A Conversation with Edwin Catmull—President of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios

Interviews With Fans of The Great Courses

Edwin Catmull, Pixar’s founding father talks about his 20 year quest to create the first computer animated film, lessons he’s learned, friendships he’s made, and his love of The Great Courses.

Image of the Edwin Catmull
Edwin Catmull

THE GREAT COURSES: Let’s talk a little bit about your connection to The Great Courses.

ED CATMULL: Yes, I’ve been getting courses for many years. It actually started at an Academy Award dinner, when the Thomas Fagles translation of The Iliad came out.

At this dinner I mentioned to this other woman at the table that I couldn’t read it because I can’t read poetry. It actually shuts my brain down. And she said, well, don’t read it, listen to it.

I listened to it, and it was actually a stunning experience. So then I started looking around, and that’s when I discovered, through a friend actually, about The Great Courses. He said, well, you need to listen to (Robert) Greenberg’s lectures on music. He’s phenomenal!

Then I started getting all these courses, and for years I would just listen to them in the car. I was getting a lecture a day.

The way I viewed it was, what I want to do is listen to the entire lecture series on all aspects of world history. It was this incredible course of getting the grand sweep of world history.

THE GREAT COURSES: That is quite a quest!

ED CATMULL: Oh, and it was an amazing journey to go on. Holy cow! Because when you hear it all together, just going from lecture to lecture and the selection that you have is so phenomenal that I was just drawn in. I was just hungry for them. I couldn’t wait to get to the car to get to the next episode.

THE GREAT COURSES: So over the years you’ve amassed quite a collection, right?


THE GREAT COURSES: By the way, have any of them found their way into Pixar movies, or at least some of the thinking?

ED CATMULL: First of all, the movies are all short, and usually focus on a single idea.

People don’t realize how really focused movies have to be in order to work, but there have been several times actually where I’ve been involved in the discussions. Because when we do movies, if you’re going to make a movie original, then you need to do research.

People don't realize how really focused movies have to be in order to work. Edwin Catmull Click To Tweet

You’ve got to go out into the world and bring something out of the world into the film. Otherwise you’re just copying other films. You don’t want to be self referential in using the vocabulary of all the films that you’ve seen, but instead you go to places, or you learn about it.

There have been times when I would talk about historical events, what took place, and that overarching pattern, and it’s part of our discussion as people are trying to reach for some depth to put in the films

THE GREAT COURSES: Well, I’m glad and heartened if The Great Courses could even be a little part of the research for the amazing movies of Pixar and Disney animation.

Let me bring you back to the beginning. How did you get to Pixar?

EDWIN CATMULL: Well, I happened to be at the University of Utah, where the foundations were laid for computer graphics, and it was funded by DARPA. In fact, the entire foundation of the computer industry was funded by DARPA.

The basic principle was they were funding smart people and students at universities spread throughout the US. There was very little bureaucracy or overhead. This was an environment in which people were encouraged to explore and develop.

I entered into graduate school, in this time of not only support for this, but also protection. This was a phenomenal program, and it was a great experience.

In this same program we had Jim Clark, who founded Netscape and Silicon Graphics, and John Warnock, who founded Adobe, just an amazing group of people.

When I left I had the goal of making the first computer animated film and that was the path that I pursued. Each one of us had our own particular path.

I went up and spent five years in New York, but I took the lessons about that kind of a group to New York. Then I was hired into Lucasfilm to bring technology into the film industry.

With the success of Star Wars he was eager to do something that nobody else in the film industry was even willing to consider, which was bringing in the technology. So he was funding it.

My job was to help bring in the right people, and I found some rather remarkable people there. In five years we worked in computer graphics, in digital audio and video editing, and computer games.

Then in 1986, we spun out as Pixar. Now John Lasseter joined us at this time. And Steve Jobs bought us from George Lucas.

The Beginning of Pixar

THE GREAT COURSES: So talk about John Lasseter, another very important name in the Pixar story. Tell me how you guys worked together.

EDWIN CATMULL: Well, John had been at Disney, and at that time Disney wasn’t accepting of new talent, and so he didn’t work out there. He had first done a little bit of playing around with computer graphics while he was at Disney, and then when he saw what we had, he fell in love with it. So we invited him up to do some animation of Pixar’s.

He came and worked on a short, which was Andre and Wally B, and then basically he joined the group and started to make a series of films. At this time we were spinning out of Lucasfilm into Pixar, but we kept on making these short films.

It was our luck that not only did we have a master animator, but John had these very natural and deep storytelling skills. And he used the short stories, the short films, as a way of honing those skills.

As we reached the point where we were starting to grow and do commercials. He was bringing in talent, like Anders Stanton and Pete Docter, into Pixar to initially make commercials. We built up a group of talent.

When we had the chance to actually make a film, which is Toy Story, there was already the beginning of a solid group of very creative people.

THE GREAT COURSES: Your dream was to make the first computer animated movie. That first computer animated movie was Toy Story, and cinema history was written at that time. How long did it take, from when you really were focused on your dream until the realization of Toy Story, which was such a huge hit and such an amazing movie?

