Silent Whispers

Chasing Illusionary Butterflies!

Creativity, Inc. – Book 29 Review

Posted by Mrityunjay on November 13, 2018

What Apple is to mobiles, Pixar is perhaps the same or rather, more to art of film making. And guess, what is the common link between two? Steve Jobs. But “Creativity, Inc.,” by Ed Catmull is not a book about Apple or Jobs; rather it offers much more. Having been a huge fan of Pixar films like Toy Story, Up, Wall-E, Monsters Inc. and The Incredibles among others, I wanted to read this book as a way to see in and understand how films I like get made. What I discovered instead was an awe-inspiring glimpse into a creative business culture where a top-down management is eschewed in favour of openness and sharing. The book offers an amazing history of passion, animation, creativity process, insight into human emotions and the numerous struggles in order to achieve perfection.

edThe story of Pixar is not just about movies produced by the studio but also the people in it as well as the business culture of making films. Reason why I mentioned Steve Jobs in the beginning was, without his fierce drive and foresight, Pixar would have found it tough to attain the heights it has found for itself. Though, it’s not as straight forward as you think. There are many more layers to his rescuing Pixar and subsequent selling to Disney.

Creativity, Inc., can be termed as a management book or a creative book or an autobiography or all of these. It covers a wide spectrum including the obvious concepts like communicate better, foster trust, build a Kumbaya culture that will give rise to game-changing ideas, pay attention etc. Though what actually resonated with me was how Ed Catmull with the help of some smart people built something that profoundly changed the animation business and, along the way, popular culture. Just think of “Toy Story,” “A Bug’s Life,” “Ratatouille” and “Finding Nemo.” There is so much more to these stories than just dollops of cuteness.

Mr. Ed Catmull had studied computer graphics in graduate school in an era when nobody had heard of it.George Lucas recruited him in 1979 to help work special-effects images into live action footage. Thus began, his first monumental struggle when human beings resisted change. In this case, film editors at Lucasfilms had serious reservation about working with computers. Earlier they were snipping filmstrips with razor blades and gluing them together (yeah, that’s how primitive things were!) and they felt any other method wouldn’t work. That gave Catmull his first management lesson- a transformative idea, no matter how good, was useless unless the people who had to implement it fully embraced the concept.

What actually got Ed Catmull going with his visions was hiring of a talented young Disney animator named John Lasseter who was skilled at emphasizing the importance of storytelling. Usual trend was displaying the “wow” factor of computer animation whereas Mr. Lasseter knew that visual polish didn’t matter much if you don’t get the story right. He just improvised a bit by adding a simple idea—introducing a second character to interact with the main one—thus enabling much needed emotional tension that all of us can relate to. Though the creativity ball was set into motion but the actual magic started taking shape only years later when Steve Jobs, between stints at Apple, agreed to finance the purchase of the Pixar unit from Lucasfilm. Infusion of fresh capital was great news for struggling Pixar but then there was dominant presence of intense, intimidating Steve Jobs to deal with. This association had its ups and downs but eventually it helped Pixar in getting launched into stratosphere. Their first full-fledged movie was “Toy Story” (1995), which was a phenomenal success. That led to $140 million initial public offering for Pixar which was lapped up by investors. This was the beginning of Pixar Era.

Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar Animation Studios essentially describes the making of the creative Pixar-Characters-21culture in Creativity, Inc., As he says, “Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear.” Developing a sustainable culture that allowed people to do their best work and removed impediments to creativity is no easy task. He kept asking himself questions like; where are we still deluded? How do we think about failures and fears? How to create stories that anyone can connect to? The last chapter titled “Thoughts for Managing a Creative Culture,” offers a master class in creative leadership. It offers 33 gems ranging from managing fear and failure in an organization to protecting new ideas and imposing productive limits. Don’t confuse process with the goals. He keeps insisting on linking ideas about creative work to behaviors (even ones that ultimately fail). All his ideas here are told through tales of their implementation, which makes it pretty fascinating read.

Small details are far more important than they appear. For instance, Toy Story taught him the value of bringing together product managers with artists and technicians. To prevent the risk-averse repackaging of what has worked well before—a common temptation that Mr. Catmull calls “craft without art”—he insisted that his team do new things with the help of Braintrust, an open internal platform for discussing ideas. What has worked well before may not work again. So have no complacency. Catmull demonstrated it in totality while making “Ratatouille” (2007), the film about the Parisian rat who wants to be a chef, he dispatched a group to Paris—not only to eat well but also to visit the kitchens, talk to the chefs and, yes, muck through the Paris sewer system, home to many rats. That’s the level of authenticity and precision Pixar stands for. Similarly, For “Monsters University” (2013), a dozen Pixar people visited campuses like Princeton, Harvard and MIT to check out the dorms, lecture halls, student hangouts and classrooms. “You’ll never stumble upon the unexpected if you stick only to the familiar,” Mr. Catmull says.

The narrative of Creativity, Inc.  is seasoned with lessons Ed Catmull learned in the course of building an American icon. Catmull separates his book into four parts: “Getting Started,” “Protecting the New,” “Building and Sustaining,” and “Testing What We Know.” This is a well-told tale, full of detail about an interesting, intricate business. For fans of Pixar films, it’s a must-read. For fans of management books, it belongs on the “value added” shelf. In my humble opinion, it’s one of the half-dozen best books that have been written about creative business and creative leadership. Ever. Go for it.

Happy Reading folk. Cheers.

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