Book Review: Creativity, Inc. | Ed Catmul

If you made a list movies from the last 25 years that made you laugh, cry, and cheer, I’d say the odds are pretty good that at least one Pixar films would be on the list. Whether you’re rooting for Woody and Buzz, shedding a tear for Bing Bong, or saying a silent prayer for Nemo and Dory — these stories hit home with all ages.

In Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, Ed Catmul and Amy Wallace reveal some of Pixar’s secret sauce. Catmul is the co-founder and former President of Pixar. He also led Walt Disney Animation. In this book you’ll find out how he chased the dream of launching a new form of filmmaking and discovered how to lead and motivate creative people to do their best work.

What’s this book about?

Ed Catmul

Catmul begins the book where most creative journeys begin — in childhood. He recalls being a kid in 1950s Salt Lake City, Utah, anxiously waiting for The Wonderful World of Walt Disney to start on Sunday evening. Besides Disney, his other childhood idol was Albert Einstein, and Catmul would go on to combine art and computer science with a healthy dose of the same curiosity both his heroes shared.

Along the way to founding Pixar, Catmul crossed paths with other creative icons including George Lucas and Steve Jobs. He also joined forces with partners like John Lasseter and hired a core group of talented writers and directors who’d help shape the studio.

While there are a lot of stories in Creativity, Inc. that take you inside the world of Pixar, it’s really a book about how to successfully run a creative organization. Catmul uses his and his company’s trials and tribulations to provide plenty of pointers.

That includes advice such as:

  • “Always try to hire people who are smarter than you.”
  • “If there are people in your organization who feel they are not free to suggest ideas, you lose.”
  • “If there is more truth in the hallways than in meetings, you have a problem.”
  • “Failure isn’t a necessary evil. In fact it isn’t evil at all. It is a necessary consequence of doing something new.”
  • “Don’t wait for things to be perfect before you share them with others. Show early and show often”
  • “Don’t confuse the process with the goal.”

You’ll also read about how Catmul learned to work with all sorts of different personalities, including the sometimes difficult Steve jobs, the perhaps overly gregarious John Lasseter, as well as Hollywood big-shots, and the many people he employed at Pixar. There are little lessons about the right shape of conference room tables for eliminating hierarchy in meetings, and big ideas like how to create cross-pollination between teams and departments.

One concept that comes up often is the Pixar Braintrust — a revolving group of peers who continually assess Pixar’s movies and work to solve tough problems. Members need to have a knack for storytelling and a willingness to be 100% honest.

“Candor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck. That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions really are. I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so–to go, as I say, ‘from suck to not-suck.’”

Ed Catmul, Pixar co-founder, author of Creativity, Inc.
Pixar Studios atrium. Photo: Marcin Wichary

Who is this book for?

This is a guidebook for anyone who wants to encourage a culture of creativity.

If you run a company or manage a team, this book can help you become a better leader. While it might be of special interest to filmmakers, screenwriters, animators and other entertainment professionals, it’s an excellent read for those who need to collaborate creatively at work.

What did I think about it?

Creativity, Inc. is a book that sat on the top of my planned “reading list” for a long time. It only took me six years to finally get it — and I’m glad I did.

I saw Toy Story in theaters when I was 14 years old, and when I went to see Toy Story 4, it was with my three sons … 24 years later. Just think about the legacy behind that one franchise of films!

Most sequels in Hollywood really do suck, but they’re also a “safe bet.” In the book, Catmul says initially, the Pixar team didn’t want to do sequels because they worried it would keep them from producing original stories. But, they found a way to do it well.

In college, I spent a semester interning for a production company in L.A., and even the development execs there knew that strong, original stories are hard to come by. Pixar always stuck to its guns when it came to storytelling and the overall quality of the movies. That’s why all their films and characters are beloved — and it’s literally how they saved both Disney and animated family films.

They learned from failures, took risks, and encouraged experimentation. One of my favorite takeaways from the book was how they used the Pixar shorts program to try new things and discover upcoming talent. These short films weren’t profitable at all – but they were an important of the studio’s creative engine.

Catmul and his cohorts pioneered a new way to make movies. Yet, that technology always played second-fiddle to the fact that what Pixar did best was tell amazing stories that connected with people on a deep emotional level. As you read Creativity Inc., you’ll notice how Catmul himself changes as a leader and learns how to manage people with kindness and consideration.

While he gives a lot of credit to Lasseter and directors like Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, and Brad Bird, it’s clear that this computer geek with a love for animation also understands a lot about what makes us human and the way he led the company proves it.

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