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August 24, 2008

SIGGRAPH Day 1: Ed Catmull - Managing the Creative Environment

Filed under 3D, Animation, SIGGRAPH


Ed Catmull, president of Disney Animation and Pixar, spoke candidly about his experiences running Pixar and Disney.

The talk was fascinating. I wish I had the whole thing on video. I jotted down some notes on what Ed said.

Why Pixar is successful...

What makes Pixar so successful is that Pixar focuses on the story.

BUT...*everybody* says they focus on the story. So saying "we focus on the story" is really meaningless.

If focusing on the story isn't what makes Pixar successful...what is?

Ed came up with two more possibilities: good people and good ideas.

Which one is more important?

Good people.


  • Good Idea + Bad People = Bad Implementation
  • Bad Idea + Good People = Fix Idea or replace idea with a better idea

An example of this...

Pixar had their "A" team work on Toy Story and then Bug's Life. "A" team worked well together and were very successful. "B" team started working on Toy Story 2. "B" team didn't have the same "magic" as "A" team. Toy Story 2 wasn't working and was in trouble. When "A" team finished with Bug's Life, they took over Toy Story 2 and started over (new script) with only 8 months until the movie was scheduled to finish. The movie was finished on time and was a huge success.

Every 1st version sucks. The next iteration sucks less. Keep iterating until it is actually good.


The software is used internally by Pixar and sold externally as a product. Pixar once tried to keep new features internal before releasing them to customers so Pixar would have a competitive advantage. Net result: customers stopped trusting Pixar and lost faith in the product. Releasing all features fostered a better relationship with customers and meant new features were vetted by a larger audience which improved the product.

Peer reviews...

At Pixar, people have to present their work to an audience on a regular basis in an unpolished state. Because of the frequency, people quickly get over the embarrassment of critical reviews. Also, the whole group learns from the criticism.

Desired Qualities in employees...

  • Have to be a filmmaker
  • Have to be honest
  • Have to be able to criticize people you may idolize. Once you are successful, people give you a "free pass" because they assume you know what you are doing. Everybody needs criticism to perform their best work.


You can't be successful by avoiding crises...because they always happen. *How* you respond is what determines success.

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