Ed Catmull Economist Interview (transcript by Scott Berkun)

Quotes transcribed by Scott Berkun from Ed Catmull’s talk at The Economist:

On the Socratic ideal of admitting ignorance:
“We’ve got these successful things going on and we mis-perceive how we got there. Or who the influences are. And we draw these wrong ideas and we then make a series of mistakes which are not well grounded in reality. Which means the things that are happening now that are wrong at Pixar are already happening and I can’t see them. And I have to start with that premise. And through all the history.. there is something going on here and I don’t know what it is.”

On secrets and ‘the management’:
Part of the behavior is I don’t know the answers. And at first that seems a little bit glib. But after awhile people get that I really don’t know the answer to a lot of these things. So we set it up so that the management really doesn’t tell people what to do. We discuss, we debate, [but] people start to refer to ‘the management’, and I say come on guys, there’s three of us, we’re all in this together, and then we’re very open and honest about the problems. Everyone feels like they own it, secrecy is very good at Pixar, it doesn’t get out into the blogs because they all know what’s wrong and it would be an act of betrayal because they want to participate in the discussionand I want them to.

On protecting a vision:
I do believe you want a vision, so you start off with a person who has a vision for a story. And we do things to try and protect that vision and its not easy to protect it, because they feel these pressures. They also have misconceptions about the creative process sometimes. We do have these people who we give a chance to on the belief they’re right, and can rise to the occasion, and we are wrong sometimes, because we can’t see what goes on in their heads. And our measure, because we can’t see inside people’s heads, is the team. If the team is functioning well, and healthy, it will solve the problem.

The process of giving feedback:
One of the protections is the notion that they have the final say so. Now this is a very hard thing to say because we say we are filmmaker led. The reason its hard is if they can’t lead the team, we will actually remove the person from it. That’s our version of what a failure is… it’s hard because it’s a personal thing. Until you reach that breaking point, you have to do everything you can.. sometimes its adding people to the team, sometimes its removing them, but as leaders we don’t tell them what to do. We have a structure so they get their feedback from their peers… every two or three months they present *the film* to the other filmmakers… and they will go through, and they will tear the film apart. And it’s very important for that dynamic to work, because it could be a brutal process, there needs to be the feeling they are all helping each other who wants that help. In order for that to work its important that no one in the room has the authority to tell the director they have to take their notes [make changes]. So no-one is taking a list of what you have to do to fix the film. All we can do is give the feedback and he goes off with the feedback… our job as leaders is to protect the dynamic in the room so that they’re honest with each other.

The idea of honesty as an abstraction easy to ignore:
They don’t want to walk in and embarrass themselves, they don’t want to say anything stupid, they don’t want to offend anyone, so these personal pressures and responses start to emerge. So I do see it happen, and it happened fairly recently, and I walked out, andI knew they weren’t honest. So then you call them in, maybe two or three people, and say why didn’t you say what you thought.And it’s a personal thing. So we have to change the dynamic.  When we have something tricky and that’s holding things back, we have to have a four person or five person meeting, where the dynamics are different. And sometimes where things are actually going pretty well, then you want to have a room of 25 people, see how it works, and let them express themselves and have them grow. But if you have 25 people in the room some of them then start to perform, rather than participate.So there is this balance, what is the state of the thing… we need to have honesty, we want to have honesty, but honest is a buzzword. Its one of these things we hear, everyone nods their head on, ‘it’s all true’, [but] the gap between the abstractions and where people actually do it is enormous. And people fill it in with all sorts of crap.

On the limits of platitudes:
I don’t like hard rules at all. I think they’re all bullshit.

Dealing with tough, competing constraints:
If I look at the range, you’ve got one [constraint] that is art school, I’m doing this for arts sake, Ratatouille and WALL-E clearly fall more on that side,  the other is the purely commercial side, where you’ve got a lot of films that are made purely for following a trend, if you go entirely for the art side then eventually you fail economically. if you go purely commercially then I think you fail from a soul point of view… we’ve got these elements pulling on both sides, the art side and the commercial side… and the the trick is not to let one side win.  That fundamentally successful companies are unstable. And where we have to operate is in that unstable place. And the forces of conservatism which are very strong and they want to go to a safe place. I want to go to the same place for money, I want to go and be wild and creative, or I want to have enough time for this, and each one of those guys are pulling, and if any one of them wins, we lose. And i just want to stay right there in the middle.

On firing creative geniuses:
[At Pixar] there is very high tolerance for eccentricity, very creative, and to the point where some are strange…but there are a small number of people who are socially dysfunctional [and] very creative – we get rid of them. If we don’t have a healthy group then it isn’t going to work. There is this illusion that this person is creative and has all this stuff, well the fact is there are literally thousands of ideas involved in putting something like this together. And the notion of ideas as this singular thing is a fundamental flaw. There are so many ideas that what you need is that group behaving creatively. And the person with the vision I think is unique, there are very few people who have that vision.. but if they are not drawing the best out of people then they will fail.

We will support the leader for as long and as hard as we can, but the thing we can not overcome is if they have lost the crew. It’s when the crew says we are not following that person. We say we are director led, which implies they make all the final decisions, [but] what it means to us is the director has to lead.. and the way we can tell when they are not leading is if people say ‘we are not following’.

On managers self-destructive tendencies for creative work:
The notion that you’re trying to control the process and prevent error screws things up. We all know the saying it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. And everyone knows that, but I Think there is a corollary: if everyone is trying to prevent error, it screws things up. It’s better to fix problems than to prevent them. And the natural tendency for managers is to try and prevent error and over plan things.