EDWIN CATMULL: It took 20 years.


Working With Steve Jobs

EDWIN CATMULL: When I started this, I thought it was going to take 10 years, but it actually took twice as long. But everybody knew we were doing it, so when we actually achieved it, we got calls from all over the industry because they knew this had been our dream all these years.

Even for Steve (Jobs). Steve didn’t buy us originally because he wanted to make an animated film, rather he recognized the passion in the group, and so he then adopted that passion. He said, this is something really unique. This is something worth pursuing.

Read more about Steve Jobs

THE GREAT COURSES: Well, you throw around Steve like it’s your buddy down the street. Steve Jobs, another one of the monumental figures in the creative industry, and the computer industry. What was it like working with Steve Jobs?

EDWIN CATMULL: Well, the one thing which almost nobody knows is the arch of Steve’s life. One of the reasons is that Steve’s behavior, when he was young he was very smart and he was also fairly brash.

People would not have called him empathetic at the time, nor would I when I first met him. But Steve was so smart that he was actually learning from all those experiences, both positive and negative.

Along the way, as NeXT grew and as Pixar grew, Steve changed. He figured these things out, and he figured out how to be a true partner. He developed a strong sense of empathy in the way he worked with people.

The issue was that after he went through those changes, which is about the time he returned to Apple, all those people that saw that change stayed with him through the rest of his life.

None of those people, including me, were going to psychoanalyze or talk about Steve to the public. This change in Steve’s life was witnessed by the people who knew him, but was not known in the outside world.

What the outside world saw was this incredible comeback at Apple. Their view of Steve and the way he operated was that image of him that they had read about and heard about from earlier in his career but didn’t represent the Steve that had matured and had learned.

So while he was always extremely passionate and incredibly smart, his way of working with people changed, and I witnessed that and he developed a lot of really deep friendships and bonds with people which I don’t think many understand.

This was basically the classic hero’s journey, starting out as this smart guy that’s cast out of his kingdom and wandering around but learns a lot, and then comes back a changed person.

THE GREAT COURSES: Could be a Pixar movie…

EDWIN CATMULL: Well, it should be. As you know, there was a movie, but the real complexity of that is so difficult to capture that they don’t. They didn’t even know about this evolution in Steve, so there wasn’t an attempt to capture it. They go back to the early days without realizing what the actual story is.

Creativity, Inc.

Image of Creativity, Inc. Book CoverTHE GREAT COURSES: Well, you write about Steve in your new book, Creativity, Inc., and you also encapsulate some of the wisdom that you’ve acquired over all those years in working with creative people.

Let’s talk a little bit about some of the pillars of dealing with creative cultures that you write about in the book. It’s interesting that some of it, and/or a lot of it even, is about failure. How important is failure in the creative process?

ED CATMULL: Well, to me failure is very interesting. In fact, it’s very popular to write about failure now, and the importance of it. But here’s the problem with failure, there are two different meanings of failure.

There is the one that we learned in school, which is that you screwed up or you were dumb, or you slacked off. So that’s a very negative meaning. And since that was the meaning of failure all the way through school, then it’s deeply ingrained in us.

The mature meaning of failure is, that as a result of trying something and it not working, that we learn. Click To Tweet

Then there is the mature meaning of failure, which is that we all know that as a result of trying something and it not working, that we learn. There’s that positive meaning of failure which is a natural outgrowth. So you say, well, let’s just use the positive meaning of the word failure, but we can’t do that.

We have to realize that we have both meanings, and they co-exist in us at the same time. But if we acknowledge that and we don’t just dismiss the one, we also recognize that if we try to avoid those failures, then we will screw up.

We will try to repeat the past. We look backwards. So the structures that worked in the past, or the things that did or other people’s successes, we will try to copy. We end up in a place where we think we’re being adventuresome, but actually were being very conservative, and holding back.

We will fail on somethings—as we do at Pixar and Disney. We still have failures, and we just say, well, that’s what they are, and we screwed up. We’ll learn from it and we will become better, but if we didn’t have that failure, then we would end up in a worse position.

THE GREAT COURSES: So do you put in some processes or something to incubate those opportunities to fail or do you fail big? Is that the goal?

ED CATMULL: My own belief is that problems and failures are self similar, and most people don’t know what that means.

If you actually look at all of our life, the good things or the bad things, there are a gazillion little tiny things or little problems, and there are a smaller number of bigger problems and then an even smaller number of yet bigger problems.

The key concept is that as the problems get worse, they are fewer in number, but nevertheless they’re random. You don’t know when they’re going to happen, and they are unbounded.

If you begin to think that way, then you say, well, I’m going to have a bunch of little problems. We don’t usually call them failures. We just say, they’re the problems that happen at work, and they’re easy to categorize. Then there are the middle size ones, but the implication is every once in a while, we’re going to have a meltdown.

Embracing Failure—Building Stronger Organizations

With Toy Story 2, or even Ratatouille, we had basically restarts on them. It’s going to happen. There’s no line to draw. What happens in a lot of companies is there’s a horizontal line, so there are problems that are big enough to address, and the other stuff is down in the noise level.

