Excellence To Infinity And Beyond: 'Creativity, Inc.'
By Dr. Ed Catmull

May 31, 2021

Excellence To Infinity And Beyond: 'Creativity, Inc.'

Driven by a singlular passion to create the world's first feature-length CGI (Computer Generated Image) movie, Dr. Ed Catmull followed his dreams from the completion of his PhD at the University of Utah, to the New York Institute of Technology, to George Lucas' Lucasfilm, to being a founder of Pixar and getting to work with the likes of John Lasseter, Steve Jobs, and ultimately Robert Iger at Disney. Creativity, Inc. not only documents the story of the creation of Pixar, but primarily shares lessons-learned about how to be a great Manager and Leader while also nurturing and fostering creativity (and excellence) within a business organization.

I am constantly rethinking my own models for how to deal with uncertainty and change and how to enable people.‘Creativity, Inc.’, by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, pg. 235

How To Create A Company Of Excellence

If I were to summarize my reading of ‘Creativity, Inc.’, one definition would certainly be that it’s a manual, of sorts, documenting how to create, and sustain, a company of excellence.

When I think of the products that have been distributed by Pixar, I think of incredibly immersive movies that have taken me, and my kids, to make-believe worlds, times and places. From ‘Toy Story’ to ‘Finding Nemo’ to ‘Bugs Life’ to ‘The Incredibles’, etc. These movies have been amazing technological achievements in that they are all feature-length films generated entirely by computers. But they are also artistic works of art, from the images to the acting and the story lines. Ed Catmull, and the staff he assembled around him, are, and were, instrumental in such achievements. The constellation of characters involved in this world of theatrical excellence also involved many other geniuses as well, to include George Lucas, Steve Jobs, John Lasseter, and Robert Iger. ‘Creativity, Inc’ weaves them all into the story about how hard it is to create, and sustain, creative excellence in business.

But the main purpose of this book is to share Dr. Catmull’s lessons-learned in becoming a business (and technical) leader of highly talented and creative people. After graduating from the University of Utah with a PhD in Computer Science, he found himself tasked with building a technical team at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT). Imagine working for years on highly technical subjects in the field of Computer Science only to immediately find, once you were done, that you now needed to figure out how to lead people in a business setting requiring a set of soft skills and knowledge you had not yet acquired. How terrifying!

Dr. Catmull seems to crack the leadership code, however, and goes on to build highly innovative teams at Lucasfilm and Pixar. This book is a treasure trove of knowledge learned along the way.

In our podcast, however, I discuss my intrigue with the stories in the margins of this book, and behind the scenes, and how serendipitous some of these stories are.

Such as the fact that John Lasseter worked at Disney Animation as his first job out of college, and visited Ed Catmull and Team at Lucasfilm on a field trip sponsored by Disney Animation. On this field trip, he related to Catmull a CGI movied idea he had, which he later shared with Disney Animation. Lasseter was then fired from Disney Animation because Disney did not see a future in computer animation. Lasseter, of course, went on to become Creative Director at Disney Animation as a result of Disney’s acquisition of Pixar.

Another interesting subtelty in the Pixar story is that Pixar used to be part of Lucasfilm, as George Lucas hired Ed Catmull to start a computer division within Lucasfilm. However, Steve Jobs ultimately purchased Pixar from George Lucas, only to ultimately sell the company to Disney around the same time that Disney was bringing Lucasfilm into the Disney fold.

Of course the genius of Steve Jobs in all of the business dealings of Pixar (and NeXT Computer, Inc.) cannot be missed, or overstated, either.

But at the end of the day, as touched on in our discussion of Robert Iger’s book, ‘The Ride of A Lifetime’ in our Podcast Episode 21, Robert Iger is the central figure in the (arguably) ultimate business success of Pixar, in bringing Pixar into Disney to help reinvigorate a flagging Disney Animation business unit.

While Pixar is an exemplar of an excellent, highly creative company, and Steve Jobs the genius technology business mogul who made amazing technological innovations happen in the world of computing, Robert Iger remains ‘The Man’ in my book.

podcast leadership management computer graphics pixar silicon graphics SGI sun microsystems Bill Joy Robert Iger Ed Catmull Steve Jobs Jim Clark John Warnock ARPA Alvy Ray Smith John Lasseter NYIT Richard Edlund George Lucas Michael Eisner Rita Kogan Lucasfilm Industrial Light and Magic NeXT Disney Star Wars

Dialogue & Discussion