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Lessons Learned

Lessons From Pixar President Ed Catmull: Your Ideas Are "Ugly Babies," You Are Their Champion

Pixar president Ed Catmull insists that every movie the company makes starts out "ugly"—and that early, ill-defined ideas need protection the most, lest they die too young.

Lessons From Pixar President Ed Catmull: Your Ideas Are "Ugly Babies," You Are Their Champion

[Illustrations by Danilo Agutoli]

After the original leaders of animation left Disney in the 1990s, the new people running things were from production. And they brought their values, which were to keep the production people busy and productive with one movie after another. So story development was organized in the same way they organized production. As a consequence of this "feed the beast" mentality, a balance was lost at Disney.

(Balance is a soft word. It implies calm, something almost yogic, but that's not it at all. The process is always chaotic and turbulent.)

The cost of that becomes clear when you think of how a movie starts out. It's a baby. It's like the fetus of a movie star; we all start out ugly. Every one of Pixar's stories starts out that way. A new thing is hard to define; it's not attractive, and it requires protection. When I was a researcher at DARPA, I had protection for what was ill-defined. Every new idea in any field needs protection. Pixar is set up to protect our director's ugly baby.

Of course you can't protect the baby forever. At some point, it has to grow up and change into something, because the beast is still there. That's a positive thing. Because sometimes the ugly baby would rather play in the sandbox forever. It's a lot like raising a kid. It's complex and interesting. But most people want to make it simpler than it is.

A version of this article appeared in the April 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.