Ed Catmull: "Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming The Unseen Forces That Stand In The Way Of True Inspiration"

MS. DIANE REHM

11:06:53
Thanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Pixar Animation has a reputation as a collaborative workplace that prides itself on unfettered creativity. But co-founder and president Ed Catmull says fostering that culture is a work in progress, one that took years overcoming hidden forces to develop. He's written a new book on what he's learned in the process.

MS. DIANE REHM

11:07:22
It's titled "Creativity, Inc." And Ed Catmull joins me in the studio to talk about what it takes to build and sustain a creative workplace culture. I invite you to be part of the program. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Ed, it's so good to meet you.

MR. ED CATMULL

11:07:53
Well, I'm so happy to be here.

REHM

11:07:55
Thank you. I know that your heroes in high school were, you said, Walt Disney, Einstein. Tell us about the goal you set for yourself early on and then how this book emerged from that goal.

CATMULL

11:08:16
Well, when I was a kid, having these two idols, my main focus was on drawing and on art. And I wanted to be an animator. But when I left high school to go to college, I realized there were no schools to teach people how to be animators. So I switched over into physics and got my undergraduate degree in physics.

REHM

11:08:36
Why physics?

CATMULL

11:08:39
Well, I know that most people have that reaction because it seems incongruous to go from art to physics. But if you actually think about it, they're both based upon observation and then coming up with something new.

REHM

11:08:56
And spatial relationships.

CATMULL

11:08:59
Yes. I have very good spatial relationship ability. So physics was the natural place to go. So when I went to graduate school -- it was the Foundation School for Computer Graphics. And as soon as I entered into that program, I realized, oh, here is a way to bring these two together...

REHM

11:09:22
Hmm.

CATMULL

11:09:23
...the art part and the science. So I started working on how to make the pictures look better 'cause they were very crude. They were made out of polygons, and they were black and white in those days. And by the time I graduated, I had a goal of trying to make the first computer-animated film. So this is in 1974.

REHM

11:09:45
And you followed your goal.

CATMULL

11:09:49
I worked on it for -- actually, I thought I was going to take 10 years, but it took 20. But along the way, a lot of people joined in on this process, so there was George Lucas and John Lasseter and Steve Jobs. But a lot of other people that aren't well known all were buying into this. And along the way, I had theories about how to manage a group.

CATMULL

11:10:18
The truth is when I started up, I didn't want to manage. So my theories were how to be in charge of a group without having to manage. And when I went to Lucasfilm, I looked back and said, well, two-thirds of those theories actually were very helpful, and one-third were a complete crock. And, you know, I'll bet the same thing happens going forward.

REHM

11:10:41
Yeah.

CATMULL

11:10:41
And it's still a view I have, is that it's a -- one-third of what I think probably is wrong. And you've heard of the 80/20 rule or the 90/10 rule. The thing I don't like about those rules is they're too optimistic...

REHM

11:10:55
Mm.

CATMULL

11:10:57
...is that the realities are always a little more complicated than we think.

REHM

11:11:01
So as you moved forward toward the creation with a number of other people, toward the creation of "Toy Story," how much dissension, how much cooperation, how much did you have to manage?

CATMULL

11:11:30
Well, I learned basically by the time I got to Lucasfilm that managing itself is a creative activity. And I define and think of creativity fairly broadly. It's problem solving. It isn't just making artwork. And it's that broader use, I think, which is applicable in all kinds of environments. But as we got really smart people together solving these problems, we had to figure out certain issues like, how much do you keep secret? And how much do you engage with the outside world?

CATMULL

11:12:08
And my intuition, which I still believe in, was that we decided to fully and completely engage with our academic community. There wasn't a filmmaking community at the time. So we published everything. And other people thought this was a little crazy. But my point of view was that the issue was not the particular problem that we had or the idea that we were trying to solve at the time.

CATMULL

11:12:35
What was far more important was that, by engaging in this community, we attracted the best people 'cause the problems in front of us were so large and so innumerable that I would much rather have all the great people there, even if along the way, you're actually talking about what it is that you discover.

