How Pixar Fosters Creativity
March 17, 2015 9:40 AM   Subscribe

A few years ago, I had lunch with the head of a major motion picture studio, who declared that his central problem was not finding good people—it was finding good ideas. Since then, when giving talks, I’ve asked audiences whether they agree with him. Almost always there’s a 50/50 split, which has astounded me because I couldn’t disagree more with the studio executive. Pixar President Ed Catmull on the culture that generates Pixar's artistic and commercial success.
posted by shivohum (26 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
Pixar is a community in the true sense of the word. We think that lasting relationships matter, and we share some basic beliefs: Talent is rare. Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the capability to recover when failures occur. It must be safe to tell the truth. We must constantly challenge all of our assumptions and search for the flaws that could destroy our culture.
Cool. And very rare. Risk aversion seems to be a major theme of many economies and cultures around the world.
posted by ZeusHumms at 9:50 AM on March 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


Ed Catmull's book was wonderful.

Then he came up repeatedly in the Silicon Valley wage fixing stuff. And the wind was sucked right out of my sails.
posted by DigDoug at 9:51 AM on March 17, 2015 [15 favorites]


I have a couple of friends who have been working at Pixar for a good long time, and they love the creative atmosphere there.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:53 AM on March 17, 2015


Yup yup yup. I can say that this is true in games as well- Everyone (Literally, everyone) has ideas. Finding people who can work together in a positive productive manner and find a way to bring that idea to its fullest reality is the real issue. A team of truly talented people can bring new life to Pong. Ideas are cheap.
posted by GilloD at 10:00 AM on March 17, 2015


It always irks me that Pixar's history has been retroactively tweaked to forget the part about Steve Jobs taking it off Lucas' hands to make it a hardware company.

The Image Computer is long forgotten, and the CGI ad work they were doing to pay the bills pivoted into the motion picture house it is today.
posted by JoeZydeco at 10:02 AM on March 17, 2015 [9 favorites]


It was easier to believe the part about all Pixar movies having the same standard of excellence before Cars 2, Planes, and Monsters University. Toy Story is the only Pixar franchise to generate truly satisfying sequels. (MU wasn't horrid, but it was an unnecessary trifle, especially in comparison to Monsters Inc., which remains my favorite Pixar film.)
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:07 AM on March 17, 2015 [6 favorites]


>Toy Story is the only Pixar franchise to generate truly satisfying sequels.

And The Incredibles. The sequel is going to be great LA LA LAA I CAN'T HEEAR YOU
posted by Sing Or Swim at 10:10 AM on March 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


And yet and yet...I am not very excited about the upcoming Pixar movie. It will be bright and colorful and have amazing technical accomplishments and funny bits, but the weirdly gendered character design issues persist.

(I am still not over what they did to Colette in Ratatouille. My love of Pixar took a severe hit from that).

How many of these great creative teams are run by women? How many of them have equal or majority numbers of women members compared to men? I wonder about that a lot.

Pixar has had great women characters, but they don't vary a lot, and there's always these weird moments, like when Elastagirl worried about her thighs in the mirror while in the midst of rescuing her family, that seem to come from the Big Box of Gender Stereotype Humor. They need to toss that shit.
posted by emjaybee at 10:12 AM on March 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


The Planes movies weren't done by Pixar, but a different Disney CGI production house.

The issue I hear most about recently is the difficulty in moving up to being a feature director, or staying director in Pixar. It seems like a fair number of the newer releases start with a new director, but wind up finishing out with one of the more senior directors at the helm. It seems a little sad, but it also sounds like it is resulting in a diaspora of talented directors carrying the Pixar philosophy to other studios.
posted by Badgermann at 10:16 AM on March 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


there's always these weird moments, like when Elastagirl worried about her thighs in the mirror while in the midst of rescuing her family

Since she in particular was someone who could assume any shape, I took that to mean that she would be dissatisfied with herself no matter what.
posted by Jpfed at 10:33 AM on March 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


(And yes, it's a weird thing to put in the middle of much more urgent goings-on)
posted by Jpfed at 10:33 AM on March 17, 2015


I'm halfway through Catmull's book and I recommend it. It does go into a bit of the history of Pixar-as-hardware company and how that ... didn't work.

