The Secret to Pixar’s Genius From ‘Creativity, Inc.’ Sounds Like a Writing Workshop

Most business books are, in the words of Norman Mailer, “advertisements for myself,” the story of one person’s world-beating genius and how they made an industry out of it. But Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc., written with the wonderful Amy Wallace (frequently at GQ writing profiles — check out her D’Angelo piece), is markedly modest in scope. The main impression that you get off Catmull, the president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, is that he’s a kind man and obviously a genius, with a Ph.D. in computer science and the goal of creating the first computer animated film. And he goes through the life story of Pixar, how they met Steve Jobs, how they created things in a corner until they were creating things for Disney, in simple fashion.

Catmull is most energized when he discusses Pixar’s creative process. Most studio movies have a rough cut in which the director, or artist, has to show his work to the studio heads, or the bean counters. The bean counters inevitably make suggestions that the director chafes at. The result is basically a clusterfuck. Not at Pixar, though.

Most Pixar films work through a story, testing it out beat by beat with a trusted council of storytellers, in an office where they can work with “candor.” Instead of the movie’s creators having to show their film to people they don’t trust, and who haven’t been in their shoes one whit, Pixar has the “Braintrust.” This process involves fellow Pixar artists and storytellers looking at a work and making suggestions about what is and isn’t working. Ultimately, all changes are up to the director and screenwriter. And the thing about it is that the process sounds like a writing workshop.

Writing workshops are small classes, sometimes with trusted fellow writers in your age cohort, sometimes a hodgepodge of fascinating community members (easily the best class I’ve ever had.) People bring in their work — an essay, say — and the members of the workshop have the right to say what was and wasn’t touching for them. It’s a process that’s excruciating at first — and needs a moderator, often, who can keep things civil and smart — but eventually, it can yield new insights into how people react to a writer’s stories. Some of the best insight I’ve ever received was from a scientist who interrogated most of my writing with, Does this make logical sense?

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Catmull puts it smartly when he writes, “The key is to look at the viewpoints being offered, in any successful feedback group, as additive, not competitive… The Braintrust is valuable because it broadens your perspective, allowing you to peer — at least briefly — through other’s eyes.” He shares an anecdote from the making of The Incredibles, where an early draft of a fight between Elastigirl and Mr. Incredible came off like “a Bergman film.” The Braintrust knew something wasn’t working, but they couldn’t quite figure out what it was. But once they pointed out the problem out, director Brad Bird had to ruminate on it until he figured out an elegant solution. Since Mr. Incredible was so big, his fight with Elastigirl looked threatening on screen. But if he changed the animation so that Elastigirl was physically bigger, the threat disappeared. That was a case of constructive criticism leading to a better movie.

“Any successful feedback system is built on empathy, on the idea that we are all in this together, that we understand your pain because we’ve experienced it ourselves,” Catmull says. It’s good advice for putting together a trusted council of people for whatever creative project you may have, and it’s clearly had a great record over at Pixar. It may even, in the right light, be its own argument for MFA over NYC. (I enjoyed hearing what Catmull had to say about “failure,” since the first Pixar “failure” was important to the company’s structure.) Catmull has created quite a team and quite a legacy at Pixar, and while Creativity, Inc. is written through rose-colored lenses, it has some smart things to say about how to be creative in a world that isn’t very supportive of the pursuit.