For thirteen years we had a table in the large conference room at Pixar that we call West One. Though it was beautiful, I grew to hate this table. It was long and skinny, like one of those things you’d see in a comedy sketch about an old wealthy couple that sits down for dinner—one person at either end, a candelabra in the middle—and has to shout to make conversation. The table had been chosen by a designer Steve Jobs liked, and it was elegant, all right—but it impeded our work.
We’d hold regular meetings about our movies around that table—thirty of us facing off in two long lines, often with more people seated along the walls—and everyone was so spread out that it was difficult to communicate. For those unlucky enough to be seated at the far ends, ideas didn’t flow because it was nearly impossible to make eye contact without craning your neck. Moreover, because it was important that the director and producer of the film in question be able to hear what everyone was saying, they had to be placed at the center of the table. So did Pixar’s creative leaders: John Lasseter, Pixar’s creative officer, and me, and a handful of our most experienced directors, producers, and writers. To ensure that these people were always seated together, someone began making place cards. We might as well have been at a formal dinner party.
When it comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless. That’s what I believe. But unwittingly, we were allowing this table—and the resulting place card ritual—to send a different message. The closer you were seated to the middle of the table, it implied, the more important—the more central—you must be. And the farther away, the less likely you were to speak up—your distance from the heart of the conversation made participating feel intrusive. If the table was crowded, as it often was, still more people would sit in chairs around the edges of the room, creating yet a third tier of participants (those at the center of the table, those at the ends, and those not at the table at all). Without intending to, we’d created an obstacle that discouraged people from jumping in.
Over the course of a decade, we held countless meetings around this table in this way—completely unaware of how doing so undermined our own core principles. Why were we blind to this? Because the seating arrangements and place cards were designed for the convenience of the leaders, including me. Sincerely believing that we were in an inclusive meeting, we saw nothing amiss because we didn’t feel excluded. Those not sitting at the center of the table, meanwhile, saw quite clearly how it established a pecking order but presumed that we—the leaders—had intended that outcome. Who were they, then, to complain?
It wasn’t until we happened to have a meeting in a smaller room with a square table that John and I realized what was wrong. Sitting around that table, the interplay was better, the exchange of ideas more free-flowing, the eye contact automatic. Every person there, no matter their job title, felt free to speak up. This was not only what we wanted, it was a fundamental Pixar belief: Unhindered communication was key, no matter what your position. At our long, skinny table, comfortable in our middle seats, we had utterly failed to recognize that we were behaving contrary to that basic tenet. Over time, we’d fallen into a trap. Even though we were conscious that a room’s dynamics are critical to any good discussion, even though we believed that we were constantly on the lookout for problems, our vantage point blinded us to what was right before our eyes.
Emboldened by this new insight, I went to our facilities department. “Please,” I said, “I don’t care how you do it, but get that table out of there.” I wanted something that could be arranged into a more intimate square, so people could address each other directly and not feel like they didn’t matter. A few days later, as a critical meeting on an upcoming movie approached, our new table was installed, solving the problem.
Still, interestingly, there were remnants of that problem that did not immediately vanish just because we’d solved it. For example, the next time I walked into West One, I saw the brand-new table, arranged—as requested—in a more intimate square that made it possible for more people to interact at once. But the table was adorned with the same old place cards! While we’d fixed the key problem that had made place cards seem necessary, the cards themselves had become a tradition that would continue until we specifically dismantled it. This wasn’t as troubling an issue as the table itself, but it was something we had to address because cards implied hierarchy, and that was precisely what we were trying to avoid. When Andrew Stanton, one of our directors, entered the meeting room that morning, he grabbed several place cards and began randomly moving them around, narrating as he went. “We don’t need these anymore!” he said in a way that everyone in the room grasped. Only then did we succeed in eliminating this ancillary problem.
This is the nature of management. Decisions are made, usually for good reasons, which in turn prompt other decisions. So when problems arise—and they always do—disentangling them is not as simple as correcting the original error. Often, finding a solution is a multi-step endeavor. There is the problem you know you are trying to solve—think of that as an oak tree—and then there are all the other problems—think of these as saplings—that sprouted from the acorns that fell around it. And these problems remain after you cut the oak tree down.
Even after all these years, I’m often surprised to find problems that have existed right in front of me, in plain sight. For me, the key to solving these problems is finding ways to see what’s working and what isn’t, which sounds a lot simpler than it is. Pixar today is managed according to this principle, but in a way I’ve been searching all my life for better ways of seeing. It began decades before Pixar even existed.
When I was a kid, I used to plunk myself down on the living room floor of my family’s modest Salt Lake City home a few minutes before 7 p.m. every Sunday and wait for Walt Disney. Specifically, I’d wait for him to appear on our black-and-white RCA with its tiny 12-inch screen. Even from a dozen feet away—the accepted wisdom at the time was that viewers should put one foot between them and the TV for every inch of screen—I was transfixed by what I saw.
Each week, Walt Disney himself opened the broadcast of The Wonderful World of Disney. Standing before me in suit and tie, like a kindly neighbor, he would demystify the Disney magic. He’d explain the use of synchronized sound in Steamboat Willie or talk about the importance of music in Fantasia. He always went out of his way to give credit to his forebears, the men—and, at this point, they were all men—who’d done the pioneering work upon which he was building his empire. He’d introduce the television audience to trailblazers such as Max Fleischer, of Koko the Clown and Betty Boop fame, and Winsor McCay, who made Gertie the Dinosaur—the first animated film to feature a character that expressed emotion—in 1914. He’d gather a group of his animators, colorists, and storyboard artists to explain how they made Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck come to life. Each week, Disney created a made-up world, used cutting-edge technology to enable it, and then told us how he’d done it.
