Pixar president speaks at BAM about illuminating the imagination

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Just three miles from the UC Berkeley campus, employees at Pixar Animation Studios recite the dictum, “Story is king.” While one might see its films as an array of dazzling, colorful scenes grounded by meticulous attention to characterization and story detail, there’s a human force behind Pixar that often goes unnoticed.

Pixar is the one place on Earth computer geeks meet storytellers and engineers and editors work alongside one another in teams to craft and refine the perfect animated tale. Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios and winner of five Oscars for his work on Pixar’s animated films, spoke before a large audience at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive building Monday night about life at Pixar behind the computer screens and his first book, “Creativity, Inc.”

The theater was dim and the stage was simple: Catmull sat on a chair facing the audience and next to Pete Docter, director and co-writer of Pixar films “Monsters, Inc.” and “Up” and co-writer of “Wall-E” and “Toy Story.” While both had insightful details to share, the manner in which Docter directed the conversation made it clear he hoped the spotlight would shine on Catmull.

Citing both Albert Einstein and Walt Disney as his greatest inspirations, Catmull has always taken what he calls “a scientific approach to the business of creativity.” He firmly stated his belief that almost all people are creative and that the real problem lies in designing an ideal work environment. “How do we make it safe for people to be creative?” Catmull asked the audience. He explained that in order to maximize the creative potential of a team of writers like Pixar’s writing and brainstorming team, aptly nicknamed the “Brain Trust,” the leaders of the project must try to “remove the power structure from the room.”

After the immense success of “Toy Story,” “we had set up a three-tiered hierarchy in the room (at Pixar),” Catmull said. “Success hides problems. We had a separation in the room that was not healthy.” Over the course of their discussion, both Catmull and Docter emphasized the importance of the elimination of hierarchies in workplaces with creative spaces as much as possible in order to maximize the chances that people will truly speak their minds. Catmull asserted that from his experiences, many are afraid to suggest new ideas or cultivate their creativity when they feel a sense of inferiority or pressure to accept a superior’s proposal.

When Pixar and Disney joined forces in 2006, Catmull explained that he received a lot of backlash and inquiry. He sees change as a natural part of life and learned a lot from working with Disney, however — like that smaller meeting rooms create a physical closeness and thus a greater sense of comfort between employees.

At Pixar, only the self-motivated need apply. “I’m only going to hire people who don’t require management,” Catmull said with a chuckle. “We’re focused, funny and intense. Intensity is always about solving the problem” — that is, the problem of crafting the next polished Pixar screenplay. For Catmull and the Brain Trust members, the quality of the story remains more important than the fact that it was made on a computer. While story may be king in a metaphorical sense, it’s clear that at Pixar, the story is nothing without cooperation, creativity and a healthy democracy.

Kate Irwin covers literature. Contact her at [email protected].