I also somehow hadn't known (before reading the book) how much of a key player Catmull was in early computer graphics way before Pixar. Like "the idea of using texture mapping in 3d graphics" key.

I don't necessarily think of Pixar as a perfect creative workplace (there is no such thing), but it's hit rate is high, and his book seems unusually reflective and thoughtful for a biz management tome.
posted by feckless at 10:34 AM on March 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


I really enjoyed reading his book, though it was from the lens of "This would never fly in a million years at a huge majority of companies." The Incredibles is pretty fun, but I found I was way more interested in the side characters than the main story. (The DVD has so much fun stuff."Jak-Jak Attack" is one of the all-time great cartoons, and the Clutch-Cargo-esque adventures of Frozone and Skipper-Doo comes complete with in-character commentary.)
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 10:41 AM on March 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


I don't know, it does seem like that spark is fading and they're settling into a comfortable rut of turning out sequels/working within existing properties. In the last five years 3 out of their 4 features have been sequels/prequels: Toy Story 3, Cars 2, and Monsters University. And out of the four features they've announced for release in the next two years, two are sequels: Finding Dory and Toy Story 4, and there's the TBA Incredibles 2 and Cars 3.

Their new projects don't really seem to generate the same excitement and enthusiasm as before, either. Brave, their only new original feature in the last 5 years, seems generally regarded as "okay" rather than praised as genius like their previous works.

It seems like at this point they're coasting on the reputation they built up in the past.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:56 AM on March 17, 2015


Everybody has good ideas. But everyone also has bad ideas. Telling your good ideas from your bad ideas is hard. Even harder is convincing other people that your good idea is actually a good idea. This is particularly difficult for newcomers. The more established a group is, the harder it is for new people to propose new good ideas. I think this is why some people believe good ideas are rare. Most good ideas are invisible due to lack of good sales(person)ship.
posted by yeolcoatl at 11:00 AM on March 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


> It was easier to believe the part about all Pixar movies having the same standard of excellence before Cars 2, Planes, and Monsters University. Toy Story is the only Pixar franchise to generate truly satisfying sequels.

As a parent of a seven-year old, I am highly qualified to comment on this, and I will respectfully disagree with you. (On second thought, spoilers below, if you care.)

Planes - yeah, that stunk. I don't know where that came from, but the comment upthread about it being from a different Disney studio makes perfect sense.

Cars 2 - I really like this movie. It isn't Cars, the sequel - it's a whole different story. Cars the sequel is the race story. But the primary Cars 2 story is about the simple tow truck who gets sucked into high stakes spy intrigue. It's a different story, and I get that it's polarizing - if you loved the racing and wanted more of it (e.g., Turbo), Cars 2 sucked. But it was a good movie.

And Monsters University. It's an amazing prequel. Look, if the story had ended with winning on the field, with the Dean proved wrong, and everyone cheering, it would have been just OK, a middling B- of a "fun" movie. I actually felt a bit deflated when they did win the Scare Games. Mike is scary after all? How do they reconcile that with Monsters Inc.? But then - the cheating is revealed, and the denouement vaults the movie to the top ranks.

We can go back and forth on this, obviously, but there's an argument to be made, and even the adults can enjoy the movies when they are forced to sit through it for the 13th time. That is no small feat... In contrast, both A Bug's Life and Cars started grating on my nerves much earlier.

Monster's Inc. being an A+ effort, though - no argument on that one. (And on preview - Brave is really under-appreciated. It is a seriously amazing anti-princess movie.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 11:05 AM on March 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


The Planes movies weren't done by Pixar, but a different Disney CGI production house.

In particular, DisneyToon Studios, who's job is to make sure that when your six year old wants to see another Tinkerbelle movie or the like, it's there, direct to DVD and direct to you.

Planes getting promoted to theatrical release was a bit of surprise, but they've done it before. I'm not going to call it great, but it's miles above heh the standard DisneyToon fare. Indeed, with the fading of DVDs and the direct-to-DVD market, DisneyToon has been moving to theatrical release model.

It will always be firewalled away from the big two, Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar.

I don't know, it does seem like that spark is fading and they're settling into a comfortable rut of turning out sequels/working within existing properties. Their new projects don't really seem to generate the same excitement and enthusiasm as before, either.

