”Creativity, Inc.” by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace is a book I finished reading before this blog started. However, since it’s one of the best books I’ve read during 2014 (if not the best) it craves a review. It’s not only in my opinion that this book is really, really good, it’s also ranked #1 Best Seller by Amazon.com. It’s mainly about how to build an innovative and creative company, but it is also a biography of Ed Catmull’s life. The book was released April 8, 2014.
”Storytelling is the way we communicate with each other.” – Ed Catmull
First a little background story why I like this book so much. I got my first computer, a Commodore 64, back in 1986. Since then I’ve been a nerd, interested in computer generated graphics. I mostly played games at the time, it continued on the Amiga 500, but I also drew 2D pictures and made small animations. Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of computer animated films. I was thrilled when Pixar released it’s first feature-length film, Toy Story, in 1995. Pixar as a company has continued to interest me since they have continued to produced very good computed animated films, I especially like The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Up. When I saw that Ed Catmull had released a book about his life and career, I immediately bought the book.
Now let’s talk about the content in the book. Growing up, Ed Catmull had two idols, Walt Disney and Albert Einstein. He liked to draw and wanted to become an artist, but there was no schools for becoming an animator at that time, so instead he studied physics and computer science. On the way to earning his PhD in Computer Science Ed Catmull made ”The hand”, see below.
Have you watched the clip now? You might think it’s not so impressive, but you have to consider one thing. This was made in 1972! This is believed to be the world’s first computer-generated 3D animation. Now Ed was ready to face his goal in life: to create the first computed animated film. He estimated that it would take 10 years to do it (solving all the technical challenges along the way). In retrospect, it took 20 years.
After graduating, Ed was put in charge of a lab at New York Institute of Technology, but he didn’t want to become a manager. He figured out if he could only hire highly motivated and independent persons, he could continue to do his own research. That didn’t work out quite like he had hoped, so instead he started to read a lot of books on management and strategy. Over the years, Ed sums up that 1/3 of his ideas have been bad, and 2/3 have been successful.
After George Lucas had released Star Wars in 1977, he hired Ed for his company Lucas film. George realized he needed to fund research and development in computer graphics, to make it available for his films. Ed continued to work there until 1986, when Steve Jobs got into the picture and Pixar was born. In 2006 Pixar merged with Disney and Ed Catmull became president of both Pixar Animation and Disney Animation.
”Creativity is problem solving” – Ed Catmull
That was a short summary of the first four chapters from part I (”Getting started”) in the book, now I hope you are curious on the management, creativity and leadership takeaways from the book. They are covered in the remaining three parts of the book (”Protecting the new”, ”Building and sustaining” and ”Testing what we know”). I will not go through all of them here, you have to get the book and read for yourself, but I will list some personal high-lights.
”The braintrust” is a key mechanism at Pixar Animation (now also present at Disney Animation) to push them towards excellence and to root out mediocrity. It’s a group of people without authority (the director of the movie has the final word) that meets regularly to discuss the movies they are making. This forum is a place for intense non personal discussions about problems that needs to be solved.
”The Hungry Beast and the Ugly Baby” is another key element essential for creativity work. It’s about the fact that new ideas are fragile in the beginning and that they need to be protected.
One chapter that requires special mentioning is the ”Afterword: The Steve We Knew” that tells a different picture about Steve Jobs than have been presented in for example the biography ”Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson. The picture of Steve being brusque and dismissive is here loosened up. It shows that Steve Jobs during the years changed into a kinder, more self-aware leader. The ones that saw this change stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Summing up Ed Catmull’s career, where he made art and technology come together, you can say he became like both of his childhood idols! I can highly recommend this book to all knowledge workers striving for creativity! I guess that in public Ed Catmull has somewhat been ”hidden in the shadows” of persons like Steve Jobs or George Lucas, but he seems to be a remarkable person of his own! For me he personifies a true modern leader. Ed Catmull is the humble servant of creativity!
Do you want to know more about Ed Catmull and see him talk live? Then I suggest that you watch this wonderful interview made by the co-author of the book, Amy Wallace. It was recorded August 5, 2014.
”Always try to hire people who are smarter than you. Always take a chance on better, even if it seems like a potential threat.” – Ed Catmull