The reanimated man
How the Pixar boss helped Disney get its groove back
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
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