The re­an­i­mated man

How the Pixar boss helped Dis­ney get its groove back

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

Hol­ly­wood stu­dios wax and wane, rise and some­times dis­ap­pear. Ev­ery stu­dio has its mo­ment and if it’s lucky this can last for a decade. Pixar’s has lasted three decades. So suc­cess­ful has Pixar An­i­ma­tion Stu­dios been since its de­but with the first fully com­puter-ren­dered fea­ture film, Toy Story, in 1995 that Pixar as a brand name stands for some­thing in qual­ity, style and val­ues that also up­ends au­teur the­ory. The stu­dio col­lec­tive is the au­teur de­liv­er­ing suc­cess af­ter suc­cess.

Ed Cat­mull was there at the start, a com­puter sci­en­tist re­cruited by Ge­orge Lu­cas from the New York In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy to head Lu­cas­film’s com­puter divi­sion, be­fore join­ing John Las­seter and Steve Jobs to form the in­de­pen­dent com­pany Pixar in 1986.

Af­ter mul­ti­ple hits (in­clud­ing Mon­sters Inc, Find­ing Nemo, The In­cred­i­bles) the 1200em­ployee com­pany was sold to the Walt Dis­ney Com­pany in 2006 for $US7.4 bil­lion, and Cat­mull has served as pres­i­dent of Pixar as well as the Walt Dis­ney An­i­ma­tion Stu­dios (with Las­seter as chief cre­ative of­fi­cer of both) ever since.

The broader “mo­ment” for Dis­ney now in­cor­po­rates the fran­chise freight trains of Marvel Stu­dios and Lu­cas­film’s Star Wars, al­though Cat­mull and Las­seter’s rein­vig­o­ra­tion of Dis­ney’s an­i­ma­tion divi­sion is one of the great Hol­ly­wood turn­arounds.

They have lifted the “Mouse House” from a low base and cel­e­brate their 10th an­niver­sary with the re­lease this month of Dis­ney An­i­ma­tion’s lat­est, Zootopia, which has smashed box of­fice records in North Amer­ica and, sur­pris­ingly, China, be­com­ing the high­est-gross­ing an­i­mated film there in just two weeks.

Cat­mull says the film marks a sat­is­fy­ing an­niver­sary, given the cir­cum­stances. “When we first started there,” he says, “Dis­ney An­i­ma­tion it­self didn’t mean much be­cause it hadn’t pro­duced much for a while.”

That is an un­der­state­ment. A decade ago, the car­toon house that Walt built was splut­ter­ing with bomb af­ter bomb. The stu­dio be­hind Mickey Mouse, Dumbo, The Lion King, The Lady and the Tramp, Fan­ta­sia, Aladdin and the rest re­leased a bunch of an­i­mated fea­tures from 2002 that now serve as a list of films you didn’t see: Trea­sure Planet, Brother Bear, The Em­peror’s New Groove, Home on the Range, Chicken Lit­tle, Meet the Robinsons and so on.

Then Cat­mull and Las­seter ar­rived with their Pixar credo that it be a “film­maker-driven stu­dio”, not a man­age­ment-driven one.

“Al­most im­me­di­ately we started mak­ing films that were re­viewed well [in­clud­ing Bolt and The Princess and the Frog] but [ini­tially] they weren’t draw­ing in the crowds,” Cat­mull re­calls.

“Then Tan­gled [a mu­si­cal adap­ta­tion of the Brothers Grimm’s Ra­pun­zel tale] got both the crit­i­cal and the com­mer­cial suc­cess, but it was fol­lowed the next year with [CGI an­i­mated video game par­ody] Wreck-It Ralph, and it was con­fus­ing peo­ple be­cause they thought: why is Dis­ney mak­ing a Pixar film?”

Mean­while, Pixar made the fe­male-fo­cused ad­ven­ture Brave, rais­ing the con­verse but ap­po­site ques­tion: why is Pixar mak­ing a Dis­ney film? “So there was con­fu­sion about it, and then Frozen came out,” Cat­mull says.

