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How Pixar's meditative chief spurs innovation in digital animation

Edwin Catmull, president Of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios.

Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

At Pixar, there's no such thing as a free lunch.

For a company that occupies the intersection of Hollywood and Silicon Valley – two industries legendary for their lavish employee perks – Pixar's simple, ground-floor cafeteria is an unassuming curiosity. After all, the Googles and Twitters and myriad technology behemoths that live just across the Bay from Pixar's West Oakland, Calif., offices are famous for their all-you-can-eat, don't-pay-a-dime dining halls. At Pixar, the employee cafeteria maintains a relatively spartan menu, and sells everything at cost.

This, Edwin Catmull maintains, is by design. Give the food away for free, and the employees who make it may start to feel that there's no value to their work; price it too high and employees might leave campus en masse to eat elsewhere.

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Here is the most powerful man in the animation industry, the president of both Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios – worrying about the fine balance of cafeteria pricing.

As he celebrates his 69th birthday and prepares to hit the road next week to promote his first book, Creativity, Inc., Mr. Catmull is spending a lot of his time talking about the happy medium – that oasis where art and industry can co-exist. It is evident not only in the title of his book, or the way he runs the company behind more than a dozen of the world's most-watched animated movies, but also in his own corporate upbringing. A computer scientist by training, Mr. Catmull developed as a postgraduate student many of the mathematical concepts on which Pixar's animators rely – and yet, over the past two decades, he has had to supplement all that technical knowledge with on-the-job managerial training, much of it learned from his former boss, the late Steve Jobs.

That search for a fine balance is also clear in the challenges with which Mr. Catmull is today preoccupied: how to capitalize on Hollywood's storytelling expertise without inheriting any of its lazy reliance on formula; how to harness the brainpower of a phalanx of computer science PhDs without producing a dry, un-magical product; how to balance the bottom-line pressures of box-office gross and rampant merchandising with the overarching mission of simply telling a good story. In almost every one of Mr. Catmull's professional responsibilities, veering too far in any direction would invite disaster.

"It's very easy to think about the extreme in any situation, but the more nuanced place is actually in the middle somewhere," Mr. Catmull says, as he nurses a coffee at a table on the outskirts of Pixar's cafeteria, not far from where Pixar's haul of Oscars and other industry awards sits in a glass case, watched over by smiling wax-museum replicas of the characters from Monsters Inc. "For me, the middle doesn't mean calm – that's actually the place where the extremes collide, and that's where we should be."

The Brain Trust

The first draft of Toy Story was a failure. Far from the noble cartoon hero we know today, the original Woody the cowboy was written as an edgy weirdo. The movie's original lead was a ball-headed drummer boy called Tin Toy.

WALL-E's original ending was anything but – in a rehash of the familiar damsel in distress trope, boy-robot Wall-E was the one who saved girl-robot Eve, not the other way round. The movie was also originally called "Trash Planet."

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Another Pixar feature, Newt, was nixed altogether, in part because it was too similar to the movie Rio. The project instead moved in an entirely different direction, resulting in a project called Inside Out, due for release next year, about anthropomorphic emotions living inside the brain.

In other words, as Mr. Catmull puts it, the first version of every Pixar movie sucks; his job is to help make it un-suck.

"These are highly problematic films," he says. "How do you encourage someone or allow them to blow up something and start over?"

Pixar's attempt to answer that question is something called the Brain Trust. It started in the mid-90s, when Pixar was busy working on Toy Story. The film itself would make history as the first feature-length, fully computer-animated film. In the process, it validated 20 years of computer science work by Mr. Catmull. His research dated back to his days as a postgraduate student at the University of Utah, and then an executive at the digital division of Lucasfilm, which Steve Jobs bought in 1986 and used as a foundation for Pixar.

(Disney purchased Pixar for $7.4-billion (U.S.) in 2006, at which point Mr. Catmull was made head of both Pixar and Disney's animation studios).

Early on, Mr. Catmull noticed that whenever five of the principal executives responsible for Toy Story got together in the same room, good things would happen – something about the group dynamic allowed them to address with candour the movie's shortcomings without ever taking any criticism personally.

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It worked so well, in fact, that Mr. Catmull decided to keep most of the group, now dubbed the Brain Trust, in place for future projects. Some 13 movies later, the Brain Trust is still the central problem-solving task force at Pixar. Virtually every film the company has made has spent time in several Brain Trust sessions – sometimes ironing out minor plot details, sometimes blowing up the entire project and starting from scratch.

For the Brain Trust to work, Mr. Catmull says, everyone in the room – from the core members to the directors and writers of the individual projects – needs to be on equal footing. None of the recommendations made during Brain Trust sessions are mandatory. Instead, it is up to the directors of each film to decide what to do with the feedback. And although Mr. Catmull attends most Brain Trust meetings, he and other senior executives rarely interrupt the discussion.

