Ammar Mian

Creativity, Inc - Ed Catmull


The core tension between personal creative contribution and group leverage is a dynamic that exists in all creative environments. On one end, the genius producing great work in solitude; the other end, the group excelling precisely because of multiplicity of views (p 12)

Pixar Is Born

During my time at Lucasfilm I learned one important lesson: for all the care you put into artistry, visual polish frequently doesn’t matter if you are getting the story right (p 37)

Lessons from early encounters with Steve Jobs (who acquired my team at Lucasfilm): Steve was hard-charging but a conversation with him took you places you didn’t expect. It forced you not just to defend but also to engage (p 40)

A Defining Goal

The responsibility of finding and fixing problems should be assigned to every employee, from the most senior manager to the lowliest person on the production line. Workers could suggest changes, call out problems, and feel the pride that came when they helped fix what was broken (p 50)

The first Pixar film, Toy Story, was a box office success, but production managers felt it was a nightmare, were hesitant to sign on for another film. Many lessons to learn that hierarchy + chain of command is an organizational necessity, but not a communication necessity (p 61, 64)

Establishing Pixar’s Identity

Toy Story 2 entered post-production as a good-but-not-great film because we wrongly assumed a sequel would be easier to produce. We estimated 9 months, which was not enough time to produce quality. We put an inexperienced team at the helm and included guru John Lassiter as backup. The team lacked confidence, wasn’t gelling, and continually turned to John (“John time”) to fix problems instead of solving problems themselves (p 68)

The film was redesignated as a direct-to-video release, which negatively affected culture. There was now an A team (working on A Bug’s Life) and the B team (working on Toy Story 2). No one wanted to be working on B-level work (p 67)

Toy Story 2 went back into development for a year and launched in theaters to immense critical acclaim (p 73)

Lesson: getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea. Ideas come from people. Ideas are not singular as if they float in the ether, either fully formed and independent of the people who wrestle with them (p 75)

It is the focus on people and their work habits, talents, and values that is absolutely central to any creative venture. You need to show your people that you meant it when you said that while efficiency was a goal, quality was the goal (p 75, 76)

Honesty and Candor

Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them go from “suck to not-suck”. Sucking is a prerequisite of any risk; we don’t get them right on the first pass, and that’s how it should be. WALL-E had 39 minutes without dialogue. Ratatouille was a movie about rats making food (p 90)

The film itself -- not the filmmaker -- is under the microscope. This principle eludes most people, but it is critical: You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged (p 94)

It’s natural for people to fear such an inherently critical environment. The key is to develop trust, learn how to be candid, and see how all feedback is fundamentally additive, not competitive (p 101, 104)

The people you have around the table must make you think smarter and put lots of solutions on the table in a short amount of time. It doesn’t matter who they are, janitor, intern, lieutenant -- if they can help you do that, they should be at the table (p 105)

Fear and Failure

I came to think of our meltdowns as a necessary part of doing our business, like investments in R&D, and I urged everyone at Pixar to see them the same way (p 108)

If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. Ask yourself what happens when an error is discovered. Do people shut down and turn inward, instead of coming together to untangle the causes of problems that might be avoided going forward? Failure is difficult enough without it being compounded by the search for a scapegoat (p 109, 110)

The overplanners just take longer to be wrong (and, when things inevitably go awry, are more crushed by the feeling that they have failed) (p 114)

When a director stands up in a meeting and says, “I realize this scene isn’t working, I don’t yet know how to fix it, but I’m figuring it out. Keep going!” -- a crew will follow him or her to the ends of the earth. But when a problem is festering and everyone seems to be looking the other way or when people are sitting around waiting to be told what to do, the crew gets antsy. They lose confidence in the director’s ability to bring the movie home. If the crew is confused, then their leader is, too (p 119)

I could not have been prouder. It was obvious that they felt they owned the problem and the responsibility for the solution. Even though we had serious problems, the culture of the place -- the willingness to roll up our pant legs and wade into the muck for the good of the company -- felt more alive than ever (p 121)

