The Secret to Pixar’s Success: Honest Feedback

jacket illustration: © Disney • Pixar

© Disney • Pixar

I live just a few minutes away from the Pixar headquarters. Although I’m still awaiting my official invitation to tour their offices, I imagine it a vast playground of artists and storytellers dreaming up fantastical tales filled with unforgettable characters. Supposedly they serve free cereal around the clock.

The reality is that Pixar is a workplace much like any other. Their themed offices and unique perks are probably not the reason behind their hot streak of successes. Instead Pixar’s true strength is how they have mastered the unseen creative process that drives all their award-winning films.

In Creativity Inc., a new book by co-founder Ed Catmull, we get a glimpse into how Pixar does what it does so well. They are popularly known for their Brain Trust, a rotating group of their top directors and writers who periodically review each other’s films from formation to the final product. And their recipe appears to be both simple and incredibly difficult at the same time:

What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it. – Loc. 56

Unlike most organizations, Pixar spends much of its effort recognizing its weaknesses and working to fix them. They devote themselves to uncovering problems, solving them, and then looking for new ones.

We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them. – Loc. 13

It’s hard work to constantly evaluate yourself and your work to find room for improvement, but it’s become part of the Pixar ethos. Instead of viewing feedback as something to be feared, they have turned it into a significant part of the creative process that needs to be embraced. If you are working on something that requires creativity, complexity, and long term thinking, Catmull argues that you are bound to get lost.

People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process. It is the nature of things—in order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for a while, and that near-fusing with the project is an essential part of its emergence. But it is also confusing. Where once a movie’s writer/ director had perspective, he or she loses it. Where once he or she could see a forest, now there are only trees. The details converge to obscure the whole, and that makes it difficult to move forward substantially in any one direction. The experience can be overwhelming. All directors, no matter how talented, organized, or clear of vision, become lost somewhere along the way. That creates a problem for those who seek to give helpful feedback. How do you get a director to address a problem he or she cannot see? – Loc. 1439

What seems to separate Pixar from the rest of the pack, and indeed other film studios outside of animation is that they embrace a deep commitment to personal feedback. It is not simply a one time deal. Their ideas are tested, refined, discarded, and exchanged. All of their movies begin as rough drafts full of bumps and flaws and only through empowering employees to speak up and make suggestions do they get better.

Essentially Pixar pursues a policy of honesty and mutual trust for one another, and in turn that allows their people to be open about whether a project is working or not working. The fear of offending someone who has worked hard on something is replaced by the fear of not making the best possible movie they can.

This principle eludes most people, but it is critical: You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged. To set up a healthy feedback system, you must remove power dynamics from the equation—you must enable yourself, in other words, to focus on the problem, not the person. – Loc. 1485

It easy to forget that Pixar is not the only studio that gives notes. But whereas most studios give notes from on high, often mandatory, not even Disney executives are allowed to intervene in the Pixar process. The people who give feedback at Pixar are other creative personnel, directors, and writers with a mutual understanding of how great stories are made. They are equals, not competitors or more powerful members of a complex hierarchy. They are other storytellers.

Getting the right people in the room and encouraging them to speak up is an essential part of the feedback process. And this advice applies to many of the creative tasks we do every day. As Edmull expresses throughout the book, maintaining an environment of true candor and openess requires constantly fighting the forces of entropy and championing the need for constructive criticism. By being honest about each and every one of their films during the development process and being willing to go back and rework the elements that aren’t working, Pixar has created something altogether unique in the film industry: a studio with an unparalleled level of both creative and financial success. This ability to separate yourself from your work and repeatedly invite the feedback of smart talented people is often challenging for Pixar but for this particular company, it is the only way forward.

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