REHM

11:12:54
Tell me about the problems along the way toward developing "Toy Story."

CATMULL

11:13:02
Well, there were two sets of problems. One of them was just that the original images weren't good enough, and the tools and the technology did not make it cost effective. So that meant that we had to develop the technology in an environment and have support along the way while we were pushing the technology. So this is where George Lucas came in because George was the only person in the film industry willing to bring high technology into the industry.

REHM

11:13:32
Wow.

CATMULL

11:13:34
So he was unique in that. And he hired me to bring technology in. And it wasn't just computer graphics and animation. It was also digital audio and video editing. So we had groups working on each one of those problems. And I was there for -- with these other people about six years. John Lasseter joined us at this time.

CATMULL

11:13:55
It's where he made his first short with us. But due to changing economic conditions, it was decided to sell the computer division to the outside. So Steve Jobs bought Pixar in 1986. And at that time, it still wasn't economical to make animated films. So we started of selling computer hardware that we designed and manufactured.

CATMULL

11:14:25
And at that time, I had to figure out what manufacturing meant because there, none of us knew what we were doing. I was the president of the company. I had no idea what it meant to be a president of a company. And we didn't have marketing people. We didn't have manufacturing. Steve's instincts were with consumer products. They weren't with high end products.

REHM

11:14:43
I see.

CATMULL

11:14:44
So none of us knew what we were doing. So it became an intense learning experience. And I had to figure out manufacturing, and discovered that the way manufacturing was approached in some companies -- Toyota being a great example -- was they turned the solving the problems on the manufacturing line into a creative activity. And this was unexpected. This -- well, I wouldn't have thought that's where you would think about creativity. But they did that.

REHM

11:15:12
You know, I remember early on being somewhat baffled by being in a movie theater and seeing or hearing first that musical intro and then seeing this little sort of lamp-like thing walk across the screen. And that was the first I had ever heard of Pixar. And then, of course, came "Toy Story."

TOM HANKS AS WOODY

11:15:54
Sergeant?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE

11:15:54
Yes, sir.

WOODY

11:15:56
Establish your recon post downstairs.

MALE

11:15:58
Code red. Repeat. We are at code red. Recon plan Charlie. Execute. Move, move, move, move, move. It's a...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE #2

11:16:05
It's a big one.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE #3

11:16:06
Walt Disney Pictures presents a totally new animated motion picture event.

TIM ALLEN AS BUZZ

11:16:12
Star Command, come in. Do you read me?

#3

11:16:14
The story of two toys...

BUZZ

11:16:16
There seems to be no sign of intelligent life anywhere.

WOODY

11:16:19
Hello.

#3

11:16:21
...headed for a showdown...

WOODY

11:16:22
My name is Woody. This is my spot.

BUZZ

11:16:27
I am Buzz Lightyear. I come in peace.

WOODY

11:16:29
You are a child's play thing.

BUZZ

11:16:32
You are a sad, strange, little man.

#3

11:16:34
...and playing by their own rules.

WOODY

11:16:36
Draw. Got me again.

JOHN RATZENBERGER AS HAMM

11:16:38
I don't like confrontations.

WOODY

11:16:40
Buzz, look, an alien.

BUZZ

11:16:41
Where?

REHM

11:16:41
And confrontation had to be part of what was going on in the creativity.

CATMULL

11:16:50
Well, one of the things we discovered as we were making this -- 'cause we -- again, none of us knew what we were doing -- was we had to figure this out really quickly. And our first versions didn't work. We were...

REHM

11:17:01
Why not?

CATMULL

11:17:03
Well, here's the thing that we learned. And that is the first versions of all of our films suck. And it's -- and I don't mean this in a self-deprecating way or that I'm being modest. What I mean is that they all suck. All right? They don't work.

REHM

11:17:23
They just don't work.

CATMULL

11:17:25
And so what we had with "Toy Story" was a group of five people who worked remarkably well together. And they were led by John Lasseter as the director. And when they got together, they were funny. They were focused. They were very intense. And when they got intense and they had these discussions, the discussions were never personal.

