With 15 Academy Awards and a global average of more than $600 million per film, Pixar is perhaps the most successfully creative studio ever — and one of the most profitable. Of the 14 films produced, Except for 1 other movie, all of made the list of the top 50 grossing animated films.
However, in his memoir, Creativity Inc., founder Pixar Ed Catmull wrote that "in the beginning, all of our films were bad." The trick, he points out, is to go beyond the seed of the original idea and take the time and effort it takes to get something “from bad to not so bad.”
This takes more than just talent, it takes an intimate partnership honed over decades. At the heart of that process – and indeed of all creative processes – is effective feedback. While in many places, feedback is often a rather casual, comfortable exercise, but at Pixar it is a highly disciplined business. And this turns out to make all the difference.
Credit : Pixar
All original ideas were ugly babies!
People tend to think that good works are born of sublime inspiration. Maybe that's also true, but only a small part of the story. Catmull called Pixar's early ideas "ugly babies." Not everyone sees what those ugly babies will grow up to be.
The problem is that there is always a tendency to compare a budding idea with a finished project. Moreover, we often compare them with the best. It's much easier to remember a classic scene from Casablanca than a broken scene from in Ishtar. So it's important to recognize the potential of a new idea, as well as its shortcomings.
Doing that is not easy. Everyone has seen successful runaway movies like Toy Story and Finding Nemo, but they didn't know about them when they were weird, ugly babies. There's an urge to kill new ideas in the cradle, but it's also important to protect them. Every great work was once an ugly baby.
“Uniqueness is vulnerable,” Catmull once wrote. The world is often not very kind to new, creative talents. Novelty needs friends. "Our job is to protect our children from being judged too quickly. Our job is to protect the new."
Credit : Pixar
Feedback requires fairness, trust, and empathy!
While jumping into judgment can impede the creative process, over-optimism is just as bad. The only way an ugly baby idea can get any better is through honest feedback. You must identify problems before you can solve them, and the sooner, the better. Every creator has to face harsh truths
However, it also requires trust. An idea is never just an idea, but a part of the person who came up with it. It's easy for someone to walk in and say, "that's not right," or "I don't like the idea," but it's not going to get any better. It only prevents the creative process from developing. Feedback is never directed at individuals or merely expressing opinions.
The best way to help someone else's work is to treat it as your own. Put in the effort as if it were your own ugly child, instead of sitting in judgment. A creative project can only reach its true potential when everyone works towards success.
Unfortunately, quite a few people are in a position to do it effectively.
Credit : Pixar
Keep the chef out of the kitchen!
One of the key principles of creativity is that you want to get ideas from everywhere. Truly unique ideas never come from one place, but from synthesizing disparate sources and applying them to a new context. However, while building a wide network to come up with ideas is great, it's also often fatal for idea development.
When Catmull and John Lasseter took over Disney's animation studio, well past its prime, the first thing they noticed was a broken feedback system. Directors will receive three sets of notes, in the form of to-do lists to check, which are often contradictory.
At Pixar, there's a team called the "braintrust - reliable brain," made from of a small group of the company's top directors and producers responsible for providing feedback to films in development. Importantly, everyone in this group is a filmmaker and has the ability to put themselves in the director's shoes. (Disney Animation studio now has a similar group called the “Story Trust.”)
When I was a publishing executive, I was often asked about projects in production. Writers rarely, if ever, give feedback unless closely related to the project and earn credibility. Even then, the writer tries to base his opinions on specific experiences or strengths and be sure to make it clear that the comments are suggestions, not commands.
Not everyone's opinion is taken into account.
Credit : Pixar
The purpose of feedback is to move the project forward
One of the most interesting things that Catmull mentions is that, although he has met a significant number of creative geniuses – and I assume Steve Jobs in them – he has never met “a single person can clearly tell what they're fighting for when they're just getting started .”
Not a person.
Often, the feedback period is seen as an opportunity for people to give their opinion. Nothing can go further than the truth. The purpose of feedback is to move the project forward. Anything that doesn't fulfill that purpose - no matter who it comes from - has no place in the feedback phase.
Of course, there are times when a project has to be scrapped altogether. Not all ugly babies grow up beautiful. Sometimes a simple idea won't work. Other times, an idea like potential cannot be further developed. When that happens, the only option is to unplug, but that judgment is decided outside of the creative process, not internally.
As long as the project continues, people need to commit to its success. Getting an idea is never as important – or difficult – as developing it.
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