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Pixar's Billion Dollar Brain

Creativity Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration ed catmull pixar Ryan Holiday success success stories

Lesson: Institutionalize candor and honesty

After the mega-success of Toy Story, the Pixar team encountered a problem many small companies do: Maintaining the secret sauce that had made them a success. Once success there comes an influx of new but talented people. Where initially, everyone felt comfortable expressing their criticisms, now there were new people who had to gain that familiarity. Before Pixar’s expansion the core group of animators had been like a fraternity, able to offer harsh criticism without becoming hostile or embittered. Now, came the uncomfortable feeling of offending people. Ed Catmull witnessed a low level computer designer who was too shy and thus unwilling to criticize a director whose latest film brought in $300 million.

Yet this candid criticism, even when it became heated, was exactly what had led to the $300 million film in the first place. To solve this problem, Ed institutionalized candor and honesty by creating what he dubbed “Braintrusts” for each film. This had to be handled delicately. He cultivated solid principles to guide these meetings.

Knowing that people are resistant to authority, he assured everyone that a braintrust had no authority whatsoever. It could merely make suggestions, and it was up to the artists to decide whether or not to implement any changes at all. The sole purpose of the braintrust was to provide a “pulse” for the director to gain intelligent feedback. It would promote a spirit of debate among all the departments. This would inform the production team about the inevitable—and most importantly the invisible—flaws in all projects. 

Once Toy Story 2 was released, the productions began to expand at an unprecedented rate with Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles all simultaneously being produced.

Brad Bird, a director hired from outside the original core Pixar team, was to make The Incredibles. There he got his first taste of institutionalized honesty and candor. He loved it. 

At one point in the movie, Helen and Bob (Elastagirl and Mr. Incredible) are arguing. Bob is not supposed to be going out to do superhero work like he had in his youth. So, after returning home from gallavanting one night, he sneaks back into the house, but is caught by his wife, Helen.

The Braintrust watched the scene and told Brad that the argument felt all wrong. They said it felt as though Bob was berating her too much. He was bullying her. It even felt a little too much like domestic abuse. Everyone informed Brad that they did not like Bob’s character.

But Brad had pitched the tone of the film and everyone agreed to it. He believed that in this situation this is exactly how Bob would react given his character. Fortunately, Brad was wise enough to understand that something was wrong if everyone reacted this way.

Then suddenly it hit him. Bob was so much physically larger than Helen. He was like a big scary bear and she was a petite little girl being threatened. This was the reason the Braintrust had reacted the way that they did. To solve the problem, he simply had Helen—whose superpower was elasticity of limbs—to stretch and expand in size when she is holding her ground. During her line “This is not about you,” she grows so large and so big that she dwarfs Bob.

At the next braintrust meeting everyone said it was amazing. They asked what lines had been altered, to which Brad replied: “none.”

Though the Braintrust had not correctly identified the issue exactly, their reaction was a signal that something needed to be altered. The result? a $631,000,000 box office mega hit.



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