REHM

11:17:51
Hmm.

CATMULL

11:17:51
They were about the problem. They weren't about each other.

REHM

11:17:54
And what was the problem -- the problem?

CATMULL

11:17:59
Well, in the case of a film, we are trying to convey typically human emotion and do it in a way that is entertaining and engaging and something that we can relate to. But this is really hard because the principals of putting together a film are well known, and arcs are known. But unless you put in something personal, then it doesn't work. So the question is, how do you solve these problems? And it's difficult.

REHM

11:18:31
And you'll hear all about how they solved the problem when we come back. Ed Catmull is with me. His new book is titled "Creativity, Inc."

REHM

11:20:00
And welcome back. Ed Catmull is my guest. He's president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation. He's written a new book with Amy Wallace. It's titled, "Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration." I want to go back a little bit because we started out talking about your goals because Disney and Einstein were your heroes. Did you find obstructions in the way on your path toward your goal? If so, what were they and what did you do about them?

CATMULL

11:20:55
Well, initially, because it wasn't an economical thing, then no one was really interested -- in fact, I found it hard to get a job after I got my Ph.D. because I said what I wanted to do, and that was not something that was relevant to most people. So my good fortune was to finally find somebody in New York. This is New York Tech, where the president was willing to fund this. Then George Lucas was willing to take it the next step. And then Steve Jobs was willing to go to the next step.

CATMULL

11:21:26
But at each time, because we weren't ready, then what it meant was somebody had to trust that we probably could get there, knowing that there's a high degree of risk. So we got diverted along the way, needing to solve other problems because people usually wanted us because -- or they had their own agendas. So we had to work within the agenda that they had…

REHM

11:21:46
I see.

CATMULL

11:21:49
…while trying to keep ours alive and solve those problems.

REHM

11:21:51
So when you completed "Toy Story 1," and began thinking about "Toy Story 2," that had some real problems getting off the ground because somehow, as first presented, the focus was in the wrong direction.

CATMULL

11:22:19
Well, it was -- for me, "Toy Story 2," was the defining moment in the studio. And it was actually our third film. So we finished the first one and now we had a pretty good idea of what we're -- we should do. So while our team, who had made "Toy Story," started to work on "A Bug's Life," we put a second team working on "Toy Story 2," as a direct-to-video. And we…

REHM

11:22:39
Direct-to-video.

CATMULL

11:22:41
Yeah.

REHM

11:22:41
And that's what Disney's studios wanted.

CATMULL

11:22:45
Right. At that time, that was thought to be the right economic thing to do. So we just got started and we immediately ran into certain issues and one was a personal issue. But at a company issue, the people working on the film did not want to do a direct-to-video. That was like a second-class idea. They wanted to make a feature film. And Disney actually acquiesced fairly soon, to make it a theatrical film. But as we progressed through it, we found that -- and as I had mentioned, the story sucked to begin with -- well, this one stayed at that level. It wasn't getting better.

CATMULL

11:23:27
So within nine months of the completion of the film, we basically pulled the plug on it and did a restart, at a time when it was -- when Disney said it was impossible. We literally didn't have enough time. But we did it anyway, believing that that was what it took to make a good film, and that our company was riding upon making it good.

REHM

11:23:51
So the point was, as you say here in your book, that the spine of the story, Woody's dilemma to stay with his owner and know that ultimately he was going to end up in the trash heap, or to go with someone else all depended on love. And that was the key element that was somehow missing from the "Toy Story 2," as initially presented.

CATMULL

11:24:34
The original version was very predictable. You knew that he was going to end up with his owners. And if you know what's going to happen, then it doesn't make it interesting. So you have to put in elements, so that we, the observer, would look at it and say, "Oh, he has a choice." If I had a choice of living forever, but living without love, or living with love, but knowing that I'm going to die, what would the choice be? Well, that's kind of hard. I mean, I can keep on living forever? That seems like a pretty good deal.

