When you think of production companies, there are few that match the consistent quality of Pixar. Why is this? The book Creativity Inc shows us why.
Recently I wrote a post asking, what kind of films do you want to make? This was a question for Christopher and I as much as it was for you.
If you are thinking of starting a production company, you’re probably more worried about how to handle logistics, rather than focusing on the type of movies you want to make. But the quality of your films will determine your legacy and the legacy of your production company.
If you want to understand how to create an amazing creative culture and start producing amazing work, Creativity Inc. is the book you need to read.
Creativity Inc. was written by Ed Catmull, the co-founder and president of Pixar. When I started it, I simply assumed it was a business book for creative companies, but found so much more. I walked away from reading Creativity Inc. feeling so much more prepared to put a structure in place for Christopher and I to start making the best films possible.
CREATIVITY INC RULE #1, HIRE PEOPLE SMARTER THAN YOU
Early in his career Ed had the opportunity to start staffing a small computer graphics startup. When he was going through the rounds of candidates he was faced with the harsh reality that there were candidates interviewing that could’ve easily done his job, and possibly done it better.
He was faced with the opportunity to either hire people that were capable, but wouldn’t vastly improve the company, or hire folks that were smarter than him, but would help take the company much further. The lesson he stresses is that you always hire people smarter and more capable than you because they will take your company or film to places you never dreamed.
This can be scary. I know it is for me. When you hire people smarter and more creative than you, you need to swallow your pride in order to make your company that much better.
Excuse my sports analogy, but, making a film is a team sport. Would you rather have Lebron James on your team or Nicolas Batum? That’s what I thought.
They’re obviously both very capable basketball players in the NBA, but only one of them is going to 10X your team. It may be uncomfortable having Lebron on your team because he’s so much more talented that you, but in the end, he will help you reach your goals much faster.
“Always take a chance on better, even if it seems threatening.”
– Ed Catmull
CREATIVITY INC RULE #2, STORY IS KING
We all know this on some level, but many young filmmakers these days get so caught up in the latest gear that story is often overlooked. Early in his career, Ed was focused on creating the latest technology in computer animation. As he should’ve, it was his job.
His sole focus was to creating a full length feature film entirely with computers. While this was his focus, there came a point when he realized that story, not technology was king,
When Pixar released it’s first short film, The Adventures of Wally B, they were discouraged because in their minds, it wasn’t up to par with the latest graphics. When they premiered it, they were shocked to find that the audience was enthralled despite it’s technical flaws:
“Despite our worries, the majority of the people we talked to after the screening said that they hadn’t even noticed that the movie had switched from full color to black and white wire frames. They were so caught up in the emotion of the story that they hadn’t noticed it’s flaws. This was my first encounter with a phenomenon I would notice again and again throughout my career. For all the care you put into artistry. Visual polish frequently doesn’t matter if you’re getting the story right.”
– Ed Catmull
This was a relief for me to read and it was refreshing to hear the co-founder of Pixar to talk about how not everything needs to be perfect as long as you’re hitting the right marks with your story.
As young filmmakers with limited budgets and resources, it’s up to us to focus on creating a great story and not get so caught up in the current trends of technology. If you focus on the fundamentals of great storytelling,your film will have far greater success.
CREATIVITY INC RULE #3, CONSTANTLY QUESTION
One of the biggest takeaways from the book was the importance Pixar placed on questioning, not only their failures, but their success.
After the massive success of Toy Story, they found themselves with a new problem – the problem of success. While many might think this is a good problem to have, success brings a lot of new challenges that can erode the original foundation of a creative company.
Pixar made a point to address these issues as one of their biggest problems after Toy Story and asked the following questions:
- If we had done some things right to achieve success, how could we ensure that we understood what those things were. Could we replicate them on our next project?
- Was replication of success even the right thing to do?
- How many serious, perhaps disastrous problems, were lurking just out of sight?
- What could be done to bring problems to light?
- How much of their success was luck?
- What would happen to their egos if they continued to succeed?
- What could they do to address their overconfidence?
- What dynamics would arise when they brought in new people?
- How could we keep creative culture alive, when you are building a business that will have huge obstacles along the way?
I believe these are questions we can ask ourselves whenever we achieve a little success, not just the success of an entire film. The process of self reflection is important to success and growth in all facets of life, especially for an artist and a creative company as a whole.
The way they’re able to constantly question themselves are through a series of meetings called Braintrusts, Dailies, and Post-mortems. These meetings, and the self reflection that happens as a result is the core to how Pixar thrives as a creative company.
CREATIVITY INC RULE KEYS TO SUCCESS, BRAINTRUSTS, DAILES, AND POST-MORTEMS
Braintrusts are probably the most talked about meetings that Pixar implemented. I talked about how to start your own Braintrust in an earlier blog post. People talk a lot about Braintrusts because they work. Since I’ve deep-dived into Braintrusts in an earlier post, I’ll give you a brief overview.
Essentially, the Pixar Braintrust is a series of meetings throughout a film where the head creative meet with trusted creative advisors. These advisors consist mostly of other successful Pixar directors. Ed emphasizes the importance of these advisors knowledge on story.
First and foremost the advisors in these meetings need to know the ins and outs of storytelling so they can pinpoint what’s working and what is not.
In my earlier post I talked about the structure of Braintrst meetings, and the paramaters that need to be set. The most important takeaway is that the advisors in Braintrust meetings do not tell the directors how to fix a film – that is up to the filmmaker.