Pixar had a couple of problems -- first, a string of sequels that mostly didn't get bad reviews, with the exception of Cars 2, which showed that Pixar was mortal. Cars 2 of course, was the closest thing Pixar has had to a flop.

Then, of course, we had Universal come out of nowhere with Despicable Me, Blue Sky Studios releasing Rio, and the second Disney renaissance; Tangled, Winnie-The-Pooh, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen and Big Hero 6.

Before 2010, there was really one studio doing great animated movies -- Pixar. Now there are two that are consistently doing so, and even though they tend to franchise everything to hell, other studios are also occasionally throwing out a great animated feature, among the parade of dreadful sequels they tend to do.

So: I don't think the perception of Pixar being not as good is valid, but I think it's easy to see that because everybody else has gotten so much better. Before, Pixar was a 1000' tower in an city of three story buildings and the crumbling castle of Disney, now, there's a lot of skyscrapers, and WDAS's tower is clearly more prominent.

Seriously. Frozen wasn't just the biggest hit WDAS ever had, it was a cultural zeitgeist.
posted by eriko at 11:11 AM on March 17, 2015 [5 favorites]


So: I don't think the perception of Pixar being not as good is valid,
eriko

Well, if you look at Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, or IMDB scores, it's undeniable that there has been a drop-off over the last 5 years. Their features just aren't getting the praise they used to. By these measure the perception is entirely valid.

Your point is interesting, because given this drop-off in ratings it implies three possibilities:

1. Pixar was overrated in the past. That is, as you say, it had no competitors so maybe Pixar got more praised than it deserved since it was the only real offering. Now that there are competitors, the perceptions are starting to equalize.

2. They've maintained the exact same quality but other studios have surpassed them, raising the bar so that their old level of quality doesn't cut it and by comparison they slide down. This one seems seems hard to support, since most people seem to agree that the newer stuff like Monsters University isn't as good as their older features.

3. They just aren't putting out the quality of material that they used to, and other studios have gotten much better.

None of these speak well for Pixar.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:50 AM on March 17, 2015


The best animated feature that I've seen lately is Disney's 'Planes: Fire & Rescue'.
posted by ovvl at 11:52 AM on March 17, 2015


The first team couldn’t figure out how to do it... It took our “A” team to add the elements that made the story work...If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they’ll screw it up.

Geez he really throws that B-team under the bus.
posted by anazgnos at 11:55 AM on March 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


...it does seem like that spark is fading and they're settling into a comfortable rut of turning out sequels/working within existing properties. In the last five years 3 out of their 4 features have been sequels/prequels

That was part of their deal with Disney: "Jobs said during the conference call that nothing has been decided about future Pixar releases yet, but added that the company feels strongly about making sequels to some of its previous hits."
posted by Mchelly at 11:59 AM on March 17, 2015


The sequel policy seems to be in keeping with Catmull's philosophy here: quality of execution is more important than the ideas themselves. Whether that's been kept up is debatable, but their culture was not set up to be opposed to making sequels.
posted by anazgnos at 12:53 PM on March 17, 2015


oh, man, toy story 4, huh?

We recently watched all three Toy Story movies again, and the third one was (imho) by far the best. It'll be interesting to see how another one holds together; possibly it will be targeted at kids again, where the third felt like it was aiming at adults who had grown up with the first toy story...
posted by kaibutsu at 1:15 PM on March 17, 2015


3. They just aren't putting out the quality of material that they used to, and other studios have gotten much better.

I really loved Pixar's early stuff, and just feel it has backslid while other studios have zoomed ahead (this is what happened to Disney after its brief renaissance in the 90s, though it picked itself back up -- no reason to assume Pixar can't do the same).

The previews for that "in the girl's head" movie are incredibly uninteresting to me, when the movie's description had made it seem like something I want to see.
posted by jeather at 1:25 PM on March 17, 2015


Wow, Brave mediocre? It's one of my all time favorites. It's almost as good as a Ghibli film. I'd say Brave & Monsters Inc are my two favorite Pixar productions.
posted by evilDoug at 8:06 PM on March 17, 2015


Blue Sky Studios releasing Rio

That may have done well financially but wow did the overt and covert racism in it make me nuts.
posted by phearlez at 12:02 PM on March 18, 2015


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