REHM

11:25:07
Yeah.

CATMULL

11:25:07
And if you can make that connection, now you've got a tension in the film which makes it less predictable, and more relatable.

REHM

11:25:17
Then you go on to say that the takeaway here is worth repeating, getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right. What was wrong with the team?

CATMULL

11:25:41
Well, the first thing to note is the standard way of making films is that somebody comes up with an idea and they write a script. And then they like the script and then they make the movie.

REHM

11:25:51
Right.

CATMULL

11:25:51
So we were starting to fall into the same pattern. We had a development group looking for ideas to be made into films. And we realized that with this one, the team wasn't functioning well together. Now, they were all good people. They all liked each other. But they were not a team where you could say that the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. When we put the original team on it, suddenly the magic happened. And it was at that point I realized, well, we've got this backwards.

CATMULL

11:26:21
We've got a group of people in development looking for ideas to make into films. That's not what we should be doing. We should be looking at teams that are going to solve the problems. So we don't look at any outside scripts. We never do. All we're looking at is, okay, how do we put together a team that's going to solve a problem? They're going to come up with the ideas.

CATMULL

11:26:43
And they're going to solve it. And they're going to own it. And it's going to be personal. And part of the diversity of the Pixar and the Disney films is that these are personal ventures and adventures on the part of the directors and the storytellers on the film. And that's the environment we have to create.

REHM

11:27:02
So how do you then take what you learned on "Toy Story 1, 2, 3" and on to helping us understand what good -- what makes good creativity work within groups?

CATMULL

11:27:29
Okay. So this comes to one of the fundamental questions for me. And it actually happened after "Toy Story" came out. All those years that we were trying to make it, I was also observing other companies in Silicon Valley. I had friends at all those companies, and also in the entertainment business. And there was this pattern of a group would come together, they'd do something very creative, and then they would fall apart.

REHM

11:27:53
Right.

CATMULL

11:27:55
And so one -- when we finished -- or when we went public then I had a personal dilemma because we had just achieved the goal. And so the goal was there. So what was the new goal? And it took me a year to figure out it. But it was to realize that there's a fundamental problem in creative groups that makes them go off the wall. And whatever these forces are is they're hidden. Which means that I can't see them. So the new goal became how do we look and address a hard-to-see problem, the kinds of things that derail us so that we can make a sustainable culture.

REHM

11:28:34
Give me an example.

CATMULL

11:28:36
Well, the first thing is, if you were to ask a group of people to raise their hands if they knew how to make people more creative, you'd have a few hands that would come up with some ideas. But if you were to ask the same group of people how many know ways to block people and make them uncreative or how to make them feel fearful, they would all raise their hands.

REHM

11:29:00
Of course.

CATMULL

11:29:02
All right. So I've said, okay, I think the focus is on the wrong side. Is that what I want to do is look at the blocks, the things that get in the way. And they have to do with fear, with not wanting to fail or getting stuck on something, on unable to move off in a new direction. If we can address those, then what we'll do is we'll allow those people to do things they wouldn't normally have done because they got blocked.

REHM

11:29:30
So you're saying part of creativity is watching failure happen.

CATMULL

11:29:41
Absolutely. It is -- well, failure's an interesting concept because intellectually now people understand that failure is part of learning. It's like we all get that. So that's the intellectual-accepted meaning. And it's fairly clear and provable that's true. But we have a problem. And that is there's another meaning of failure. And that's the one we learned in school, which was that you weren't smart enough, you didn't work hard enough, or you screwed up, you didn't pay attention. That meaning is deeply embedded inside of us.

CATMULL

11:30:17
And it's reinforced every day in the newspaper, where if somebody in business or in politics makes a mistake, the mistake or the failure is used as a bludgeon against them. There's a real aura of danger around failure. So we have these two meanings of failure, this intellectual positive one, and this deeply negative one. And they're both -- exist inside of us and they're conflated. And the result with that conflation is that we tend to interpret failure as a necessary evil, as if, you know, the thing that doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

CATMULL

11:30:56
So we have to address that and head-on, to say, no, failure is not a necessary evil, it is a necessary consequence of doing something new. If you don't fail, then you're actually screwing up in a much bigger way.

