Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull, summary & overview

Overview

Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration is a book about famous Pixar studio. The studio that gave birth to animation masterpieces such as “Toy Story”, “Ratatouille”, “Frozen” and “Up” beloved by all viewers regardless of age.

Ed Catmull, one the authors and Pixar’s CEO stood at the origins of the studio with his team of creative enthusiasts and likeminded companions.

Those in charge of creative teams should definitely lay their hands on this book (or at lease its summary). Creativity Inc. can also be strongly recommended to directors, artists, animators, script writers and anybody who takes genuine interest in history of cinematography.

As a viewer and appreciator you are sure to find a great deal of pleasure in reading everything about the process of creation of their features and shorts.

The book would also be interesting if you admire Steve Jobs and want to know what an important part he took in those creations. Catmull refers to Jobs with a great deal of respect, admiration and gratefulness. Well, actually, the book is dedicated to Steve Jobs.

+ Pros

Simply too many to list. It is a very intelligent, insightful and well written book that covers one noteworthy topic.

− Cons

Occasional misprints.

Creativity inc summary cover

“Creativity Inc.” manages to piece multiple genres together. It is a memoir rich with insider information, a guide to management, an insight into history of creation of animation films and partially a philosophical tract.

It is not a secret that the vast majority of creative people have their own rhythm and pace of work. They conduct under their own rules and can be difficult to organize. You know, inspiration and regulations do not mix up that well. People in charge of Pixar wanted to find a perfect balance between creative and production processes. Their goal was to create great films and tell great stories to the world. They challenged themselves with two conditions to be set: let’s not choke the creative spirit of our studio with discipline and try not to drown in a swamp of creative experiments. That was a tricky thing to pull off to say the least.

The book reveals a story about a very special creative energy flowing all through the studio, where every single employee had a chance to evolve as a creative human being.  From cleaning worker to lighting technician — everyone could take free courses on drawing, painting, sculpture, CGI animation and eventually become a part of creative team. That brings the sense of unity and purpose for each and everyone.

Why have Pixar become a unique studio? Ed Catmull has a couple of ideas to share.

Summary

Idea № 1. Hire outstanding and extraordinary specialists. Hire even those more talented than you.

Catmull remembers how he hired a person much more competent than him. It was at dawn of his animation career and he was worrying that he might lose his position in the company. But tasks at hand required the best of the best to stay productive and successful. Ed Catmull took a risk and was right to do so. Always admit professional qualities of an individual. Catmull tells that George Lucas, the creator of “Star Wars”, among a dozen of candidates, chose him to work on CGI effects for epic saga. Why? During the interview Catmull was asked a question: who of the leading specialists in his field can he name? Catmull named a bunch of people. Those people were in the mix with Ed Catmull to claim the position of CGI effects specialist and none of them mentioned names of their potential competitors. Catmull’s sincerity, honesty and the ability to recognise competence of others bought him a ticket to work with Lucas on “Star Wars”. George Lucas not only hired a CGI specialist but helped a studio called Pixar to be born.

Idea № 2. A good movie must have a good story. Put every piece of soul and skill you possess in it.

Pixar haven’t gained popularity and recognition overnight. After their first success with “Star Wars” the company was bought by Steve Jobs. In the beginning Pixar tried to deal equipment and software like Silicon Graphic did. Business went stale and that was when Catmull, Jobs and animator John Lasseter cooperated with Disney and decided to concentrate on creative aspect and start producing animation films. That is how “Toy Story” was born and where the road to success started.

Catmull gives a detailed story of its creation. Producer at Disney didn’t accept Woody. They thought he was too good natured and sincere. As a consequence the script has been rewritten a dozen of times until the production was temporarily shut down. People at Pixar then decided to listen to their inner voice and made Woody who he was from the beginning — a good, nice guy — and “Toy Story” turned out to be a huge success.

Idea № 3. Talented people must become a true team for a movie to succeed

It is very important to find and hire talented people and unite them under a flag of common cause. Otherwise they’re just a team of mediocre individuals. It is vital to have understanding within a team, which only sounds easy to achieve.

The great example Catmull makes is a work on “Toy Story” sequel.

Pixar invited animators from the side to work on the sequel, while the core team concentrated on production of “A Bug’s Life”. All the animators were talented and highly professional but with barely any directing experience. Essential  storylines were ready and written so Lasseter and Catmull were confident about the rest of the job done with no problems. One of the early mottos at Pixar was “trust the process”, bearing the idea that if you have a solid story the rest of the work is bound to effortlessly go its natural way.

Catmull was to find out that it is people who are a priority not processes. A year into production it developed that new directors/animators were not working as a team, but acted solely on their own. First draft clips showed to be mediocre quite a time ago but Ed Catmull was convinced that it is always like that with first drafts. But later drafts were hardly any better and even though Disney were satisfied Pixar couldn’t afford a b-grade animation film and had to replace newbie directors and rework everything themselves in an extremely short amount of time.

