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Pixar president speaks on creative culture at BYU forum

PROVO — Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation Studios and Disney Animation Studios, spoke on eliminating barriers to creativity at a forum at Brigham Young University on Jan. 27.

While a pioneer in the field of computer animation, Catmull has also been instrumental in implementing a creative culture that has helped both Pixar and Disney maintain success and creativity.

“I believe everybody is inherently creative,” Catmull said. “The real question is: what are the systemic and cultural forces that block creativity and change?”

Addressing those forces is what has kept Pixar producing 14 successful films in a row, Catmull said.

In the wake of the success of Pixar’s first feature-length film, "Toy Story," Catmull and his co-founders faced a puzzle — one that caused other companies who experienced quick success to then fizzle out. “How do I face and address forces that I can’t even see?” he asked himself. “Can we address the forces before they ruin us?”

One such company that achieved success and then was failing to produce better products was Disney Animation Studios, he said. Disney had experienced a "renaissance" in the 1990s with four surprisingly successful films. However, its sudden success was followed by a creative slump that lasted for 17 years, or until Disney bought Pixar Animation Studios.

Having had experience with combatting the “unseen forces” that can cause creative people to become un-creative, Catmull and his team worked to move Disney Animation Studios forward. He shared three key factors that block creativity.

Barriers to honesty

Honesty is essential to creativity. However, oftentimes people don’t want to be honest. “Honesty can be dangerous,” Catmull said, since it makes the person feel vulnerable.

One of the innovations of Pixar Studios is its approach to working through problems in a film. The Brain Trust is a group of filmmaking peers — talented animators, producers and storytellers, among others — tasked with bringing out problems in a movie so the director can solve them, he said.

Directors may feel like their peers will only tear their movie apart, making them vulnerable and possibly defensive. To combat this fear, power structures that come from seniority are removed and the Brain Trust recognizes the vulnerability of the director. These steps help the filmmaker feel safe and able to discuss the problems in a film, leading to creative and successful solutions.

Fear of failure

Trying and failing is also a key to success and creativity, but many are scared to fail. Again, it puts them in a place of vulnerability.

At Disney, one of the symptoms of its lack of creativity was a term used around the office: “Feed the beast.” This beast, the largest department in the studio, was the production department. Success meant getting films done on time and within budget. This led to the studio only working on things that gave it success the last time around — usually musicals. However, repeating previous endeavors did not prove fruitful.

When Catmull was brought in to Disney, he created the Story Trust. Using this group, the animators at Disney began making new films, which ultimately failed. As they failed together, they learned that they had each other’s backs and could trust one another.

“If you aren’t failing, you’re not trying new things,” Catmull said.

Lack of protection of new things

Many filmmakers will compare making a film to raising a child. The beginning stage will look nothing like the final one, but they have to start somewhere. Catmull then posed the question: “What do you do when the baby is ugly?”

For instance, the only similarity between the film "Up" and its first draft was a big bird and the word "Up." Everything else in that draft, and most subsequent drafts, was discarded. While the original concept may look like it will grow into something awful, it’s important to protect the creators as they develop the concept into something far better.

“Most people think of creativity as narrow in terms of arts over sciences,” Catmull said. “I think that’s less true now. I believe that we should reframe creativity as solving problems — real problems.”

Creative thinkers don’t just benefit the arts, but professions such as marketing, engineering and others. It brings innovative ideas and a culture that strives to overcome problems.

“Ease isn’t the goal,” he said. “Excellence is.”