REHM

11:31:14
I'm not sure I follow that. If you don't fail you're screwing up in a bigger way.

CATMULL

11:31:21
Yes, that's right.

REHM

11:31:22
I'm not following that.

CATMULL

11:31:24
Okay. So I'll give an example. And this is when we first got to Disney.

REHM

11:31:28
Okay.

CATMULL

11:31:30
They had a character called Bolt. It was very difficult to animate.

REHM

11:31:33
Bolt.

CATMULL

11:31:34
Yes. He was the funniest character in the movie and was the first one made that -- where John Lasseter and I were down at Disney. And in order to finish the film they had to remodel and re-rig -- and rigging is where they put in the animation controls. And the tentacle people said that it would take six months. Well, we only had eight months left on the film. So I got the company together and I explained then the principle of just fixing things without asking for permission, without planning, just -- don't even tell somebody, just fix it.

CATMULL

11:32:05
So that weekend two guys went home, remodeled and re-rigged it and with one -- within one week Bolt was back in production. Okay. So what was the difference between the one week and the six months? The reason they predicted six months was they were building in mechanisms to prevent errors and failures. And all those mechanisms to prevent failure actually screwed things up. When all they had to do was make it, find the problems, find the little failures and fix them. But that desire to avoid problems was so great that it was overriding commonsense. Now, that's an extreme example, but it happens a lot.

REHM

11:32:49
One of the chapters is titled, "The Hungry Beast and The Ugly Baby," and we're going to talk about that in one second, after I remind people you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Now, tell me about the "The Hungry Beast and The Ugly Baby."

CATMULL

11:33:18
Okay. So "The Hungry Beast," is a term I first heard down at Disney Animation. And it's actually not meant as a negative term, but it's the big mass of people who are working on the film. It's creative and it produces the film, which makes the money for the company. It's also where the bulk of the costs are. So you need to have material coming in from your development department to feed it. And I'm sure the term is used in broadcasting.

REHM

11:33:50
You bet, with a daily deadline.

CATMULL

11:33:53
That's right. So you've got to keep that fed.

REHM

11:33:55
Absolutely.

CATMULL

11:33:56
So there's a group up front, which is coming up with the new material. So here's the problem, what happens when the founders of the organization move on or they get hit by a truck or whatever? Then typically the most organized people are the ones who run the beast. So they're then put in charge. And they bring that value system of keeping things going to the front end, which is the creative side. And by applying those values they actually mess up the front end.

CATMULL

11:34:31
Now, people, they like the idea of thinking about what does it mean to have a -- the creative front end of a movie. And it's an intriguing thing. So they kind of imagine it's like a movie star growing up. So you might have a movie star like, let's say, young Brad Pitt. And he might be snotty-nosed and a little bratty, but he's attractive.

REHM

11:34:51
Yeah.

CATMULL

11:34:52
And you watch him grow up through until he becomes this gorgeous movie star.

REHM

11:34:56
Right.

CATMULL

11:34:56
Okay. So like we kind of get that. But what do you do if the baby is ugly? All right. And this is the real problem, is that when we start something, they don't work.

REHM

11:35:09
The baby is ugly.

CATMULL

11:35:11
The baby is ugly. Our first versions, as John says, are the worst things you've ever seen. So that means you have to have a different mindset, which is that you're protecting something which doesn't work. Well, how do you judge it? Because we think in terms of you judge a team by their output. Well, I just told you that their output always sucks to being with. So what are you supposed to do? And the way we think about it is we have to look at the team itself. Are they having a good time? Are they laughing? Do they like each other?

CATMULL

11:35:50
Are they solving problems? Can they let go of things and move forward? And that activity is different. So there's a time in which you're protecting the group. You can't protect them forever, because at some point you do have to engage with the beast. So you've got a middle part, where you're going from a protection, to engagement, to the beast is in full roar-going mode. And you have to know the difference between the phases you're at.