Getting middle managers to tolerate problems and surprised is one of our most important jobs; they already feel the weight of believing that if they screw up, there will be hell to pay. Your employees are smart; that’s why you hired them. So treat them that way. They know when you deliver a message that has been heavily massaged (p 124, p 125)

The Hungry Beast and the Ugly Baby

“Feed the Beast” has that very idea embedded in it, the belief that animated storytelling was a product that could or should be made on an assembly line. The Beast is powerful and can overwhelm even the most dedicated individuals. The pressure to create -- and quickly! -- became the order of the day at Disney Animation (p 130)

“The Ugly Baby” idea is not easy to accept, that originality is fragile and in its early days truly ugly: awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete. It needs nurturing -- in the form of time and patience -- in order to grow (p 131)

When efficiency or consistency of workflow are not balanced by other equally strong countervailing forces, the result is that new ideas -- our ugly babies -- aren’t afforded the attention and protection they need to shine and mature. They are abandoned or never conceived of in the first place. Emphasis is placed on doing safer projects that mimic proven money-makers just to keep something-- anything! -- moving the pipeline. It feeds the Beast (p 135)

It’s one of life’s cruel ironies that when it comes to feeding the Beast, success only creates more pressure to hurry up and succeed again (p 136)

Frequently, the people in charge of the Beast are the most organized people in the company. When those people and their interests become too powerful things go wrong. The Beast takes over (p 137)

Director Brad Bird: “You need all the seasons. You need the storms. It’s like an ecology. To view lack of conflict as optimum is like saying a sunny day is optimum. But if every day is sunny and it doesn’t rain, things don’t grow.” (p 138)

Change and Randomness

If people anticipate production pressures, they’ll close the door to new ideas -- so you have to pretend you’re not actually going to do anything, we’re just talking, just playing around. Then if you hit upon some new idea that clearly works, people are excited about it and are happier to act on the change. When I sense we’re getting nowhere, I just shut things down. We all go off to something else. Later, once the mood has shifted, I’ll attack the problem again (p 152)

What’s needed, in my view, is to approach big and small problems with the same set of values and emotions, because they are, in fact, self-similar. In other words, it is important that we don’t freak out or start blaming people when some threshold is reached. We need to be humble enough to recognize that unforeseen things can and do happen that are nobody’s fault (p 160)

The silver lining of a major meltdown is that it gives managers a chance to send clear signals to employees about the company’s values, which inform the role each individual should expect to play (p 164)

The Hidden

If you don’t try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead (p 169)

Here’s what turns a successful hierarchy into one that impedes progress: when too many people begin, subconsciously, to equate their own value and that of others with where they fall in the pecking order. Thus, they focus their energies on managing upward while treating people beneath them on the organizational chart poorly (p 172)

If our mental models are mere approximations of reality, then, the conclusions we draw cannot help but be prone to error (p 181)

Broadening Our View

People who work or live together have, by virtue of proximity and shared history, models of the world that are deeply (and sometimes hopelessly) intertwined with one another (p 191)

As we add more members to our organization, rigidity becomes a norm and flexibility harder and harder to preserve. A few antidotes:

Dailies, or Solving Problems Together

Research Trips

The Power of Limits

Integrating Technology and Art

Short Experiments

Learning to See


Continuing to Learn

The Unmade Future

Producer John Walker stays calm by imagining his very taxing job as holding a giant upside-down pyramid in his palm by its pointy tip. “I’m always looking up, trying to balance it. In my job, I do two things, fundamentally: artist management and cost control. Both depend on hundreds of interactions that are happening above me, up in the fat end of the pyramid. And I have to be okay with the fact that I don’t understand a freaking thing that’s going on half the time” (p 224)

For Director Byron Howard, moving quickly is a plus because it prevents him from getting stuck worrying about whether his chosen course of action is the wrong one. Instead, he favors being decisive, then forgiving yourself if your initial decision proves misguided (p 227)

Byron: “People want decisiveness, but they also want honesty about when you’ve effed up. It’s a huge lesson: Include people in your problems, not just your solutions” (p 228)

Andrew: “If you’re sailing across the ocean and your goal is to avoid weather and waves, then why the hell are you sailing? You will not be able to control exactly how you get across. That’s the game you’ve decided to be in. If your goal is to make it easier and simpler, then don’t get in the boat” (p 228)

Director Rich Moore: “I loved mazes as a kid. But you have to keep your head to find your way out. When I see a movie go south, I think to myself, Well they went nuts in the maze; they freaked out in there, and it fell apart.”

