The most successful companies operate in the realm of instability, Pixar President and Co-founder Ed Catmull said during a talk Wednesday titled “What is a Creative Company?” at the Economist conference “The Ideas Economy: Innovation” at the Haas School.
Catmull, also president of Walt Disney Animation Studios, was responding to a question on striking a balance between artistic sensibilities and commercial success. He described Pixar as “a team of artists who view success as creating films that people buy tickets to see,” noting that a filmmaker indulging in art for art’s sake only would fail economically. But, he said, to only create purely commercial films is “a failure from a soul point of view.”
“You want to be somewhere in the middle,” Catmull said. The trick in striking any balance —between art and commerciality, time and technology — is to not let one side win, he added. This keeps one in the realm of instability, where “the most successful companies operate,” Catmull said.
Honesty and openness are also critical to nurturing the animation studio’s creativity, Catmull observed. He discussed the Pixar process in which directors present a film-in-progress every two to three months to the firm’s other directors for feedback.
“They tear the film apart,” said Catmull. “This could be brutal,” he pointed out, so it needs to be structured in such a way that all involved feel they are helping and that the director wants help. The trick, Catmull said, is to preserve the power dynamic by always giving the director of the film in question the final say.
Catmull said this peer feedback is essential because literally thousands of ideas go into every film and every director, no matter how experienced, gets lost somewhere along the way. Part of Pixar culture is that support to “pull each other out of the mire” when needed, he said.
Also keeping Pixar’s creativity level high is what Catmull called “a high level of confidence that we won’t let something bad out of the studio.” Catmull added that the crew accepts when there are failures along the way because they know “this is what we do — we make good films."
For more information on the conference, visit ideas.economist.com.