(Here at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit praying for God to give me new insight to help me in leading with Operation Christmas Child)
Ed Catmull--President of Walt Disney Animation Studios
Bill: Your book "Creativity, Inc." is required reading for our leaders. It's mind-blowing all that's discussed in this book. (showed montage of Pixar films) So, as a young boy you saw an animation cartoon and were drawn to that in an overwhelming way.
Ed: When I saw the work of Walt Disney I wanted to be an animator. But when I graduated I couldn't see the path to get there. So when I went to college I switched to physics. People think there's a big incongruity between art and science. I think this is the great misconception of our time. One of the worse things in our schools is cutting funding for arts. Art is about learning to see.
Bill: You wanted to do a new kind of animation. You talk about working 60 hours on animating a hand.
Ed: When I got to graduate school the foundations were being laid for computer graphics. I wanted to start with something hard like the hand to force myself to think about hard problems.
Bill: So you developed this new technology but you said in your book you don't care about the technology. It all comes down to the power of a story.
Ed: To met it's a very interesting process. People think of stories as entertainment without realizing that stories are the way we communicate with one another. We have learned that there is a form of stories that are well-told and ones that are poorly told. The good stories connect with emotions.
Bill: So this emotions thing. I have an 8-year-old grandson who said you have to see "Inside Out" a movie about emotions. (movie clip) -- You've set dazzling records at Pixar. People think Pixar can do no wrong. You say every great film starts as an ugly baby.
Ed: Yeah, you see this ugly child you think will grow up to be beautiful but that's a misconception. How do we judge the people who are working on something if it looks terrible. Do you say the people can't do the job? How do we help them? How do we measure progress? Our measure is how well the team is working together. Is there laughter in the room?
Bill: You have a film the team is working on and at some point you pull together a group you call the Braintrust and this group gives feedback to the artists on how the film is developing. Tell us how that works.
Ed: We accidentally happened upon this. Principles of the Braintrust-- 1)peers talking to peers; 2) there is no power structure so there is no defensive posture; 3) there is a vested interest in each other's success; 4) we give and listen to good notes -- Do we always live up to our own principles? Generally yes, but sometimes no. Every once in a while magic happens and there is a loss of ego in the room and everyone focuses on the problem. When people are not attached to their ideas we get to the goal.
Bill: One of the premises is that these gifted artists will get lost along the way so they need the Braintrust to help them regain perspective and objectivity.
Ed: Your peers have been through this and you have mutual respect to help you get out of this absorption with your own product.
Bill: Would you employ the Braintrust concept if you were leading in another field.
Ed: I believe the basic principles apply everywhere. Creativity is about solving problems and since we have problems everywhere what is our mechanism for dealing with them. Solving problems require working together.
Bill: As the senior leader of Pixar you had to drive into the culture the idea of embracing failure and having candor with kindness.
Ed: We still have problems and one of them has to do with this notion of failure. Intellectually we learn we are better from failure. The second meaning of failure is that you "screwed up" and someone will bludgeon you for those mistakes. There is an aura of danger around failure. We have deep emotional reactions to it. We have these two meanings simultaneously inside us, and almost everyone can't separate those meanings. It's a continual effort to make it safe to be honest.
Bill: You've tried to build this culture of "fail early; fail fast"--that it's part of the creative process. Are you still pushing that as much?
Ed: To me the concept is absolutely necessary. We will fail so we want to make it safe to fail so you can progress faster. It's a message from us that it's okay. We make sure people aren't punished. If you get over the embarrassment it frees you to be more creative.
Bill: Part of the book is you actually believe a budget is a good idea and it may push creativity levels higher instead of lower.
Ed: All good artists know we operate within constraints. Constraint forces you to reorder the right things to do. You can't do everything. If you spend too much time on something you sap the energy from it.
Bill: What is the concept of the beautifully shaded penny?
Ed: You don't want to waste your energy so you have to think of what will make an impact and not get lost in the details.
Bill: You talk in the book about someone who spent so much time on something that would only be seen for three seconds.
Ed: It comes from the passion for excellence. They're in an environment where everyone expects them to do their best.
Bill: You have a concept called Post-Mortems where you analyze the creative journey
Ed: I think on a personal and organizational level you need to be introspective. A lot of people when the finish the project want to move on. We need to take a break and evaluate. People don't want to do this. People want to use this as an opportunity to tell how great their team was so we change how this is done and mix it up so we don't stop learning
Bill: You built this culture at Pixar and then were enticed to buy Disney Animation--a traditional company. You made the deal and the culture there was different than at Pixar.
Ed: Well, Disney bought us. We didn't buy them. Disney bought us for 70 billion dollars. They put John Lassiter and me in charge of production. Disney animation was put under Pixar. We went in not knowing anyone; knowing they had failed and wanting to restore their heritage. We wondered if our principles would apply to a different group. Most of the people at Disney thought we were spreading ourself too thin. We laid out the principles and taught them how to have a Braintrust, how to have their own production, how to have constraints. It took about two years for the Braintrust idea to work and about four years for them to function well. Largely the same people were there when the company was successful as when it failed. We could lay out the principles in four hours but it took for years for them to be ingrained in the culture.
Bill: You were so concerned about the culture at Disney that you changed the office layout to try to help the culture.
Ed: It was very executive driven with good offices for the top executives. So we broke out the doors and put an open space in the center with small spaces for executives in the center. Wanted to allow for accidental encounters.
Bill: You have worked with some of the most creative people in the world. How do creative people have a unique style to access their greatest potential?
Ed: There are several components. We don't have very many rules because if you do that you fall into the path of repeating yourself. People naturally work on things they are passionate about. We ask they all go outside to do research trips to find something they didn't know. Restaurants in Paris, sewage plants, etc. If you bring the thing you don't know into the film you take it to a new level.
Bill: Near the end of the book you make the statement that you think it's gonna be stories that change the world. What does that mean?
Ed: It's how we communicate with people. I was affected by stories as a child. We have complex emotions and if we understand that and allow for that we are healthier people. The goal is to have a positive impact on the world. I believe education is basically storytelling. You can abuse storytelling and you can use it for good.
Bill: You do a silent retreat on a fairly regular basis. Can you tell us about that?
Ed: Well, the first time I did it was a little scared. Most people find the notion of being with themselves a scary idea. About three days in I was able to ignore that chattering voice in my head and realize it was not me. I had a new perspective. So I feel this is important every year.
Bill: Usually for me it's day four before my spirit calms down and I'm more receptive to ideas God puts in my head. Most leaders at your level don't take time to practice silence.
Ed: My experience also is that it takes four days to settle down. We need to take care of ourselves but sometimes we don't take care of our soul. This silence is taking care of your soul.
Bill: Ed, you've touched millions of souls and we thank you for your impact on us.