Book Review | Creativity, Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull

18077903I can’t tell if Creativity, Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration belongs more in management, inspiration, self-help, or fodder-for-fans. What I can say, though, is that I sure enjoyed reading it.

Though, born in West Virginia, Ed Catmull moved to Utah as a child and was raised in neighborhoods near my own. Despite interests in animation, during college at the University of Utah, he became pursued at talent in math and studied physics and computer science. Eventually, this led him to a graduate degree under Ivan Sutherland, the “father of computer graphics,” also at the University of Utah. Decades before computer animation was a thing, Catmull began developing the programming to do 2D and 3D programming. During this time, he found himself recruited to work at Lucasfilm, becoming vice president of Industrial Light and Magic’s computer graphics division until 1986 when a guy named Steve Jobs bought it up and started Pixar. Catmull became Chief Technical Officer…and the rest is history.

Okay, that’s probably a gross summary of Catmull’s path to Pixar, but it gets us to the point when things get really interesting. A major part of Creativity, Inc. is Catmull’s anecdotes about the process of developing some of the biggest cartoons–or movies–in recent decades. It’s a combination of management and creativity, and leveraging good management practices to help people access their most creative solutions and abilities, that made Pixar great. Catmull, who has an engaging and magnetic story telling ability, uses different obstacles the company ran into throughout his career to show how creativity can be unleashed.

Another very interesting aspect of the story is hearing Catmull’s perspective on working with Steve Jobs. Never an easy person to work with, Jobs’ story has been thoroughly told elsewhere. But Catmull comes with a perspective of someone who needed Jobs, but was also needed by Jobs…and together they succeeded. Even though it is only a small portion of the larger story, it’s a fascinating piece.

I’m not a manager, but I ate up what Catmull wrote here. Between the anecdotes, behind the scenes stories, and the lessons he learned to deal with obstacles, organizational change, and difficult partners, Creativity, Inc is an enjoyable read.

Creativity, Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration Book Cover Creativity, Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration
Ed Catmull
Random House
April 8, 2014

Creativity, Inc. is a book for managers who want to lead their employees to new heights, a manual for anyone who strives for originality, and the first-ever, all-access trip into the nerve center of Pixar Animation—into the meetings, postmortems, and “Braintrust” sessions where some of the most successful films in history are made. It is, at heart, a book about how to build a creative culture—but it is also, as Pixar co-founder and president Ed Catmull writes, “an expression of the ideas that I believe make the best in us possible.”

For nearly twenty years, Pixar has dominated the world of animation, producing such beloved films as the Toy Story trilogy, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up, WALL-E, and Inside Out, which have gone on to set box-office records and garner thirty Academy Awards. The joyousness of the storytelling, the inventive plots, the emotional authenticity: In some ways, Pixar movies are an object lesson in what creativity really is. Here, in this book, Catmull reveals the ideals and techniques that have made Pixar so widely admired—and so profitable.

As a young man, Ed Catmull had a dream: to make the first computer-animated movie. He nurtured that dream as a Ph.D. student at the University of Utah, where many computer science pioneers got their start, and then forged a partnership with George Lucas that led, indirectly, to his founding Pixar with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter in 1986. Nine years later, Toy Story was released, changing animation forever. The essential ingredient in that movie’s success—and in the thirteen movies that followed—was the unique environment that Catmull and his colleagues built at Pixar, based on leadership and management philosophies that protect the creative process and defy convention, such as:

• Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. But give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better.
• If you don’t strive to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.
• It’s not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It’s the manager’s job to make it safe for others to take them.
• The cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them.
• A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organizational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.

About Daniel

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. He reads about history, politics, and current events, as well as more serious genres such as science fiction and fantasy. You can also follow him on his blog where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas.