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
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.
So Ed, Pixar is a company driven by creative talent. How do you
balance maintaining your creative edge and running a business?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
How do you manage and run the company in a way that you can keep such
an innovative edge?
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.