Ed Catmull Answers Fan Questions About Pixar, Technology and Creativity, Inc. in Live Q&A Session

Ed Catmull photograph
Ed Catmull photo © Deborah Coleman (Pixar)

This morning, Julie rose out of bed with a little extra pep in her step. Although it was 5:45 AM (EST), she knew she wouldn’t want to miss out on Ed Catmull’s live question and answer session hosted by The Guardian. The format was simple – type your question for Ed in the comments section of the post and he would respond back with a reply. Catmull answered many questions during the hour-and-fifteen-minute session – he shared insights from his book, anecdotes from Pixar, and even had a fun quip about the famed-yet-false Pixar theory. Below are a few of our favorite questions – including two of our own questions that Ed answered. (Side note – T.J. loved the fact that Ed seemed to be intrigued by our first question.)

Pixar Post: A main topic in Creativity, Inc. is about overcoming obstacles and affecting change. Do you have any thoughts on affecting change in an organization if you’re not among the management or senior-level ranks?

Ed Catmull: This is one of the most difficult questions and a really excellent one! The best that I know how to do is to try to set an example for what it means to manage a creative organization and hope that the quality of our work influences other people to at least pay attention to some of the principles that we’ve used.

Pixar Post: There have been enormous advancements in animation technology, what do you see on the horizon which will be the next technological leap for the industry?

EC: I’ve learned that I’m not terribly good at predicting the future. However, I do feel that when technology and art are combined in a healthy way it takes you off in unexpected directions, so the way we think about it is to make sure that the artists and technical people are integrated together in the common goal of telling good stories and what that does is it opens us up to new technology as it changes.

Pixar Creativity Inc Book by Ed Catmull

Dan Barlett: With Pixar having lived under the Disney banner for a few years now, and Disney Animation Studios effectively pulling a 180º turn and now completely winning back critical and commercial success, how is the relationship between the two studios? Is there much collaboration within project development and talent, or do they exist as two completely separate entities?

EC: There is incredible respect between the two studios. They both consist of people who love good films. I would add that they also love good films from other animation studios. And while the two studios do not do any production work for each other, we will send artists and technical people to the other studio to talk about the approaches that were taken on any particular film.

The Guardian Team: Something else you’ve written about is that a company’s communication structure “shouldn’t mirror its organizational structure”. Again, could you expand on that one?

EC: The problem is that in an organizational structure, the managers would like everything to go through them and, what I’m trying to express here is that actually slows things down and managers need to be ok with information going through other channels and people. As a manager, we may find things out later than other people, but that’s ok and it is healthier for the group.

Pixar Animation Studios Front Gates Photo
Photo © Pixar Post

Fiddlehead: My question is about how Pixar develops new ideas into features. How much do you let what other studios are doing/have done in the past affect what you make?

EC: Our process is to let the director take the lead on developing the story. It’s their passion and emotion which drives it and takes it to unexpected places. As for other studios, while if they make a good movie we will enjoy it, we don’t let it affect us one way or the other because we are not trying to be like anybody else and we’re also not trying to not be like anybody else. Our basic notion is to rely upon the passion of that team that we put together to solve the problems of the story they are trying to tell.

The Guardian Team: What’s the biggest lesson or lessons you’ve learned at Pixar when it comes to running a creative business?

EC: Well, I wouldn’t say there was one biggest thing and honestly it’s the reason I spent time trying to write these principles down. I found that in writing it was helping me clarify in my own mind what we were doing. I do believe that the biggest issue is any group is not how you become more creative but how do we address the blocks to creativity. Too many people try to bypass that, jumping straight to how you become a creative without understanding how much uncertainty and randomness play in our lives, the effect of holding back on candour and the fear of making mistakes. I do believe that part of the excitement of going forward in the future is addressing the unknown and the risks that come with it. I find that challenging and scary, but it’s where I want to be and where the people at Pixar and Disney want to be.

PRJR: Is there any truth to the famous “grand pixar theory” that’s doing the rounds of the internet? Some of the links between films do seem strong, and with reoccurring logos (BNL batteries) and locations (trailer from a bugs life + monsters inc with pizza delivery van opposite).

EC: Yes, all three of the grand Pixar theories are true and were worked out in 1983!

To review all of Ed Catmull’s responses, visit The Guardian’s website. Additionally, if you haven’t picked up a copy of Creativity, Inc. or would like to read our review of the book, be sure to read more in our review post. What did you think about Ed’s talk – did you learn any new tips or fun facts? Let us know in the comments below.

Comments 2
  1. Thanks for the write-up! Your first question is one I've wondered a lot about too: to be successful I think you need buy-in from all levels of an organization. I also think there are some organizations where it just may not be possible to implement, but in those cases you might be able to get some value by implementing something more limited.

  2. Yeah, I think about how to affect change from the bottom up quite often. You absolutely have to have buy-in at all levels of the organization or else it's bound to fail…unless luck plays a part. I also agree that sometimes a limited implementation might be the right path as well. Additionally, I like to look at it from the perspective of…if you keep chipping away at individual projects with these principles in mind, one day when the management ranks are on the horizon you'll be even better equipped to transition into that position. (That also assumes you're at a company that agrees with the values you're trying to add.)

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