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  • 03.25.11

Pixar’s Motto: Going From Suck to Nonsuck

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.”

Pixar

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.”

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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.

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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.”

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[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.

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