The Secret To Pixar’s Success: Failure

In an interview with BuzzFeed, Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull discusses his new book, Creativity Inc., and says reframing the concept of failure is the only sure way to find success.

Via Random House

In a castle floating in the sky live a king and his two sons, who all dislike each other. One day the sons accidentally end up on the ground as the castle floats away, and they come across a tall bird.

This was the original concept for the movie Up, and it initially fell flat with Pixar executives. The elements of the story didn’t really gel, no one identified with the princes and the feeling of escape that creator Peter Docter was going for wasn’t coming through, Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull told BuzzFeed.

“That first version didn’t work at all,” said Catmull, the author of Creativity Inc., a new book about building a creative workplace culture. “The only things that survived were the bird and the title.”

But Pixar kept refining and tweaking Docter’s idea until, to use Catmull’s words, the movie finally found “its heart.” And when it did, that heart kept beating and beating and beating — the 2009 blockbuster about a bespectacled curmudgeon whose house is carried away by a candy-colored batch of balloons went on to gross $293 million at the domestic box office and a worldwide total lifetime gross of $731 million, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.

Up’s success didn’t result from the vague, amorphous “Pixar magic,” a phrase film critics frequently employ to describe the studio’s impressive track record of box office success (all 14 of its movies have debuted in the top spot at the box office) that lacks any kind of real-world meaning. Rather, as Catmull said, Pixar’s success is the product of a deliberate attitude toward creativity and failure. As Catmull described it, the so-called Pixar Way is really a broad range of management principles that have relevance in businesses ranging from film studios to factories.

“If you were to ask a group of people in an auditorium if they can think of ways to make people more creative, only a few hands would probably go up. But if you ask those people to think of ways to block creativity, everybody would probably raise their hands,” Catmull said. “So let’s approach this from the other side. I believe everybody is creative, and I define creativity in addition to expression as problem solving. What are the barriers? Insecurity. Fear. People don’t want to make mistakes. That raises the question, how do you make it safe for people to say what they think or that it’s safe for them to make mistakes?”

The answer: Reframe the concept of failure.

“There’s two meanings of the word ‘failure’ that we’ve conflated,” Catmull said. “One is that failure is a necessary part of learning. The other meaning is the one we’ve learned in school: If you fail a class, it means you screwed up. At an adult level, if someone makes a mistake in a company or in the government, people around them can be extremely unforgiving. So, emotionally, people are driven to avoid anything that smacks of it without realizing it’s not an evil at all, but a necessary consequence of doing something new. So, one has to reframe it. When you start something new, you will make mistakes, and if you don’t make mistakes you’re either copying yourself or copying someone else.”

As with Up, some of Pixar’s other successes, like Monsters, Inc., were dramatically, and sometimes painfully, reshaped on their long march to the silver screen, each failed concept bringing the ultimate creation closer to what Catmull describes as the film’s “true north.” The original idea for Monsters, Inc., for example, first focused on a 30-year-old man “coping with a cast of frightening characters that only he could see.” The monsters were his unaddressed childhood fears, and as he confronted them, they began to disappear.

“What nobody knows is how many wrong turns the story took, over a period of years,” Catmull writes in his book of Monsters Inc. Through all the do-overs, Docter, who also directed Monsters Inc., held on to an idea about monsters scaring kids for a living. Eventually, the now-familiar characters of the shaggy beast Sully and his one-eyed sidekick Mike began to emerge, as did a universe populated with monsters whose job it is to scare kids like the young girl in the film, named Boo.

“While the process was difficult and time-consuming, Pete and his crew never believed that a failed approach meant that they had failed,” Catmull writes. “Instead, they saw that each idea led them a bit closer to finding the better option … This is key: when experimentation is seen as necessary and productive, not as a frustrating waste of time, people will enjoy their work, even when it is confounding them.”

Through stories like these, Catmull’s book attempts to offer readers a peek inside the hit machine that is Pixar. The studio’s corporate trajectory, of course, is well-known. Co-founded with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter, along with Catmull, Pixar has produced a string of feature films that have garnered dozens of Academy Awards and set box office records. Creativity Inc. makes clear the ideas for those films don’t emerge fully formed. They’re often the result of years of tweaking and often laborious reinvention.

“I often say that managers of creative enterprises must hold lightly to goals and firmly to intentions,” Catmull writes. “At Pixar, we are willing to adjust our goals as we learn, striving to get it right, not necessarily to get it right the first time. Because that, to my mind, is the only way to establish something else that is essential to creativity: a culture that protects the new.”

Deborah Coleman. / Via Random House

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