How To Release Creativity, Pixar Style

Since wooing the world with Toy Story in 1995, Pixar Animation Studios have produced over 24 feature films. In 2018 they averaged a box office average of $650M per film, the highest take per film of any studio in Hollywood.  Pixar has perfected its art, so what can we take from its ethos to help release creativity in our own ventures?

When the pandemic hit, Pixar was bang in the middle of its latest animation, which, like all other films, required a tremendous amount of collaboration and feedback, alongside a studio full of high-tech equipment. 

There must have been a ‘do or die’ moment with all of the creators.

Because in the absence of these norms, each member rose to the challenge of overcoming the circumstances. For example, one of the leading actors, Jack Dylan Grazer, recorded his entire dialogue from his mother’s wardrobe, covering the walls with blankets.

The team came together under one unifying vision, the Pixar way.

From the early days of conception, the company’s focus has always been to provide conditions conducive to peak creativity. And creativity believes founding Pixar founding member Ed Catmull is simply the art of problem-solving. 

But he admits that there’s no fast or tidy way to creative problem solving, hence the importance of focusing on the right ingredients that allow continuous results, for the studio, from Toy Story to Luca. 

Creative Leadership

“You get creative people, you bet big on them, you give them enormous leeway and support, and you provide them with an environment in which they can get honest feedback.” 

Catmull sees a leader in the filmmaking process as someone who sets the stage to get the most out of their creatives. They do this by:

– Working to a united creative vision

– Creating a culture of openness where the entire team are able and encouraged to give feedback

– Empowering people through peer reviews, where the opportunity to give and receive feedback builds confidence.

– Respecting a creative process by giving it the required time and support.

– Accepting the messiness and difficulty of creative problem solving and allowing their people to fail along the way.

The Pixar principles guide the leadership team; they are not just something they expect from their teams.   

Pixar ideate and develop all of their ideas in-house with their creative teams.  They don’t buy scripts in. Instead, their development team brings together a small group of creatives, typically a director, a writer, artists, and storyboarders. The goal of this team is to find people who work effectively together. 

Creative vision for each of their films is everything, and only people who are capable of working as a team or community can achieve this goal.  

The Pixar Brain Trust is one of the ways they spread their values through each project.  It is a select group that helps the creative team assess the quality of the films as they move through development.   

The Pixar Brain Trust 

Ed Catmull sees brain trust as unique in two regards.  Firstly, it comprises master storytellers who have walked the filmmaking path and have direct experience being in the creators’ shoes.

Secondly, brain trust has no authority. It serves creativity; it doesn’t stomp on it or try and package it into a box.  What gets done with the feedback that the brain trust provides is entirely up to the creative team. 

Allowing the creatives to be in charge of the entire journey takes supreme confidence, but with 24 hits behind them, there must be something to what they’re saying.

We dare to attempt these stories, but we don’t get them right on the first pass. This is as it should be. Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process–reworking, reworking, and reworking again until a flawed story finds its through-line or a hollow character finds its soul.”

So can we translate their process outside of the filmmaking industry?  

Collective Creativity

In Dr Linda Hill’s Ted Talk on How To Manage For Collective Creativity, the author,  Harvard Business School professor and leadership expert, highlights the creative process that allows companies like Pixar to stay in a cycle of innovation and consistently perform.

To make a Pixar movie takes, on average, about 250 people and five years. So imagine all that creative energy under one roof. But it’s precisely this influx of creative minds that allows the company to do what it does best.

When Dr Hill studied Ed Catmull, she found that he was not leading as a visionary but building a bottom-up innovation culture.

“At Pixar, they understand that innovation takes a village; they say leadership is about creating a world to which people want to belong.”

Linda also dispels the myth of the role of individual genius.

“When many of us think about innovation, though, we think about an Einstein having an ‘Aha!’ moment. But we all know that’s a myth. Innovation is not about solo genius; it’s about collective genius.”

So if we’re not blessed with a leader like Ed, or we’re freelance creatives or entrepreneurs, how do we get into a village of our own to find some collective genius inspiration?

The Pixar Village Ethos

In Dr Hill’s talk, two things stood out for those who want to release creativity in their own teams.

Firstly, that the creative innovation at Pixar village was based on a cycle of creative abrasion, agility and resolution, the creators weren’t there to get along and agree; they were there to unpick, bash and reshape ideas into their perfect form.

Secondly, the idea of having an experimental vs a pilot mindset.

A pilot mindset is about being right, and when things don’t go in this direction, an organisation or individual seeks a scapegoat and worse, the learnings from the process are lost. 

A pilot mindset is common in strictly hierarchical situations where a leader, sometimes untrained, believes that they should make the decisions because that’s what the org chart says – the worst possible reason to make a decision!  

It also happens in small creative teams with poor communications. When the pilot changes course, the unit can be the last to know – dooming collective creativity to failure.

An experimental mindset, however, is about a continual state of learning, so the perception of failure changes; it’s a stage, not an ending point and reframing in this way encourages brave thinking.

How To Release Creativity In Your Team

So how can we create our environments to set the scene for creative success? First, as a freelancer, agency or employer, you can seek out the people that work effectively as a team under a unified vision.

Then, as is the case with all interactions in life, you get the best results when you are willing to give as much as you expect to receive while promoting the following goals.  

  • Providing constructive criticism
  • Supporting soft skill development
  • Focusing on a shared goal
  • Finding people with a team mentality
  • Seeking out ambitious people who are interested in raising the quality bar
  • Enabling a peer review culture 
  • Building confidence within your team 

Good luck with your creative venture. You can realease creativity within your project if you build the right team, and remember that creativity is not a solo act.

And as Andrew Stanton, another Pixar leader says, 

“You don’t have to work at Pixar to create a Braintrust. Every creative person can draft into service those around them who exhibit the right mixture of intelligence, insight, and grace. “ 

Andrew Stanton

Thanks for reading. If you’re interested in reading more about creativity take a look at my blog on John Boyd and using creative courage to challenge the status quo.


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