Candour without bruises: how to get a Pixar buzz; Creativity, Inc: Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration, by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace

March 19, 2014 2:50 pm
Candour without bruises: how to get a Pixar buzz
Review by Adam Jones
Creativity, Inc: Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration, by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, Random House, $28/£20
Pixar uses technology only as a means to an end; its films are rooted in human concerns, not computer wizardry. The same can be said of Creativity Inc, Ed Catmull’s endearingly thoughtful explanation of how the studio he co-founded generated hits such as the Toy Story trilogy, Up and Wall-E.

Catmull was a 1970s computer animation pioneer (university classmates included Netscape co-founder Jim Clark), but his book is not a technical history of how the hand-drawn artistry perfected by Disney was rendered obsolete by the processing power of machines.
Rather, he uses Pixar’s triumphs and near-disasters to outline a system for managing people in creative businesses – one in which candid criticism is delivered sensitively, while individuality and aut­onomy are not strangled by a robotic corporate culture.
Some of the advice flirts with cliché: staff must be allowed to fail and so on. But the tips are anchored persuasively in strong examples. The key question of how much failure should be tolerated is not ignored, for instance. For Pixar, the limit is reached when a director has lost the confidence of his or her crew.
The accidental deletion of two years’ work on Toy Story 2 is a wonderful case study. Catmull insists there was never a witch hunt to identify who typed the simple but catastro­phic command into the system. Happily, a mother working from home unexpectedly had a back-up. For Catmull, this is further proof that staff should be allowed to do jobs their own way.
The troubled gestation of Toy Story 2 almost had fatal consequences. A late overhaul of the film put tremendous pressure on staff, to the extent that one exhausted artist accidentally left his baby in a vehicle in the company car park in broiling heat. The child had to be revived from unconsciousness when the mistake was realised. Catmull feels guilty about the strain: “Asking this much of our people, even when they wanted to give it, was not acceptable . . . by the time the film was complete, a full third of the staff would have some kind of repetitive stress injury.”
He concludes that it is a leader’s responsibility to stop driven and perfectionist staff destroying their health and that of others – something that chimes with concerns in the financial world today. By contrast, Toy Story 3 was a wrinkle-free production. But when Catmull lauded the crew for this, hackles rose. They took it as a sign they had played it safe, illustrating how the “failure is good” mantra can have perverse side effects.
In one of the sharper pieces of writing, Steve Jobs, who bought Pixar from Lucasfilm and groomed it for stardom, is likened to a dolphin. Shouting out harsh criticism was his way of taking the measure of a room, Catmull says: “Steve used aggressive interplay as a kind of biological sonar. It was how he sized up the world.” The Pixar man – whose gentle authorial voice could not be more different – stresses that his late friend and protector’s style softened.
Jobs sold Pixar to Disney for $7.4bn in 2006. The deal left Catmull as president of both Disney’s animation arm and Pixar, roles that he still holds. John Lasseter, another weighty figure in Pixar’s history, became chief creative officer of both entities.
The pair’s challenge was to revive the Disney operation without losing the open and collaborative spirit Pixar had developed. The recent Oscar-winning success of Disney’s Frozen – and the strong showing of Wreck-It Ralph before that – suggests they have made great strides in the first of these tasks.
But Catmull’s vivid recounting of the turnround creates an odd dynamic near the end. The last segment on Pixar’s inner workings tracks a mass brainstorming, called “Notes Day”, at its HQ. Catmull bills it as a renewal but it feels a bit leaden on the page. Maybe Disney has the edge right now.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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