An Interview with Dr. Ed Catmull, Co-Founder and Former President of Pixar

December 2, 2022

At the 2022 Fellowship experience, I had the privilege of sitting down for a fireside chat with Dr. Ed Catmull. Ed Catmull is the co-founder Pixar Animation Studios and former President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation. He has been honored with five Academy Awards, including the Gordon E. Sawyer Award for lifetime achievement in the field of computer graphics. I enjoyed what Dr. Catmull shared about navigating peer culture, taking risks, and creating space for redemption stories so much that I wanted to share with you an excerpt from our conversation! 

Q. Were there lessons you learned before founding Pixar that impacted the way you led and made decisions? 

A.  When I started my career, I was actually running a research lab in New York. I’d never been in charge of anything before and made some good and bad decisions. One of the good ones was that we decided to publish everything we did and engage deeply with our entire community of people in the area of computer graphics. Being open, honest, and engaging helped us bring in the very best people and build a strong team. One of my poor decisions was that I initially tried only to hire people who were self-managed. I quickly realized this was not very practical, mainly because I really couldn’t tell whether or not somebody was particularly self-motivated. I also learned that some people could be really good but just need some management to become great. So, as I transitioned throughout my career, I looked back on my management decisions and realized that some of my ideas were great, some were completely wrong, and that wherever I went, I’d probably have the same ratio. I kept that realization with me for the rest of my life and tried to remember the bad decisions when I founded Pixar. 

Q. What else did you learn through managing people? 

A.  I found managing people really interesting. I observed people closely. How do people treat each other? How do people think about me, and how do I think about them? At Lucasfilm, I tried to pay attention to the relationship between the different groups. I was aware that the technical group often felt they were second class compared to the artists in the studio making the movies. So, I tried to make it a big deal to say that I didn’t want that. I wanted it so that the artists and the technical people were peers with each other and had that way of thinking. To achieve this, I talked to the technical groups and asked what made them feel like they were second-class. We would take in that information and ensure they started feeling ownership. This was another lesson I carried with me throughout my entire career and prioritized during my time at Pixar.

Q. Can you speak to a particular project or two where you sent the signal that it’s okay to push the edge and take risks?

A.  At Pixar, we make a film about every eight months, so roughly 21 were completed by the time I retired. There was only one that we didn’t complete in over two decades. We liked the Director, and the team worked on it really hard, but they were just stuck. And that can happen with all of our films. You get stuck, and it’s hard, and you try various things, but, in the end, we realized the Director couldn’t get over being stuck. So we replaced the Director and tasked them with completing the film. That is until this new Director said that as long as we were restarting, he had an idea that he had more passion for, which was about the emotions inside the head of the little girl. When I heard that, I immediately knew it was a better idea. I called Bob Iger (Chief Executive Officer, Walt Disney Co) and told him the original movie wasn’t going to work, and we were about to write off $30 million. He responded by saying, “Well, you guys always do what’s best.” And that was the end of the discussion. We took a risk, which paid off because we now have Inside Out. I will never forget Bob’s trust in us or in the right idea. Sometimes you have to know when investing in the original idea is a waste and when pivoting to the new idea will pay off in the end. 

Q. How did you continue pushing the envelope and encouraging your team to do the same?

A.  Another way Pixar pushed the envelope was by thinking about all of our films in roughly three buckets. One was sequels, which are every bit as hard to make as an original but easier to market. You also only make them if people like them and want them. So it was actually a low-risk proposition to do it. The next bucket was films like Inside Out. These are movies where we knew how good the Director was and how brilliant the idea for the film was. They were original films that we knew would land well and weren’t super high risk, just hard work. It was our last bucket that we took the most risk. We wanted them to fail the “elevator test.” The elevator test is when you can describe your idea so succinctly that you immediately catch the interest of the executives and go to the next stage. But we realized there was a problem with all of our movies consistently passing that test. Pixar’s movies would become derivative. So, we wanted to do some things that would fail the elevator test. If you pitch an idea about a rat that wants to cook… you can’t explain why it’s a good idea in a two-minute elevator ride. You can’t explain why it’s a good idea in two weeks! It’s just a really hard, unlikely idea. Another example is the movie Up. It’s hard to pitch a movie about a couple that can’t have any kids, and the wife dies, so the husband gets really depressed and decides to float away on a balloon, right? But when you do a certain number of them that are high risk, everybody else in the company, even if they’re not working on it, is proud of working for a company willing to push the edges. Taking risks affected the culture in a tremendously positive way. 

Q. A little bit of history, but in 1986, Steve Jobs acquired Lucasfilm’s Digital. So, can you give us maybe one of your favorite Steve Jobs stories or share about how you saw his leadership change over time? 

A. Steve truly embarked on the hero’s journey. He’d been cast out as a major failure after being ousted from Apple, but he learned from those failures and began making significant changes in his life. He became empathetic. I didn’t know people could learn empathy, but he did. He became careful in the way he dealt with people and was aware of the power of his presence. If he overwhelmed a person, he would later prioritize taking a walk with them and hearing them out. Once he started making these changes, the people with him stayed with him for the rest of his life. 

That’s why it’s a hero’s journey — he worked to become a changed person. This story is important because too many people think that his bad-boy behavior led him to make the Apple that had such a massive impact on the world, but that’s not what happened. It was the changed Steve, who grew from his mistakes, that came back and made the Apple that had such an impact. And it’s important for people to understand that so that we can emulate it. 

Q. You were over an organization that was filled with master storytellers. How did you use storytelling inside your company to drive transformational change? 

A.  One way is that I would tell my employees the stories about some of the sensitive internal business dealings. I wanted to be honest with groups of people at the company and make things appropriately personal. I found that it was bonding when I spoke about delicate matters with smaller groups. When I told them the hard things and mistakes we had made, it signaled that they were trusted. The truth was, if they’d gone out to the internet or reporters and relayed things that were said in confidence; it would have looked really bad. But after thirty years, we never had anybody break our confidence. Including interns, temporary people, and people that had been let go from the company. I prioritized figuring out how to deliver sensitive messages and when it was appropriate to do so. Sometimes, the most important story to tell was our own. 

I found Dr. Ed Catmull’s words inspiring. I’m so thankful for the contributions he’s made to the field of corporate culture and the creativity of our world! I hope his words inspire you to continue to grow as a leader and work to steward your organizational Culture well. Together, we truly can build Unstoppable Cultures!

Sincerely,

Ginger Hardage 

P.S. If you liked what you read, consider registering for The Fellowship 2023 to learn from speakers from some of the world’s most admired cultures. This experience is unlike anything you’ve experienced before!

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