Yes, Frozen. It and Tan­gled fea­tured fe­male leads in rich, beau­ti­ful new worlds that fit per­fectly the mould of clas­sic Dis­ney an­i­ma­tion. Frozen cor­rected the di­a­logue about Dis­ney and did what the very best fam­ily films do. It be­came a cul­tural phe­nom­e­non and its lead tune, Let It Go, be­came as per­va­sive as Ti­tanic’s My Heart Will Go On. And it earned $US1.2bn in cin­e­mas and mul­ti­ples of that in an­cil­lary mar­kets and mer­chan­dis­ing.

Dis­ney An­i­ma­tions Stu­dio fol­lowed with the in­ven­tive Marvel Comic adap­ta­tion Big Hero 6 and now Zootopia. The once em­bat­tled stu­dio is now “taken in its own way, as a stu­dio pro­duc­ing great films”, Cat­mull says, and not as Pixar’s ugly sib­ling.

“Zootopia was the thresh­old mo­ment,” he says. “That was the great­est feel­ing and this hap­pened at 10 years.”

From afar, the 55th an­i­mated fea­ture in Walt Dis­ney’s An­i­mated Clas­sics se­ries looks like so many kids films: it fea­tures an­i­mals voiced by a strong cast (in­clud­ing Ja­son Bate­man, Idris Elba, Gin­nifer Good­win and JK Sim­mons). Yet the film has popped, en­ter­ing the cul­tural con­scious­ness of chil­dren around the world.

Cat­mull didn’t see it com­ing but “we don’t usu­ally”, he says with a chuckle.

“What hap­pens is we’re al­ways strug­gling with a film, and of course you don’t know if it’s go­ing to make it over the hur­dle un­til it ac­tu­ally does. It wasn’t un­til we got close to the end that we sud­denly con­nected a lot of dots in the last half year … and as we got close to the end I thought, ‘This one is ac­tu­ally re­ally mean­ing­ful. All of the things are com­ing to­gether, the voice tal­ent works great to­gether, the com­edy works great, and the world is very rich and in­ter­est­ing.’

“But I have to tell you, as we crossed the last thresh­old it was scary,” he adds.

The tale of a rab­bit who as­pires to be a po­lice of­fi­cer in the utopian Zootopia, and her shaky friend­ship with a con artist fox, touches on con­tem­po­rary con­cerns such as tol­er­ance, race and bul­ly­ing with a light touch.

Cat­mull says its tim­ing and con­tent makes the Dis­ney hi­er­ar­chy par­tic­u­larly proud. “It’s like, ‘OK, we’ve got some­thing great and it’s the rea­son we make movies’,” he says.

“We want to make some­thing which con­nects with cul­ture. It’s never about ‘Let’s just make a movie’ [or] ‘Let’s just have a laugh fest’. It re­ally is in the idea. The idea of the films we make is to leave a last­ing im­pres­sion and have some mean­ing.”

Cat­mull’s last­ing im­pres­sion is more res­o­nant than that of other stu­dio heads. While wran­gling two stu­dios and com­mut­ing be­tween Pixar in San Fran­cisco and Dis­ney in Los An­ge­les each week, the 70-year-old wrote (with Amy Wal­lace) the very read­able, and now in­flu­en­tial, 2014 man­age­ment mem­oir Cre­ativ­ity Inc: Overcoming the Un­seen Forces that Stand in the Way of True In­spi­ra­tion.

It im­parts some stark ad­vice, most of it counter to the mass of man­age­ment malarky clog­ging busi­ness and self-help book­shelves. Cat­mull sighs that even its re­cep­tion has be­mused him be­cause “in writ­ing it, you come up with some con­clu­sion and peo­ple grab on to that and the real is­sue is not the con­clu­sion, it’s the thought process be­hind that”.

Man­age­ment buzz words don’t mean any­thing “in terms of how peo­ple ad­dress the hu­man na­ture of peo­ple’s fears”, he adds.

“Say­ing it is not do­ing it. Give me the right thing to say, peo­ple ask. There isn’t a right thing to say.”

