iinnovate 15: Ed Catmull, Founder of Pixar

Episode 15: Dr. Ed Catmull, Co-founder and President of Pixar Animation 

Hello and welcome to another episode of iinnovate.  I am Julio Vasconcellos and for this week's episode we are thrilled to bring you an interview with Dr. Ed Catmull, the co-founder and president of Pixar Animation Studio.  This week we also welcome another member to the iinnovate family, Owen ____.  Owen is EBay alum and current Stanford Graduate student and an active participant in the Silicone Valley entrepreneurship community.  Matt, Min-Li and I are very excited to have Owen on board.  Owen and I caught up with Ed Catmull at the Stanford GSB Entrepreneurship Conference and had a great conversation around building an amazing creative company like Pixar and the challenges of maintaining that creative and innovative edge over time.  Pixar is responsible for a many successful features such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Cars, and has earned multiple Academy Awards for its technical achievements.  For more on Ed Catmull and video of the interview, check out the webpage at iinnovatecast.com.  As usual, we welcome any and all feedback, so please let us know what interviews you like, which ones you don't like and who you'd like to see on future programs.  We have a number of interesting interviews coming up including Randy Commissar, the virtual CEO who is currently a venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins, and Craig Newmar who brought us all Craigslist.  I hope you enjoy the interview and thanks for listening. 

Julio: Well we're here at the Stanford Graduate School of Business at the E Conference with Dr. Ed Catmull, founder of Pixar.  Ed thanks for coming for the podcast. 

Ed:  You're welcome. 

Julio: So Ed, Pixar is a company driven by creative talent.  How do you balance maintaining your creative edge and running a business? 

Ed: Well, it's not so much of a balance, you have to do both, and the nice thing is that all of the creative people recognize that, so there isn't actually a tug of war that way.  Everybody wants our films to be very successful and we have to do everything at all different levels to make it successful. 

Julio: How do you run Pixar in a way that avoids having the problem that Disney did happen to you again? 

Ed: Pixar actually came out of Lucas Film.  Now, John Lassiter and I were both avid fans of Walt Disney when we were young and at one point, John went and worked for Disney, but I went down a different path and we met while I was with Lucas Film.  In 1986, 21 years ago, the entire division was spun out as a separate company, which we then named Pixar, and Steve Jobs bought us at that time.  For the first few years, there was a great deal of struggling.  We were selling hardware, we were selling software, really waiting for an opportunity to come up in computer animation, and we finally got that opportunity in 1991, when we entered into a relationship with Disney.  And that was a very remarkable relationship and during this period of time while we were partners with them, we produced seven films in a row that were successful, which is unheard of this industry, that we'd have seven in a row without a failure.  And at the end of that period, we decided to merge with them, because our contract was coming up and there was a fork in the road, and so we decided to merge with Disney. 

Julio:  Do you find when you're considering a new picture opportunity – you've talked about your string of successes – do you find yourself really spending extra time thinking about whether something's going to be a hit and do you go back to a proven recipe? 

Ed:  Well one thing we believe very strongly is that there is not a proven recipe.  In fact if you look at a lot of computer graphics films today, a lot of them are very similar, and the ones that are most unlike the others are the Pixar films, because they can't copy what we are doing, and part of that is because we don't copy each other.  So Cars is very different than Nemo, which is very different than Incredibles.  We are a director-driven studio.  And the view we have is that we want the vision of a director, umm, to drive the film forward. 

Julio:  One of the things I love about Pixar is that unlike, I think, other animated films that I've watched, it can appeal to me and it can appeal to my niece who is sitting right next me, and I'm wondering if that’s a conscious decision, that you find that the film can operate on multiple layers, or is that just a natural product of your creative talent? 

Ed: Well, it's very important not to make films for children.  If you think about it, children live in an adult world.  They're used to hearing things they don't understand and they listen to things over and over again because they're trying to figure out the world.  If you talk down to children, they know they're being talked down to, and adults can't listen to it.  So instead, we make films that we can enjoy.  By the virtue of the fact they're animated, we do put in physical humor, which children love, and we don't put in things that would turn families off, clearly.  But in terms of the dialogue, we put in things that adults understand.  And by putting in things that we enjoy, that we want to see, and then having it for the physical comedy that all of us like, then it has a, it touches people in a very broad way.  And that's really our goal, to touch a lot of people.  

Julio:   How do you manage and run the company in a way that you can keep such an innovative edge? 

Ed:  There are in fact a lot of things that are required.  You need to have a group of people that are, that are very honest with each other, and we work very hard on that kind of culture. The technical people and the artists are peers with each other, we do not have one in a second class to the other, we don't think that one is more important than the other rather they're all coming together for the purpose of the story.  We do a lot of self-assessment, both short-term on a daily basis on how we're doing, and a very deep analysis, deep post-mortems after works.  And doing that right is a very difficult process.  There are a lot of things we've learned about the communication structure, and the way people interact with each other, it's even built into our building.  I think we have one of the finest buildings for working and communicating that I've ever seen, which incidentally is a tribute to Steve Jobs, who drove the design of it.  But the result is, we've got everybody crossing at the centre and there's just, you feel the energy of the building.  And when you feel the energy of the building, it helps the group come together and stay together and produce the magical things.   

Julio:  Do you and John find that what you most enjoyed, say five years ago, about the company is still the case today or do you find that, you know, you're, you know, being an executive in a very large organization now that the role can be more administrative? 

Ed:  Well, it's, it's more enjoyable but it's different.  The basis for everything we do though is to make a good movie, and nobody ever forgets that.  If you forget that you get in trouble.  And some people do for odd reasons.  We are now over two studios.  We've got Pixar and we've got Disney Animation, and they are two different companies in two cities with two different cultures.  And so it's a great challenge really, to get both of them making great movies, to each have their own identity, which means incidentally that we don't, not only do we not merge them together, but we don't partition out the world and say 'you do one kind of thing, you do the other.'  We have to let each one follow the artistic vision of the directors that are there. 

Julio:  So Ed I think we're about out of time, so I have one last question.  What I am to understand for you – how are you able to retract and retain such creative talent and then in turn, institutionalize that creativity in the company? 

Ed: Well, that's a very complex topic.  The one thing that helps is that when you've got the best people then the best people draw the best.  And the second is that the way we work is that we trust the artist to do the right thing.  So for instance, executives do not go to story meetings, we do not micromanage what they are doing – we have to let them do it.  And in giving them that trust, they then operate in such a way to show they've earned that trust.  And by being led creatively, then that spreads out to the technical side and to all the artists, all the animators, and creates a culture in which everybody believes that the decisions will be me made for the good of the film.   

Julio:  How does a leadership drive some of that culture and what kind of role do you guys play in that? 

Ed: You know I don't have a simple answer other than the fact that it's really hard. 

Julio:  Well Ed, I think we are just right about out of time.  Thank you for the podcast; it's been a pleasure. 

Ed:  You're welcome.  Thank you.