April 17, 2014

Catmull @ SCA

Disney/Pixar Animation President Visits School of Cinematic Arts

By Phillomina Wong

Ed Catmull, one of the co-creators of Pixar Animation and current President of Disney Animation and Pixar Animation, is considered one of Hollywood’s great creative minds. He also has a unique perspective on just about everything. On Wednesday April 16 he was interviewed by Andrew Millstein, Executive Vice-President and General Manager of Disney Feature Animation, in front of a capacity crowd at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Addressing some of the topics in his new book, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, Catmull spoke to students about storytelling, how to form an organization and the incredible teaching power of failure.

Professor Tom Sito, Ed Catmull and Dean Elizabeth M. Daley

Catmull offered advice about work and team building success that was both practical and inspirational. For example, on what makes a creative team successful or unsuccessful, he said one of the key components is introspection and self-awareness of one’s work. “I think that looking inward is a different kind of activity than looking outward,” he said. To scale the method of introspection or self-awareness to large companies like Pixar Animation or Walt Disney Animation Studios, Catmull said post-mortems are important, allowing the team to reflect on their work and gain some truth.

One of the mechanisms Pixar Animation stumbled upon was the “Brain Trust,” a small group of creative leaders, which first formed with five people who worked on the film Toy Story. “The “trust” was funny, focused, and intense, ” Catmull said. What made the group different from other creative teams was their approach to working on the project. Catmull explained that the “Brain Trust” removed the power structure from the room to allow flexibility and an honest look at what went wrong.

However, there were still human elements that got in the way of people telling each other the truth, he explained. Some of the barriers to having an honest dialogue include fear of embarrassment, grandstanding and intimidation. “These are real human emotions that are there,” Catmull said.

He then went on to talk about production and how it is often referred to as “taming the beast.” Catmull said, “The beast is the production… it’s just a voracious thing that’s got to get fed.” Before it is even fed, there are initial phases in the production. He said people like to see the beginning of stories because it’s like watching a child grow up. The only difference with production, he said, is that “sometimes your baby is ugly.”

Catmull used the movie Up, one of Pixar’s many hits, as an example for developing a story process. He said the final version of the story differed entirely from the first one. The only elements they kept were the bird and the title. “You look at that film, the final film had no resemblance whatsoever to the original idea and that’s the way a lot of them are,” Catmull said. “They’re not all that way, but you have to allow for that to happen.”

Allowing change to happen was something Catmull also mentioned when he described his experiences working with Steve Jobs at the start of Pixar Animation.“None of us knew what the hell we were doing. We were making this up as we went and we were making mistake after mistake,” Catmull said. Catmull said as he watched and worked with Jobs in his lifetime, he saw him change to become a very empathetic person, change the way he dealt with problems and change the way he became a partner and listened.

“This picture of Steve is missing from the public record,” Catmull said. When Jobs worked on a film, Catmull said, he had a special relationship with the directors because of his willingness to change his views. “When [Jobs] had an idea, he committed to it and he wanted people around him to tell him when things weren’t right and then he listened and I watched him change on a dime because as soon as he realized something was wrong he would instantly change.”

In connecting the technological aspects of animation to humanistic storytelling, Catmull said the creative environments allowed for a positive outcome. He said that after working on Toy Story, the creators were glad that the reviews rarely mentioned it was the first fully computer-animated film because that meant the story was powerful enough to be considered a serious contender in the film industry. This also changed the way people viewed animated films.

“[Creativity] isn’t just expression but it is solving problems,” Catmull said. “In thinking about it as solving problems, we all need to be creative. Then the question is: what are the systemic and cultural barriers to creativity and change? These are the kinds of things we have to address.”

 To order Catmull’s book, visit: http://www.amazon.com/Creativity-Inc-Overcoming-Unseen-Inspiration/dp/0812993012/dp/0812993012