One person may need to spew and vent for twenty minutes about why something doesn’t look right before we can move in and focus on the details. Another person may be all about, I can’t make these deadlines unless you give me this particular thing that I need. I always think of my job as moving between floors, up and down, all day long (p 234)

A New Challenge

The alarming thing (at Disney Animation’s office) wasn’t the lack of tchotchkes. It was the pervasive sense of alienation and fear that the total lack of individuality represented. There seemed to be undue emphasis put on preventing errors; even when it came to something as small as office decor, no one dared to put themselves out there, or to make a mistake (p 252)

John and I made a point of leaving the shades on our office windows open so that people could see us and we could see them. Our goal was to communicate transparency. (p 253)

The crew wanted to succeed but they were afraid of pouring their hearts into something that wasn’t going to succeed. You could feel that fear. And in notes meetings, everyone was so afraid of hurting someone’s feelings that they held back. We had to learn that we weren’t attacking the person, we were attacking the project. Only then could we create a crucible that boils away everything that’s not working and leaves the strongest framework (p 260)

We had learned long ago that while everyone appreciates cash bonuses, they value something else almost as much: being looked in the eye by someone they respect and told, “Thank you.” The distribution of bonuses one by one can take a while, but we feel it’s essential to take the time to shake each person’s hand and tell them how much their contribution mattered. To this day, some Tangled veterans still display framed copies of the letter they received that day on their office walls. Would it have been easier simply to wire bonuses into employees’ direct deposit accounts? Yes. But like I always say when talking about making a movie, easy isn’t the goal. Quality is the goal (p 272, 273)

Notes Day

Many brought good new ideas with them, but some were reluctant to suggest them. After all, this was the great and mighty Pixar, they thought -- who were they to call for change? Too many of our people were self-censoring. That needed to change (p 276, 277)

When costs are low, it’s easier to justify taking a risk. Thus, unless we lowered our costs, we would effectively limit the kinds of films we would be able to make. There was another benefit of lowering costs. Cheaper films made with smaller crews, and everyone agrees that the smaller crew, the better the working experience (p 279)

Increasingly, we sensed that our people, having enjoyed years of success, were under a great deal of pressure not to fail. Nobody wanted to have worked on the first movie that didn’t open at number one (p 279)

John and I laid out the plan -- “It’ll be a day in which you tell us how to make Pixar better. We’ll do no work that day. No visitors will be allowed. Everyone must attend.” “We have a problem, and we believe the only people who know what to do about it are you.” (p 282)

The number one topic -- the one that the most people wanted to talk about -- was how to achieve a 12,000 person-week movie (as opposed to the average of ~20,000). The problem of doing more with less was interesting to them, and they wanted to engage with it. Think about that -- the topic that captured my Pixar colleagues’ imagination more than any other was an attempt to be even more aggressive in trying to reduce the budget! They truly understood the problem and its implications. Can you see why I have so much pride in this place? (p 284)

One by one, the people in this session hit on the same themes. “We need to make people behave more like peers.” “I wish more people knew about the whole production pipeline -- that they appreciated and understood what other people do.” “We need to heighten people’s awareness of what they do not know.” (p 290)

Regardless of the topic that was being discussed, no matter where you were on campus, you could feel a frisson of energy. You couldn’t avoid overhearing people chatting about how exciting Notes Day was. The feeling that we were engaged in something that would make a difference (p 290)

This wasn’t a free-for-all but a wide-ranging discussion (organized around topics suggested by the company’s employees) aimed at addressing a specific reality: the need to cut our costs by 10 percent (p 293)

As challenges emerge, mistakes will always be made, and our work is never done. We will always have problems, many of which are hidden from our view; we must work to uncover them and assess our own role in them, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; when we then come across a problem, we must marshal all our energies to solve it (p 295)