Walt Disney was one of my two boyhood idols. The other was Albert Einstein. To me, even at a young age, they represented the two poles of creativity. Disney was all about inventing the new. He brought things into being—both artistically and technologically—that did not exist before. Einstein, by contrast, was a master of explaining that which already was. I read every Einstein biography I could get my hands on as well as a little book he wrote on his theory of relativity. I loved how the concepts he developed forced people to change their approach to physics and matter, to view the universe from a different perspective. Wild-haired and iconic, Einstein dared to bend the implications of what we thought we knew. He solved the biggest puzzles of all and, in doing so, changed our understanding of reality.
Both Einstein and Disney inspired me, but Disney affected me more because of his weekly visits to my family’s living room. “When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are,” his TV show’s theme song would announce as a baritone-voiced narrator promised: “Each week, as you enter this timeless land, one of these many worlds will open to you . . . .” Then the narrator would tick them off: Frontierland (“tall tales and true from the legendary past”), Tomorrowland (“the promise of things to come”), Adventureland (“the wonder world of nature’s own realm”), and Fantasyland (“the happiest kingdom of them all”). I loved the idea that animation could take me places I’d never been. But the land I most wanted to learn about was the one occupied by the innovators at Disney who made these animated films.
Between 1950 and 1955, Disney made three movies we consider classics today: Cinderella, Peter Pan, and Lady and the Tramp. More than half a century later, we all remember the glass slipper, the Island of Lost Boys, and that scene where the cocker spaniel and the mutt slurp spaghetti. But few grasp how technically sophisticated these movies were. Disney’s animators were at the forefront of applied technology; instead of merely using existing methods, they were inventing ones of their own. They had to develop the tools to perfect sound and color, to use blue screen matting and multi-plane cameras and xerography. Every time some technological breakthrough occurred, Walt Disney incorporated it and then talked about it on his show in a way that highlighted the relationship between technology and art. I was too young to realize such a synergy was groundbreaking. To me, it just made sense that they belonged together.
Watching Disney one Sunday evening in April of 1956, I experienced something that would define my professional life. What exactly it was is difficult to describe except to say that I felt something fall into place inside my head. That night’s episode was called “Where Do the Stories Come From?” and Disney kicked it off by praising his animators’ knack for turning everyday occurrences into cartoons. That night, though, it wasn’t Disney’s explanation that pulled me in but what was happening on the screen as he spoke. An artist was drawing Donald Duck, giving him a jaunty costume and a bouquet of flowers and a box of candy with which to woo Daisy. Then, as the artist’s pencil moved around the page, Donald came to life, putting up his dukes to square off with the pencil lead, then raising his chin to allow the artist to give him a bow tie.
The definition of superb animation is that each character on the screen makes you believe it is a thinking being. Whether it’s a T-Rex or a slinky dog or a desk lamp, if viewers sense not just movement but intention—or, put another way, emotion—then the animator has done his or her job. It’s not just lines on paper anymore; it’s a living, feeling entity. This is what I experienced that night, for the first time, as I watched Donald leap off the page. The transformation from a static line drawing to a fully dimensional, animated image was sleight of hand, nothing more, but the mystery of how it was done—not just the technical process but the way the art was imbued with such emotion—was the most interesting problem I’d ever considered. I wanted to climb through the TV screen and be part of this world.
The mid-1950s and early 1960s were, of course, a time of great prosperity and industry in the United States. Growing up in Utah in a tight-knit Mormon community, my four younger brothers and sisters and I felt that anything was possible. Because the adults we knew had all lived through the Depression, World War II, and then the Korean War, this period felt to them like the calm after a thunderstorm.
I remember the optimistic energy—an eagerness to move forward that was enabled and supported by a wealth of emerging technologies. It was boom time in America, with manufacturing and home construction at an all-time high. Banks were offering loans and credit, which meant more and more people could own a new TV, house, or Cadillac. There were amazing new appliances like disposals that ate your garbage and machines that washed your dishes, although I certainly did my share of cleaning them by hand. The first organ transplants were performed in 1954; the first polio vaccine came a year later; in 1956, the term artificial intelligence entered the lexicon. The future, it seemed, was already here.
Then, when I was twelve, the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite—Sputnik 1—into earth’s orbit. This was huge news, not just in the scientific and political realms but in my sixth grade classroom at school, where the morning routine was interrupted by a visit from the principal, whose grim expression told us that our lives had changed forever. Since we’d been taught that the Communists were the enemy and that nuclear war could be waged at the touch of a button, the fact that they’d beaten us into space seemed pretty scary—proof that they had the upper hand.
The United States government’s response to being bested was to create something called ARPA, or the Advanced Research Projects Agency. Though it was housed within the Defense Department, its mission was ostensibly peaceful: to support scientific researchers in America’s universities in the hopes of preventing what it termed “technological surprise.” By sponsoring our best minds, the architects of ARPA believed, we’d come up with better answers. Looking back, I still admire that enlightened reaction to a serious threat: We’ll just have to get smarter. ARPA would have a profound effect on America, leading directly to the computer revolution and the Internet, among countless other innovations. There was a sense that big things were happening in America, with much more to come. Life was full of possibility.
Still, while my family was middle-class, our outlook was shaped by my father’s upbringing. Not that he talked about it much. Earl Catmull, the son of an Idaho dirt farmer, was one of fourteen kids, five of whom had died as infants. His mother, raised by Mormon pioneers who made a meager living panning for gold in the Snake River in Idaho, didn’t attend school until she was 11. My father was the first in his family ever to go to college, paying his own way by working several jobs. During my childhood, he taught math during the school year and built houses during the summers. He built our house from the ground up. While he never explicitly said that education was paramount, my siblings and I all knew we were expected to study hard and go to college.
Copyright © 2014 by Ed Catmull. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.