Idea № 4. Creative cooperation is impossible without sincerity and trust

Ed Catmull developed a special type of meetings and called it Braintrust. He wanted every participant to be able to state his or her opinion on a certain character, script, work process and much more, so that everyone in the team would have a clear understanding and panoramic view of the whole production process. That is because each employee does a specific job and sees the overall process from a limited angle. Some members of the team work effortlessly, fast, while some just get stuck and confused and left alone with little to no understanding of what is the problem, how to solve it and even where exactly to look for it in the first place.

The idea of Braintrust emerged during an intense production of “Toy Story 2”, which eventually Pixar had to rework almost from scratch. Catmull had a pursuit to eliminate fear of failure and incompetence during these meetings. He made the film the centre of discussions and made sure to eliminate personal remarks. No right or wrong, just trial and error. This helped the team of creative individuals trust each other and work without fear. Braintrust helped to make “Toy Story 2” a story for the audience rather than its authors like it was in the beginning. Important remark: with all the benevolence of those discussions people must be ready to handle the truth.

Idea № 5. A failure is always a chance to grow

Ed Catmull sees nothing tragic about failure. Failure is not evil but an opportunity to grow.

Creative people are sensitive to failures, but failures are the only way to grow and learn.

Catmull thinks that the pain of failure veils the golden shine of experience we get through it. It deceives us to devalue that experience. Aspiration to avoid failure only leads to inconfidence and dramatically slows you down on your way to success. Leaders who are afraid of failures lose everything. Every wrong step you take inevitably leads to better understanding of your surroundings and helps predict right move from wrong in the future. Any idea that doesn’t fit in the film should not be left behind. It can bear fruit later and fit into future projects.

Catmull brings “Monsters Inc.” as an example of a wrong path taken in the beginning. At first it was a story about a 30 year old accountant, who sees ghosts. Later he turns into a little girl named Mary. A bit later into a little boy, then a 7 year old girl Boo and finally a toddler. The script as it is known today came to fruition over a year of work. Stick to the fundamental idea behind your story and experiment. Remember, trial and error are perfectly natural.

Idea № 6. Individual opinions must not stand in a way of common cause

Once a company grows past a certain point it loses its flexibility. More creators means more opinions. However there are methods at Pixar to avoid collisions and concentrate on productivity.

During a feature production daily meetings are held at Pixar where participants listen to each other’s opinions, suggestions and find the best solutions.

One of the methods is investigation and research. In order to recreate an environment for “Ratatouille”, which takes place in France where its main character rat Remi dreams of becoming a chef, a team from Pixar took a trip to Paris. They spent two weeks eating out at best restaurants of Paris and interviewing chefs. Sounds more like trip to paradise, but it was but a fraction of their French adventures. The team also explored Paris sewers inhabited by legions of rats. That was very vital for truthful and sincere depiction of the world in the animation film.

Next method. The power of restriction. Working on “Monsters Inc.” artists used to spend too much time detailing covers of CD boxes in the background, which can only be seen for a couple of seconds. Don’t waste time on details a viewer won’t see anyway. Once you get too enthusiastic it’s probably time to limit yourself. Chasing a goal of creating a high quality product be careful not to spend excessive amounts of finances and your employees energy. At Pixar there is a special person whose job is to make company’s requests and demands reasonable and balanced.

Merging tech and art is very important and implies a close collaboration of an engineer and an animation artist.

Catmull uses the method of short experiments. He highlights the importance of animation shorts in Pixar. Working on these shorts bonds the team, helps sharpen their skills and pushes the limits of creativity, while the audience is grateful to see the result as a complimentary piece of art prior to feature length release.

Visionary method helps to share a common vision among every person in the company. Everyone in Pixar can attend educational courses on animation software, sculpture, drawing and painting to understand what everyone is doing and working on during feature production better.

Method of dissection helps to be efficient. At the end of the day people at Pixar get together to discuss every step made, what failed, what not and why. The educational continuity method helps employees constantly evolve. They can improve their primary skills, acquire new ones and sustain health of body and mind. Acting classes, basics of design, musical classes, yoga, meditation and more are available at Pixar for its employees. It also helps establishing healthy relations within company because that’s where even CEO can find himself in an uncomfortable position of a clumsy newbie.

Summary of Creativity Inc summary

Some people actually wonder, why pretty much all book summaries have such a bold statement as I’d not recommend to read book’s full copy placed at the end of the post. Well, reading through a 2000 words piece is not that time consuming, BUT if it still makes you wonder after – its definitely worth to checkout a full version.

As always, I’d recommend to compare the ideas and action plan insights density with other business books we reviewed:

  1. CROSSING THE CHASM BY G. MOORE
  2. BE OBSESSED OR BE AVERAGE BY G. CARDONE
  3. THE E-MYTH ENTERPRISE BY M. E. GERBER
  4. CREATIVITY INC. BY ED CATMULL
  5. ZERO TO ONE BY PETER THIEL
  6. NEVER EAT ALONE BY KEITH FERRAZZI
  7. GOOD TO GREATE BY JIM COLLINS
  8. THE LEAN STARTUP BY E. RIES

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