A Pixar creative legend drops business wisdom bombs

C2 Editorial Team

There’s a reason why many consider Pixar Co-Founder Ed Catmull’s book, Creativity Inc., “the bible of creativity,” and that was on full display during his captivating fireside chat with Julia Cyboran, VP — Marketing and Audience for C2 International, at C2 Montréal 2021 (October 19-21). C2 participants got a revealing look into the thought process of the Academy Award-winning computer scientist and master storyteller, and shared in lessons learned from a life of creativity.


People intuitively sense authenticity

US Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart’s famous 1964 characterization of pornography — “I know it when I see it” — also goes some way towards explaining audiences’ intuitive recognition of authenticity in storytelling. Underscoring the importance of authenticity, Catmull cited the example of the hit Pixar film Ratatouille, which saw filmmakers go behind-the-scenes at Michelin three-star French restaurants in Paris as part of their research.

“We go to restaurants and see people cooking food for us; we watch the cooking channel; we cook for ourselves,” said Catmull. “But almost nobody has actually ever been inside the kitchen of a three-star restaurant. What’s the culture like? So the filmmakers went there to see how they think — how do they actually work?

“Now what’s interesting about this particular example is that none of us would know whether what they put in the film was true or not. We don’t know. We’ve never been there. But we sense that it’s true. And that’s what authenticity means: you go and you find something that you don’t know and that other people don’t know. And then you put it in there and even though it’s implicit, like it’s under the surface, you recognize something there that’s true.”

“Authenticity is getting away from preconceptions. Preconceptions means you copy what you already know. You want to bring your own experience, but if all you’re doing is copying preconceptions, you’re not being creative. Even if you think you are.”


Original storytelling is hard — and so it should be

“We try to make films that would fail the elevator pitch test,” said Catmull. “The only way you can pass the elevator pitch test if you do something which is fundamentally derivative.” 

He went on to say that “what we want is about a third of our films to be the kind of film that would fail the elevator test.” He gave the example of the Academy Award–winning Up, in which a grieving elderly man ties thousands of balloons to his house and floats away from his troubles, teaming up with a stowaway and a talking dog while being pursued by a disgraced explorer.

“And we did it,” said Catmull. “We took on something that didn’t make sense and would have failed the elevator test.” By doing it, Catmull said, it sent a message to everybody in the company that “there’s a certain part of what we’re doing that we really want to be hard and original. And even if they’re working on something that is more like the bread and butter of the company, people can take pride in the fact that they know that their company, their organization, is willing to take on risky, difficult projects. There’s a pride that comes with that.”


Risk taking is complicated by competing meanings of failure

Risk is something that many leaders at companies struggle with, primarily because of the threat of its constant companion, failure, begging the question: How do we teach leaders to give their teams the power to make those risk decisions within an organization? Catmull said it’s a difficult question for people to wrap their head around, “partly because there are two different meanings to failure. 

“One of them is that you screwed up or you’re not smart or there are bad consequences,” he said. “And we certainly see this: bridges fail, businesses fail, relationships fail. In politics, business failures are used as bludgeons to damage each other, so there’s a real, palpable aura of danger around failure.”

The other meaning of failure has it that we learn from it. “We look back and say, ‘Oh yeah, I made this mistake, I learned from it, I’m a better person.’ So we have two different meanings, and it’s almost impossible for people to hold these two concepts simultaneously. They get in the way of each other.”

Part of why that happens, Catmull explained, is that “failure is asymmetric with respect to time. And by that, I mean you only have the luxury of calling something an educational experience after it happened. But until then, you’ve still got the danger of the failure. So people have this sort of subconscious mental calculation about their their risk tolerance, and it’s just not easy for people to [take risks]. We have to work on signalling safety.”


Get more insights from C2MTL 2021

Check out The Takeaways, a selection of the top action items and key learnings that came out of C2 Montréal, October 19-21.


Want to know more? Watch the conference

If you were a participant at C2 Montréal 2021, you can watch Ed Catmull’s fireside chat in its entirety, and all the other conferences as well, in the video on demand section of the C2Agora platform until November 25.

Questions or comments? Drop us a line at editorial@c2.biz