But three decades of sus­tained suc­cess for Pixar and the turn­around of Dis­ney An­i­ma­tion sug­gest he and Las­seter know the right things to do. In essence, the book says they’ve backed peo­ple and wran­gled cre­ativ­ity for a greater good.

Yet the Pixar mavens didn’t storm into Dis­ney and up­end the place. In­deed, Cat­mull says, largely the same group of peo­ple at Dis­ney An­i­ma­tion were there 10 years ago.

“We en­tered into this with an at­ti­tude of not ‘let’s see whether or not they can do it’,” he says. “It was ‘let’s as­sume they can do it’.”

He be­lieved the tal­ent was there but man­age­ment stood in the way of that tal­ent flow­er­ing, so his job was to re­move bar­ri­ers, make sug­ges­tions and ul­ti­mately al­low Dis­ney’s teams au­ton­omy.

“But by pro­vid­ing that kind of guid­ance, they rose to the oc­ca­sion, they fig­ured it out and in the end they did it, and it was amaz­ing,” he says. “And the whole feel­ing at the stu­dio now is com­pletely dif­fer­ent. The con­fi­dence level and the joy they feel is re­ally grat­i­fy­ing.”

Oddly, he and Las­seter kept the two an­i­ma­tions houses sep­a­rate when man­age­ment con­sul­tants would have you con­sol­i­date, cut and

WE’RE STRONGER IF THE TWO GROUPS ARE KEPT SEP­A­RATE ED CAT­MULL

find syn­er­gies. Cat­mull says there were rea­sons to keep them sep­a­rated and they have sub­se­quently en­joyed ben­e­fits “that were even be­yond what we thought”.

Dis­ney an­i­ma­tors asked for help from Pixar an­i­ma­tors on trou­ble­some films but Cat­mull and Las­seter re­frained be­cause they didn’t want to have any el­e­ment of “Pixar bailed us out” hang over any film.

“And it was im­por­tant that if we turned [Dis­ney An­i­ma­tion] around they had to feel like they did it,” he says.

Se­condly, he didn’t want one stu­dio to be the clone of the other.

“Whereas if you’ve got two dif­fer­ent cul­tures, they’re go­ing to do dif­fer­ent things,” he says. And they have, he adds hap­pily. Fi­nally, there is an el­e­ment of shar­ing be­tween the two stu­dios, but there is no re­quire­ment to do so.

Which speaks to one of Cat­mull’s key lessons in Cre­ativ­ity Inc: the re­moval of ex­is­ten­tial threats within com­pa­nies and em­ploy­ees.

“There isn’t any­body say­ing ‘ you must use best prac­tice for this’ or ‘we’re go­ing to save money if we all use the same pipe­line or use the same tools’,” he says.

“In­stead the view is that we’re stronger if the two groups are kept sep­a­rate and they have dif­fer­ent ideas and then they share the ideas and we can pick and choose from them.”

This coun­ters eco­nomic the­ory to the ef­fect that the ben­e­fits from economies of scale out­weigh any from cre­ative ten­sion or mul­ti­ple sep­a­rate en­ti­ties.

“I would ar­gue that that rea­son­ing is al­most al­ways flawed,” Cat­mull says.

“The economies of scale, es­pe­cially in an in­dus­try that changes rapidly — which any­thing closely re­lated to tech­nol­ogy does — make it more dif­fi­cult to change. It slows you down and it is a com­plete and ut­ter il­lu­sion. Not only is it an il­lu­sion, it’s false.”

The two stu­dios also have the ben­e­fit of a so­called Brain­trust of se­nior cre­atives who over­see all their work. The idea de­vel­oped or­gan­i­cally from the early days at Pixar when five men led and edited the pro­duc­tion of Toy

Story — Las­seter, An­drew Stan­ton (dual Academy Award win­ner for Find­ing Nemo and WALL-E), Pete Doc­ter (dual Os­car win­ner for

Up and In­side Out), Lee Unkrich (win­ner for Toy Story 3), and Joe Ranft (who died in 2005). “Ini­tially it was Pixar teach­ing Dis­ney how to do it but we only did that for a year and a half and then Dis­ney got go­ing,” Cat­mull says.