REHM

11:36:23
And once you do, if the group is, as you say, working with respect, with kinship, with laughter, with enjoyment at the task, something there is working.

CATMULL

11:36:46
Yes. And it's amazing to watch.

REHM

11:36:48
Yeah.

CATMULL

11:36:49
We have what we call the Brain Trust. So these are peers who work with each other. So they're all filmmakers. And it isn't just the notion of you putting together a bunch of smart people. That is not what we mean. What we mean is this group works well together, and they -- and we have to worry about personal dynamics, which get in the way.

REHM

11:37:14
Indeed. "Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration," Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation is my guest. Short break. Right back.

REHM

11:39:58
And welcome back. If you've just joined us, Ed Catmull is with me. His new book has so many lessons for us as individuals and as we work in groups as we do here on "The Diane Rehm Show." It's titled "Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration." Before we open the phones I want to go back to the brain trust and how that continued to work or in some cases not work.

CATMULL

11:40:48
Well, it worked so well that we tried to use the principal in other areas there where people also liked each other. And we found it didn't quite work as well. So we had to go back and analyze, what was it about the group that worked so well? And one of the things we realized was that we had set it up and we keep it this way so that the director makes the final say so. The group itself has no authority. So if John's not the director, John doesn't have the authority to override the director in the room.

CATMULL

11:41:21
What we consciously try to do is to take the power dynamics out of the room. And what this does is it allows the director to listen. So that's one of the key things. But the other is to recognize that it's a group of passionate humans.

REHM

11:41:37
Of course.

CATMULL

11:41:38
And they've all got various things subconscious or conscious. So you don't like to embarrass somebody else. You don't want to embarrass yourself. You want to look good. You sometimes can be intimidated by people that you perceive to be powerful. Some of these things are unacknowledged. But if we're aware of them and pay attention to the dynamics then the group focuses on the problem.

CATMULL

11:42:05
And the -- in general, the group works extremely well. Once in a while it fails and then we have to go back and rethink and readjust the dynamics. And every once in a while true magic happens.

REHM

11:42:20
But the people are more important than the idea.

CATMULL

11:42:27
The key concept to understand about that is that when we do any of these things, there are literally thousands, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of ideas. It's putting them together and making them relate and then relate to other people that matters. That is a human activity and an idea is too abstract and we use it to simplify. So we'll say that, like as an example, an iPhone is like a simple concept which belies or covers up the fact that there's an extraordinarily complex array of things behind it. But that's the way a lot of things are in life.

REHM

11:43:08
All right. We're going to open the phones. First, let's go to Kennedy in Chapel Hill, N.C. Hi, you're on the air.

KENNEDY

11:43:20
Good day, Diane. Good day, Dr. Catmull. I was calling today in reference to Chapter 11, "The Unmade Future" and specifically the quote where you say Alan Kay, Apple's chief scientist and the man who introduced you to Steve Jobs expressed a saying that goes "the best way to predict the future is to invent it." As a transfer student, I'm actually headed out to CCA this fall to study an animation program, I found this chapter to be very, very encouraging towards what I'm dealing with right now, moving from Chapel Hill to California.

KENNEDY

11:44:01
And I just wanted to know, could you piggyback on the whole concept of the unmade future and how came about this? And I'll take your comments off the air.

REHM

11:44:12
Thanks for calling, Kennedy. Go right ahead.

CATMULL

11:44:16
Well, for me this is -- it's one of the deep issues in creativity is that the future doesn't exist yet. And it can be, and for a lot of people is very scary. So the temptation is to try to repeat what took place in the past, either repeat yourself or copy somebody else. And by trying to do that you actually end up in a noncreative place. So you have to face into a direction where you don't know what's going to happen. You have to face towards the mess.