They are simply there to tell the filmmaker what isn’t working. This ranges from dialogue, scene selection, character development, etc. This helps the director realize whether they need a complete re-write of one of the acts, or simply a new scene. The most important thing during these meetings is to create a culture of candor. One where everyone can speak freely – being able to be critical, while not criticizing the filmmaker.
The introspection that happens during these meetings is critical, and something I know we will implement at ShoHawk.
Dailies are a little different. Dalies can be viewed as mico-Braintrusts. This is when a filmmaker sits with his team to discuss the previous day’s work. This is the time when they talk about what is specifically working within a scene and have the chance to revise on the fly.
This is something that most production companies do. A word of caution – the results of these meetings need to be taken with a grain of salt. This is the chance to be introspective, but shouldn’t be taken as gospel. This reminds me of a clip I saw of Steve Carell talking about how The 40 Year Old Virgin was almost scrapped because of the dailes:
Ugh, post-mortems. I hate the word. While I’m not working on ShoHawk, I moonlight as a Studio Producer at an ad agency in town where we are always conducting project Post-mortems.
When I went into my first post-mortem I was incredibly uneasy. Without knowing much, I thought this was the a chance to point fingers and place blame on what went wrong in the project. The name didn’t help with the intimidation factor.
A Post-mortem is a meeting held after a project to talk about how everything went. Again, more self reflection, but for the entire project. What I learned is that a Post Mortem really isn’t a place to point fingers. It’s an even balance to talk about what worked and what didn’t during a project so you can implement the good things on a future project, and disgard the bad.
As Ed explains in the book, – companies don’t become exceptional without examining how they AREN’T exceptional. Post mortems are one of the ways to understand how to make your company better. Post-mortems are like swallowing a bad tasting medicine – everyone involved knows its necessary, but they don’t like it one bit.
What makes a good post-mortem?
Looking inward, is difficult, but there is a way to make these meetings the best for your company. These are the 5 reasons Post Mortems are important for your company:
- Consolidate what’s been learned – a process may be flawed, but you don’t have the time to fix it while in production. Post mortems help fix what’s impossible to fix during the heat of the project.
- Teach others who weren’t there. Post-mortem is a great way to pass on the positive and negative lessons from a project. So much of what we do is not obvious. Some of what we do doesn’t make sense. The post-mortem provides a forum for others to learn and challenge the logic behind certain decisions.
- Don’t let resentment fester. Many things that go wrong are caused by misunderstandings or screw ups – if these are left unaddressed, they can fester for years. But if people are given a forum to express their frustrations about the screw ups in a respectful manner, then they are better able to let them go and move on.
The best way to conduct a successful Post-mortem is to have everyone bring 10 bullet points to the table. 5 things that worked well during the project, and 5 things that didn’t work well during a project. This allows everyone to have a say in how the project wen, while giving a fair representation for both sides.
CREATIVITY INC’S GUIDE TO MANAGING A CREATIVE CULTURE
Ed dives into some bullet points for creating and maintaining a healthy creative culture. These are essential takeaways for a creative company, and something we will keep in mind while developing ShoHawk.
Ed makes it clear that he wants us to think about each of these thoughts as a starting point, and not as a conclusion. The point of Creativity Inc. is to not take it as gospel, but use it to generate ideas for your own projects.
- Give a good idea to a mediocre team and they will screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it, or come up with something better. Get the team right and they will get the ideas right.
- When you are looking to hire someone, give their potential growth more weight than their current skill level. What they can do tomorrow is much more important than what they can do today.
- Always hire people smarter than you.
- If there are people working for you that do not feel free to suggest ideas, you will lose. Ideas can come from anywhere. – engage the collective brainpower of your organization. You must push your staff to contribute.
- If someone disagrees with you, there is a reason. Your job is to understand why they don’t agree with you.
- If there is fear in an organization, there is a reason it exists. You must find out why it exists and figure out a solution.
- Self assessment is critical, “If there is more truth in hallways than in meetings, you have a problem.”
- First impressions can usually be wrong. If you don’t take the time to evaluate the process, your takeaways may be wrong.
- The cost preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing errors.
- Change and uncertainty are a part of life – our job is to build the capability to withstand uncertainty. “Don’t wish it were easier, wish you were better.”
- It is not the managers jobs to prevent risks, it’s the managers job to make it safe to take risks.
- Failure is not evil – it is a consequence of doing something new and diving into the unknown. As filmmakers, it’s our duty to dive into the unknown, and thus, at some point, we will fail.
- Finding and fixing problems is everyone’s job.
- The desire for everything to run well is a false goal. As a producer this is something I constantly struggle with. There is always a balance of having everything run smoothly, while creating the best possible product.
- Judge people on their ability to solve problems, rather than by the mistakes they make.
- Show your work early and often. It will be pretty someday, but it will be ugly early on.
- Imposing limits CAN inspire creativity – see art through adversity.
- Engaging with exceptionally difficult problems, can make everyone think different.
- Your different departments need to share the same goal.
- Protect the future, not the past.
- Making the product great is the goal.
Running a successful creative company is no joke. It takes patience, candor, and a lot of hard work. If you want to get into filmmaking as a business Creativity Inc. is a must read.
The topics I was able to briefly talk about in this post are thoroughly explored and can help prepare you and your project for turbulent times. I want to leave you with a beautiful quote, that I want ShoHawk to embody with all of our projects. It’s easy to get sidetracked with setting up LLCs and websites and everything that needs to happen for a creative business. When it comes down to it, this this the quote that I want to embody our thought for every project:
“Quality is the best business plan.”
– John Lasseter, co-founder of Pixar
Have you read Creativity Inc.? I want to hear your thoughts in the comments.