Before joining Powder in late 2021, I got to read their blog, to learn more about the company. Among their blog posts, “How we defined our company values” particularly got my attention. The article describes how they defined their culture and shared values during Powder’s first off-site. The Pixar culture described in Creativity, Inc was cited as a reference there, and was used as a foundation to bootstrap Powder’s own culture. Because she knows I love those kinds of books, my wife got me a copy for my birthday earlier this year, and I finally got time to read it this summer.
“As a young man, Ed Catmull had a dream: to make the world’s first computer-animated movie. He nurtured that dream first as a Ph.D. student at the University of Utah, where many computer science pioneers got their start, and then forged an early partnership with George Lucas that led, indirectly, to his founding Pixar with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter in 1986. Nine years later and against all odds, Toy Story was released, changing animation forever.
Since then, Pixar has dominated the world of animation, producing such beloved films as Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up, and WALL-E, which have gone on to set box-office records and garner twenty-seven Academy Awards. The joyousness of the storytelling, the inventive plots, the emotional authenticity: In some ways, Pixar movies are an object lesson in what creativity really is. Now, in this book, Catmull reveals the ideals and techniques, honed over years, that have made Pixar so widely admired―and so profitable.
Creativity, Inc. is a book for managers who want to lead their employees to new heights, a manual for anyone who strives for originality, and the first-ever, all-access trip into the nerve center of Pixar Animation Studios―into the story meetings, the postmortems, and the ‘Braintrust’ sessions where art is born. It is, at heart, a book about how to build and sustain a creative culture―but it is also, as Pixar co-founder and president Ed Catmull writes, ‘an expression of the ideas that I believe make the best in us possible.’”
From the cover of Creativity, Inc
Thoughts and feelings
In the book, Ed Catmull describes all the steps that led him to found Pixar and build the first computer-animated movie. When you think about it, this must have been a very long shot back then. Ed Catmull includes a lot of details on their journey, and how it could have turned south. I found the story amazing because you really feel that the odds were against them, but they’ve finally made it with their determination, hard work and also, let’s be honest, a bit of luck.
After the release of Toy Story in 1995, Ed Catmull’s dream was fulfilled. I can imagine his feelings during this particular moment, and the crisis that comes after it: what to do once you’ve accomplished your dream? He needed a new quest, so he focused on developing a healthy and creative culture for Pixar and remove all the obstacles along the way. His new goal was to enable trust, gain candor and remove fears in order to embrace creativity at Pixar.
I love the small cliffhanger during the making of Toy Story 2, when someone accidentally deleted the movie’s footage using the
/bin/rm -rf * command. Following Murphy’s law, they realized that the backup system hadn’t been working for weeks! As a system engineer, I’ve often been responsible for backups and was even the technical lead of a backup platform with more than 3500 client servers. Even if such an incident had never happened to me, I felt their pain, until I found out that they got a lucky star! Galyn Susman, the movie’s supervising technical director, had set up an automated backup sync every week when she took some time off for the birth of her second child 6 months earlier. Good news for them, she forgot to disable it, so they were back on track!
The merger with Disney is also a huge step! I was really amazed to see how Steve Jobs, Robert Iger, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull handled this together. They made sure that the merger will work for themselves, sure, but also for every employee of Pixar and Disney Animation. This is for sure, a really good leadership lesson.
The book ends with an unusual description of Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull’s thoughts for managing a creative culture and his acknowledgments.
“Experiments are fact-finding missions that, over time, inch scientists toward greater understanding.”
“Everyone says they want to hire excellent people, but in truth we don’t really know, at first, who will rise up to make a difference.”
“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
To sum it up, it’s a really good read! I’m pretty sure that most people can get something from this book, to name a few: learn how to build a company’s culture, leadership advices, Pixar’s history, a good tale from the Silicon Valley…
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