CATMULL

11:44:50
Most people want clarity and they try to skirt around the problem to get to clarity. And while we do like clarity in our lives, we have to realize that we get to clarity by going through the mess and acknowledging that there will always be another mess in front of us. We don't avoid it. We go towards it. And we use metaphor and various directors and storytellers use metaphors to help them do this.

REHM

11:45:18
Like what?

CATMULL

11:45:20
Well, one of my favorites is one that several people use, it's like looking for a story is like digging for dinosaur bones. You dig down and you find a bunch of bones and you don't know what goes together. And then you have to put the pieces together. So that's a way to help them think their way through it. And another one which I like is the one from Michael Art where he said, writing a story is like climbing a mountain blindfolded. The first trick is to find the mountain. And my response was, yeah, but that implies the mountain exists.

CATMULL

11:45:58
But the director said, yeah, but you're getting too abstract. I need something to hang on to so that I can go off in a scary direction. And it's really -- I think all of us need those things but is to realize that we're going off in a direction where we don't know what's going to happen. And if we fail along the way then we can take solace in the fact that not only did we learn, it meant that we did try something that was unexpected.

REHM

11:46:25
All right. To Andrew in Cleveland, Ohio. Hi there.

ANDREW

11:46:33
Hi, good morning. My question -- and you've answered parts of it, but it always seems to me that we've had so many wonderful things come out of Hollywood, so many of them out of Pixar, of course. But some of the greatest films, the ones that root you to your couch whenever they're on are the ones that people took a chance and a studio took a chance a chance in just letting a new director or a new group go off on their own and do this thing. And it's always proven to be successful.

ANDREW

11:47:06
And I'm wondering, given that knowledge that when you give people the freedom and the creative freedom to go out and do and you don't saddle them with target demos and marketing tie-ins and Happy Meal toy exclusivity and all those other kind of crazy things, the studios seem to throw at creative teams. Why is it that the studios are still so tied down to these wanting to take this creative notion and distill it down to a mathematical equation or a sales graph and ultimately make a mediocre product?

CATMULL

11:47:51
Well, the question is so complicated and the answer is so complicated I can't actually give you a simple answer. I have opinions on a lot of these things. I do know that while there are groups that look in terms of equations or -- and so forth, basically the filmmakers in general want to do something original. And sometimes the other stuff is kind of noise level that gets in the way. And you are right, when somebody is allowed to pursue the vision then they end up with something good.

CATMULL

11:48:24
But I will also say that sometimes directors are allowed to pursue a vision and they produce utter crap. And the reason is that they don't have any mechanism for telling them the truth if something isn't working because people can get lost in what they're doing. So it isn't as simple as saying just let them go. So we're actually at this very dynamic place of how do you have someone pursue a vision and at the same time give them a corrective to tell them when they're going off in the wrong direction.

REHM

11:48:58
Yeah.

CATMULL

11:48:59
Because you can find more examples of people going in the wrong direction. And I would venture to say that usually is not because the studio or others actually made them go that way. Usually the contracts are written so the director has the final cut. So it's -- as I say, it's a very complex situation. It would take a lot of time to go over it.

REHM

11:49:20
All right. Let's go now to Rachel. She's in Grand Rapids, Mich. Hi, you're on the air.

RACHEL

11:49:29
Thank you for taking my call.

REHM

11:49:31
Sure.

RACHEL

11:49:31
It's been very inspiring to listen to you speak. And I'm going to buy your book today. My comment is, is in Grand Rapids what they're doing is an event called Sell Your Lab. And these events they're -- they sell out and it's six people talking about their personal stories of failure. Not like why -- not what lesson they learned or who to blame, but it's just a, you know, intimate story of what went wrong. And I'm really excited to go to my first one.

RACHEL

11:50:02
And I really think that it's helping, you know, like the generation X and Y talk about risk taking and the importance of that. So do you feel that that's just a generational thing where younger generations are able to look at that and learn from lessons?

CATMULL

11:50:24
Well, in truth I don't think it's generational. I think the issue of recognizing failure and the forces behind it have been around for a long time. And I would say a lot of the principles about learning from a failure is something that almost everybody would agree with. But there's that -- it's not recognizing their internal desire to avoid it. The thing I like about the program you're talking about is it's trying to make the notion of failure mistakes safer.

