Book review: Creativity, Inc By Ed Catmull, with Amy Wallace

 

Subtitled, “Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration”, Creativity, Inc sets out to explain how Pixar became one of the world’s most loved filmmakers. Its co-founder Catmull charts the company’s rise in tandem with his own, from his childhood dream of becoming a Disney animator to his current position as the president of Disney and Pixar Animation Studios.

Catmull never became an animator, instead he designed the technology that made Pixar’s films possible; this is the account of a man who has devoted his career to nurturing creativity in others. There’s a fair bit of management speak, and creatives seeking guidance will find far more on how to interact with their colleagues than, say, the process of creating a plot. It must be said, too, that Catmull’s isn’t always the most compelling of voices. But he is adept at quoting others, and what friends he has to quote; Steve Jobs makes numerous appearances, as do John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton.

The writer of Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Wall-E, Stanton is, apparently, fond of saying “be wrong as fast as you can”, and by way of illustration, we learn that one of the first drafts of Toy Story contained a Woody so unpleasant that Disney shut down the production. And, indeed, Toy Story 2’s initial screening was deemed by Pixar’s creative supremo Lasseter to be a disaster, yet was judged as entirely acceptable by Disney executives, who pointed out that there were just nine months left before the film’s delivery date, and anyway, it was only a sequel. That everyone at Pixar so believed their mantra “Story is king” and pushed on to create such sublime pieces of film-making will be of interest not just to struggling writers, but anyone who has ever been tempted by the notion that “fine” is good enough.

Catmull is skilled in dealing with the fears intrinsic to the creative process, and firm in his guidance to those embarking upon it. “Originality is fragile,” he says. There is no Occam’s razor, nor do great works somehow pre-exist, waiting to be discovered. Instead, we must cultivate relationships with people smarter than ourselves, insist they provide constant, candid feedback, and uncouple fear and failure, for failure is “an investment in the future”.

Not all of his advice is easy to take, especially without a chief executive as enlightened as he. But for those brave enough, Creativity, Inc is a call to strive for the very best, with, just as importantly, precise instructions as to exactly how to go about it.

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