In a world that is obsessed with preventing errors and perfection, perhaps it's ironic that despite 11 straight blockbuster movies, Pixar cofounder and President Ed Catmull describes Pixar's creative process as "going from suck to nonsuck."
That's because Catmull and Pixar's directors think it's better to fix problems than to prevent errors. "My strategy has always been: be wrong as fast as we can," says Andrew Stanton, Director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E, "Which basically means, we're gonna screw up, let's just admit that. Let's not be afraid of that." We can all work this way more often.
So, for instance, Pixar does not begin new movies with a script. Far from it. Film ideas begin on rough storyboards until they work through thousands of problems throughout the process in order to take films from suck to nonsuck.
People at Pixar describe storyboards as the "hand-drawn comic book version" of a movie, a blueprint for the characters and actions. Storyboards are three-by-eight inch sheets of white paper upon which Pixar's story artists sketch ideas. As Joe Ranft, who was one of Pixar's master storyboard artists described it, "Sometimes the first try works, while other times a dozen or more passes are required."
They must persist. Pixar used 27,565 storyboards on A Bug's Life, 43,536 for Finding Nemo, 69,562 for Ratatouille, and 98,173 for WALL-E.
This process of rigorous critique, and even major change, doesn't end once the initial script has been approved and the first version of the film has been created on what are called "reels." Reels contain the work-in-progress storyboards, combined with a voice track, that are shown internally before Pixar moves to the expensive digital animation phase.
"Every time we show a film for the first time, it sucks," Catmull will say. People then email their comments to the director to explain what they liked, what they didn't, and why, and substantial changes are made.
In fact, directors say that Pixar's films will suck virtually until the last stage of production—problems are constantly identified and fixed. Finding Nemo had a massive problem with a series of flashbacks that test audiences didn't get that had to be fixed, while Toy Story 2 had to be completely rewritten a year before it was released. (Pixar film release dates are set in stone, which serves as a constraint.)
What we see is not effortless genius. Through tireless iteration, toil, and (often) sleepless nights, the films start to come together.
Depending on the form it takes, perfectionism is not necessarily a block to creativity. A growing body of research in psychology has revealed that there are two forms of perfectionism: healthy or unhealthy. Characteristics of what psychologists view as healthy perfectionism include striving for excellence and holding others to similar standards, planning ahead, and strong organizational skills. Healthy perfectionism is internally driven in the sense that it's motivated by strong personal values. Conversely, unhealthy perfectionism is externally driven. External concerns show up over perceived parental pressures, needing approval, a tendency to ruminate over past performances, or an intense worry about making mistakes. Healthy perfectionists exhibit a low concern for these outside factors.
Pixar's culture is defined by a pursuit of excellence and quality. Being able to go from suck to nonsuck when developing a new film is a process of ongoing prototyping, a process that facilitates experimentation by the animators as it allows for a rigorous and continual scrutiny of the work in progress, enabling Pixar to practice healthy perfectionism.
The point of describing Pixar's creative process is not to say that we should all implement such a process on our own. It is not always possible to have people assemble regularly to offer feedback, for example. But finding ways to fail quickly, to invest less emotion and less time in any particular idea or prototype or piece of work, is a consistent feature of the work methods of successful creators. Despite the myths, it's hard work.
As Pixar's chief creative officer John Lasseter expresses his perfectionism, "We don't actually finish our films, we release them."
[Image by Super Stricker Two]
Peter Sims is the author of Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries. He coauthored with Bill George the bestselling book True North. His writing has appeared in the Harvard Business Review, Fortune, and TechCrunch, and he is a contributor to the Reuters and Harvard Business Review blogs. He established a popular course on leadership at Stanford Business School and has had a long collaboration with faculty at Stanford's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the d.school). Follow Peter on Twitter, @petersims.