CATMULL

11:50:53
So what happened is people moved toward trying to avoid the failure rather than saying, no actually the movement should be towards making it safe to fail and safe to make mistakes. And they're kind of -- a program you talk about I think helps with that, make it safe.

REHM

11:51:12
But how do you make it safe for children if in fact all they've heard is, you did it wrong? How do you make it safe from the beginning? It has to happen in the classroom. It has to happen at home. And yet there is the other side of that which is there's been a lot of talk about too much building of self esteem saying to a child whatever he or she does is great, whether they have done it right or wrong. I mean, it seems to me there's a subtle balance.

CATMULL

11:52:11
Well, that's exactly right. It's the notion of self esteem can get distorted into always saying, the thing that you did is the right thing. So it turns the focus onto the thing, whereas the focus should be the fact that you're trying and that you're doing it is a good thing. It may result in something which is good or it may result in a thing that's bad. But what we value is the fact that you took the risk. And if it doesn't turn out to be a good thing, you're rewarded for trying.

CATMULL

11:52:45
And that shift I think is an important one. And of course it's recognized in a lot of circles now in terms of the raising of children there. But it's not an easy concept to get. And safety means that it's safe to make a mistake. And they're not judging that. Instead they're rewarded for just trying.

REHM

11:53:04
And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Kathy in Charlottesville, Va. Hi there.

KATHY

11:53:16
Hi, Diane.

REHM

11:53:18
Go right ahead, Kathy.

KATHY

11:53:21
I'm calling because ten years ago we lost our son and...

REHM

11:53:26
Oh, dear.

KATHY

11:53:26
Yeah, and it was in a very sudden accident and he died with a friend. Then this is just so interesting to me to hear you all talk about creative thinking because to me this is the best explanation I've heard ever about sort of what we tried to do in our grief. And it was difficult to explain to people. And people wanted to give us an answer and there was no answer. And really all we could do was step into the unknown.

CATMULL

11:53:58
And I feel for that. And I know that it's true and that is we -- there are unpredictable things that happen on the positive and on the tragic side. And when they happen on the tragic side, we don't ignore them. They're there. We acknowledge them. We don't downplay them because they're real and they're emotional. And it's something that we all feel.

CATMULL

11:54:25
You know, I've seen examples of where people go -- those who have gone through a tragedy and say, oh don't worry, you'll get over it, but you don't ever. It's always there.

REHM

11:54:36
Not ever.

CATMULL

11:54:38
You -- there are things you go on with life but there are things that stay with you forever.

REHM

11:54:43
Kathy, I'm so, so sorry about your loss as I'm sure we all are. Leave us, Ed Catmull, with just two or three brief ideas about how to make our own workplace and/or families work together more creatively.

CATMULL

11:55:11
Well, for me the first one is to acknowledge the emotional part of whatever we do and to address it and face towards the problems and try to remove blocks from other people, essentially to trust in their intent. And I will say when we -- when John and I -- John Lasseter and I went to Disney, we trusted in the intent of the people. The group hadn't failed but by trusting in their intent and removing the blocks they went from a failure now to Frozen, which is the highest grossing film ever. And it's largely the same group of people. So that is number one.

CATMULL

11:55:52
The second one is to recognize that the different activities that we're engaged with all have different agendas. So marketing, finance, production, the front end, they all have different agendas. If anyone of those agendas wins we lose. The healthy environment is one where we have a balance, a dynamic balance between people pulling in different directions and respecting each other. And then the final one is, I know that we all need to make the processes that we're working with cheaper and better and cleaner. But making the process easy is not the goal. Making the film or making the product great is our real goal.

REHM

11:56:42
Ed Catmull. He's president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation. His new book is titled "Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration." Thank you so much.

CATMULL

11:57:05
Thank you, Diane. I really appreciate it.

REHM

11:57:07
I enjoyed it. And thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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