, of offending someone or being intimidated, of retaliating or being retaliated against–they all have a way of reasserting themselves. And when they do, you must address them squarely.
Candor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck. That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the ﬁrst versions really are. I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing. Pixar ﬁlms are not good at ﬁrst, and our job is to make them so–to go, as I say, “from suck to not-suck.”
Think about how easy it would be for a movie about talking toys to feel derivative, sappy, or overtly merchandise driven. Think about how off-putting a movie about rats preparing food could be, or how risky it must’ve seemed to start WALL-E with 39 dialogue-free minutes. We dare to attempt these stories, but we don’t get them right on the ﬁrst pass. This is as it should be. Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process–reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a ﬂawed story ﬁnds its through line or a hollow character ﬁnds its soul.
You may be thinking, How is the Braintrust different from any other feedback mechanism?
There are two key differences, as I see it. The ﬁrst is that the Braintrust is made up of people with a deep understanding of storytelling, who usually have been through the process themselves. While the directors welcome critiques from many sources, they particularly prize feedback from fellow storytellers. The second difference is that the Braintrust has no authority. The director does not have to follow any of the speciﬁc suggestions. After a Braintrust meeting, it is up to him or her to ﬁgure out how to address the feedback. Giving the Braintrust no power to mandate solutions affects the dynamics of the group in ways I believe are essential.
It’s interesting to read about this because over the years, I’ve stumbled into a similar approach I use with the writing workshops and classes I teach. I frame each session with my take on constructive critiques which summed up briefly is this:
* Critique the story elements, not the writer.
* Provide an honest assessment of the story elements.
* But also generate suggestions to improve the story.
Moreover when we workshop stories and I inevitably plunge into brainstorming, tossing out lots of ideas, I always say this: Any of my ideas, you are free to use or lose. Use them if they help your story. Lose them if they don’t. I have no ego. All I care about is the quality of your story. Ultimately it is up to the writer to decide.
A second article from Fast Company: Pixar’s Ed Catmull on How to Balance Art and Commerce:
With certain ideas, you can predict commercial success. So with a Toy Story 3 or a Cars 2, you know the idea is more likely to have financial success. But if you go down that path too far, you become creatively bankrupt, because you’re just trying to repeat yourself.
So we also want to do things that are unlikely, that are harder to solve. WALL-E, Ratatouille, and Up would all fail an elevator pitch. A rat that wants to cook does not sound like a commercial idea; you’re not going to generate toys out of that. A man nearing the end of his life goes off with a young Scout in this balloon. Where does that lead? Are you going to sell toy walkers? With such ideas, you start out knowing there’s a top to what you can get. So we try to strike a balance.
There’s a quote attributed to Charlton Heston: “The problem with movies as art is they are commerce.” Catmull’s observations echo that tension. What’s interesting to note is Pixar has an awareness of what they are doing with each of their stories. Some tilt more toward commerce like Cars 2. Others tilt more toward art like Up.
This is another perspective I’ve discovered on my own, reflected in this post: Write what they’re buying or sell them your dreams.
So I’m picking up “Creativity, Inc.” to see what else I can learn about Pixar… and maybe more about how my process is intuitively aligned with theirs!
More about “Creativity Inc.” here.