"You need to remove the power structure," he says. "Steve Jobs didn't come to the meetings, because he recognized he would alter the dynamics of the room."

It was during Brain Trust sessions that some of Pixar's biggest breakthroughs – such as the suggestion to rewrite WALL-E's ending – took place. More recently, during a Brain Trust meeting to discuss the Disney movie Frozen, which at the time was stuck in a production rut, the group suggested making one of the writers, Jennifer Lee, a co-director. With a male and female directing duo at the helm, the film suddenly started moving forward, morphing from a problem-riddled concept to an eventual blockbuster.

But rarely do things go smoothly. Every Pixar project is riddled with monumental challenges, testing Mr. Catmull's ability to keep his employees and his company from veering to extremes.

Perhaps the most harrowing example of that challenge came during the production of Toy Story 2. Because Disney demanded the film be delivered on time despite the filmmakers' concerns that it was not headed in the right direction, Pixar was forced to work within a very tight timeline. Employees started pulling very long shifts in the office, causing a spike in repetitive strain injuries. In one terrifying instance, a harried animator forgot to drop his child off at day care, leaving the infant in his car in the Pixar parking lot in the dead of summer. Only the quick work of an emergency response team saved the child. The incident forced a serious change in workplace culture at Pixar.

Today, Mr. Catmull's biggest challenge is to ensure that the collective weight of all those blockbusters doesn't turn Pixar into the kind of company whose Brain Trust feels pressured to play it safe. Three of Pixar's past four films have been sequels – second or third instalments of wildly popular franchises such as Toy Story and Cars. And with every sequel, Pixar's fans worry the company may succumb to laziness – rehashing easily marketable characters in the style of Mickey Mouse, instead of taking chances on culinary-minded mice or trash-compacting robots.

"There are pressures," Mr. Catmull admits. "Not from Disney or from us, but subconscious pressures to stay with what works."

Moderation in moderation

There's an easygoing manner to Pixar's CEO. With his light, greying beard and his hair in a side-part identical to that of Bill Gates, he looks every bit the part of a computer wizard. Even as an adjacent appointment with a waiting CEO looms, he shows no signs of urgency or impatience, taking his time with his coffee.

But hidden somewhere below that calm exterior, barely visible, is a controlled tenacity, a mix of ambition and Zen similar to other successful managers of his generation, such as professional basketball rainmaker Phil Jackson or Mr. Catmull's former boss, Mr. Jobs.

Every morning, just after dawn and just before heading to work, he meditates for upwards of an hour. His reading list is composed primarily of books on neurology and psychology – books on the nature of empathy. He is an amateur admirer of archeology and of Buddhism. Taken together, these habits and interests seem to form a necessary counterweight to his high-pressure, high-risk day job.

Despite the limelight his company's films attract, the CEO of Pixar feels more at home on 10-day silent meditation retreats and treks to the ancient city of Petra, Jordan than he does amidst Hollywood glitz. A few years back, he ducked out early from the Weinstein Company's Oscars bash, a VIP shindig most of Hollywood would give a kidney to attend – it just wasn't his scene.

Having now ventured into the world of managerial how-to books, where the clichés are often as common as the punctuation, Mr. Catmull is careful not to serve up his leadership style as gospel.

"One of the things I worry about with the book is this impression that Pixar is successful, therefore they have figured it out," he says. "And that would be the wrong conclusion to reach."

Indeed, if there's anything Mr. Catmull offers up as a hard-and-fast rule rather than a general guideline, it's the necessity of taking big risks – of moderation even in moderation.

"Early on, we became aware of how there was this cycle of really creative people doing something amazing and then falling off some kind of cliff," he says, explaining the need for constant innovation.

"What we do needs to be unusual, it needs to be different. Everyone here wants to do that."

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CURRICULUM VITAE

Beginnings

Born on March 31, 1945, in Parkersburg, West Virginia.

Education

University of Utah, where he earned a PhD studying algorithms for displaying curved surfaces, which would become one of the fundamental building blocks of 3-D animation.

Awards

An Oscar in 1993 for technical achievement, awarded for his development of 3-D-rendering software. Inducted as a Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery and the Computer History Museum.

Watershed Moment

The release of Toy Story in 1995. The movie was more than just a commercial success. It was also the first film to prove that feature-length 3-D animation – based on some of the concepts Mr. Catmull researched in the 1970s – was possible and profitable. "The original goal was technical in nature. We wanted to develop a technology to the point where we could make a film. I thought it would take 10 years. It took 20."

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