They were kept sep­a­rate for years un­til Pixar was “a lit­tle stuck” with In­side Out. The Dis­ney Brain­trust “looked at the film and they helped pick at a prob­lem that was in the way. As soon as we heard [their an­swer], we re­alised it was true and ‘oh, we’ve got two groups of peo­ple who like each other, they want each other to suc­ceed, they speak the same lan­guage, they know what it means to give mean­ing­ful notes and they’re fresh eyes’.”

Later, the Pixar Brain­trust found two flaws hold­ing back Zootopia.

“Then I re­alised not only do we have a Brain­trust, which is unique in the in­dus­try, but we have two of them,” Cat­mull says with a laugh. “And it gives Dis­ney an in­cred­i­ble strength to have two groups, who once per film can give feed­back to the other — and only once per film, be­cause no longer are they fresh eyes.”

The same is true of the re­cent in­tro­duc­tion of the Marvel Comics and Lu­cas­film worlds to the Dis­ney fam­ily.

“What you want is a shar­ing re­la­tion­ship but you don’t want a merg­ing,” Cat­mull says. “It’s an im­por­tant con­cept.”

It sounds like a cre­ative utopia, free of ego and cost con­trols.

Which it is, to a point, al­though Cat­mull says he has no in­ten­tion of turn­ing his hand to a ca­reer as man­age­ment guru, be­cause “I have the best job in the world”.

And he re­mains up­beat about sto­ry­telling and the fu­ture of the tra­di­tional cinema ex­pe­ri­ence.

“I’m op­ti­mistic in the sense that sto­ry­telling is the way we com­mu­ni­cate with each other,” he says. “So if I look at that in terms of how we struc­ture things, it’s stayed sta­ble for a long time.”

He was re­cently amazed while lis­ten­ing to an au­dio book of Homer’s

The Iliad, a nearly 3000-year-old oral story told in a dif­fer­ent lan­guage, in a dif­fer­ent cul­ture that still res­onates.

The novel form is old, cinema not so old, and we adapt our sto­ry­telling to the par­tic­u­lar medium, he the­o­rises. “So the sto­ry­telling is go­ing to be here. Now the medium is go­ing through some change, it’s pretty ob­vi­ous, so what is our adap­ta­tion to it, how do we use it?” he says.

“And I think part of be­ing nim­ble is to recog­nise that and use the things that work. There are cer­tainly things about the three-act struc­ture in movies that have held up be­cause they work re­ally well,” he adds.

The quest now is to keep the two cre­ative gi­ants un­der his aegis nim­ble as they pre­pare, sep­a­rately, Toy Story 4 and Frozen 2, among other ven­tures. “That’s the hard part,” Cat­mull says. “In fact, if any­thing, it gets harder when you’ve had a num­ber of suc­cesses in a row, so I would say in­ter­nally [we’re think­ing]: now we’ve got th­ese suc­cesses, what’s the ac­tual im­pact? “The im­pli­ca­tion of suc­cess is we’re do­ing

stuff right so peo­ple want to hang on to that. So the chal­lenge is to get peo­ple not to cling or hang on to any­thing, be­cause if you look at the world, the tech­nol­ogy is chang­ing, the skills set, the soft­ware is chang­ing, ex­pec­ta­tions are chang­ing, there is noth­ing sta­ble in this en­vi­ron­ment.

“And if there’s noth­ing sta­ble it be­comes al­limpor­tant to recog­nise that and then fight those forces of con­ser­vatism that fight you from mak­ing those changes. Peo­ple think they’re try­ing to do the right thing but what they‘re ac­tu­ally do­ing is get­ting more stuck. And that’s the chal­lenge: how do you keep from get­ting stuck?”

Pixar and Dis­ney’s Ed Cat­mull, above; a scene from Dis­ney’s

Zootopia, below

From above left, Pixar’s Ed Cat­mull and Steve Jobs with Dis­ney’s Robert Iger and Pixar’s John Las­seter in 2006; Elsa from Frozen, left; Woody from Toy Story, below

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