You actually have to push authority to fix problems down in noise level of the organization, you let somebody else solve the problems and make the mistakes, then you’ve got a richer and deeper group of people to address problems at every level.

So the underlying principle is that you have to let other people make decisions, which means that when they make mistakes or they make the wrong decision, that that has to be OK.

Usually in organizations if people screw up, then it’s really bad. So there’s a natural tendency to avoid screwing up, or manager’s with that responsibility give signals to people they don’t want bad things to happen. Without thinking about it, we can end up with structures where people clamp down or they become fearful.

The question we’ve got is, how do we remove the barriers of fear from people? These are deep rooted issues that are in all of us.

THE GREAT COURSES: And it’s not just for creative people, in the sense of writers, producers, animators, all of business is in a sense the problem solving aspect, is a creative endeavor in itself.

ED CATMULL: Yes, and looking at it in that broad sense, you say, well, solving the problems of our life, whether it’s our families or our friends or work or whatever, we all have these problems. We are trying to solve them, and all of us have the potential to be very creative, and that most of all think of themselves as creative.

No, you’re dealing with life, so you need to be creative to deal with it. The question is how do we free people up so they feel better about solving problems, and feel better about addressing things that are out of their control, where they do have mistakes and failures? If we can free them up, then basically people become more creative.

The Brain Trust

THE GREAT COURSES: I want to talk a little bit about the one thing that you’ve put into place at Pixar and at Disney, and that is the brain trust. Can you explain to us what that is?

ED CATMULL: Well, at a surface level you could say, it’s a smart group of people getting together to solve problems. That’s just the surface level, but we mean something deeper than that when we say the brain trust.

One of them is that the brain trust is structured so they have a vested interest in each other’s success. They really want the other people to do well.

THE GREAT COURSES: By the way, to put this in context for people, you create a brain trust every time you’re trying to make a movie.

Every time you’re trying to make a Pixar movie, you have a team that’s working on it, but then you also give them the benefit of this brain trust to help them solve creative problems. Is that a fair contextualization?

ED CATMULL: Yes. There’s a group responsible for the film, and you want enough creative ability in that group to be able to solve the problems of the film. But, in fact, when you’re working on a film, you get lost in it, and you lose perspective.

If you lose perspective, then who helps you see things or solve problems, that’s a little more objective?

So the brain trust are the other directors, and other creative people and writers who are able to come in and provide some guidance, but they are considered to be fellow filmmakers.

What we learned is it’s important for the brain trust to not have authority to override the director. What we’re trying to do is to remove the power structure from the room, which allows the director to listen to these peers, without being threatened by them.

THE GREAT COURSES: Their job is to be really, really honest, right? Isn’t that part of the dynamic, too? They have to have complete candor about their thinking.

ED CATMULL: Yes, their job is to be honest, but the reality of human nature is that sometimes people hold back. They don’t want to look dumb, or they don’t want to embarrass somebody else.

The ongoing task is to recognize when those barriers start to rise, and make adjustments, so that the room is always safe. It requires, in fact, that the group has earned the trust of each other.

As an example, when we first went in there and we formed what is called The Story Trust down there, but essentially it’s the same thing that they liked the principle, but it took a full two years for them to become very high functioning.

All that really was going through some failures together, and realizing that they were still together and they had each other’s back, and that they could trust each other. And when they trusted each other, then they could be more candid, and then the level and function of the group really increased.

Every film, since John and I got there, have now been critical successes. The last three were giant commercial successes with, of course, Frozen blowing the lid off everything.

THE GREAT COURSES: Is that now the most successful animated movie ever? Is that right?

ED CATMULL: Yes, it’s the most successful animated film ever. It passed Toy Story 3 for that, and it’s the fifth highest grossing film of all time, of any kind.

But it’s a consequence of this group functioning very well together, and it took a while to put it together, and the tweaking and vision, but it’s an earned trust.

The success of Frozen is a consequence of this group functioning very well together. Click To Tweet

THE GREAT COURSES: By the way, what’s it like to work with you? You’re the President. What’s it like to work with you?

ED CATMULL: Well, I can’t even describe actually.

THE GREAT COURSES: Well, what would the brain trust say? If they were being completely candid, what would they say?

ED CATMULL: Well, in truth, I’m not really sure. Because I have a strong relationship with John. I am more quiet. I sit back more, when I’m in these brain trust meetings, along with-the general manager at each studio– Jim Morris of Pixar and Andrew Millstein down at Disney.

So we go in these, and once in a while we’ll talk, but actually what we’re doing is observing. We’re trying to say, is this going well? Are we functioning well? And usually the answer is, we’re functioning very well. Sometimes it doesn’t function well, and so we have to then work to fix it.

Every once in awhile magic happens. You can’t even describe it. We don’t record these meetings, but sometimes you’ve got something which is indescribable magic, and Frozen had one of those meetings, where it was so stunning to be in.

THE GREAT COURSES: Talk to me about one of those magic moments.

ED CATMULL: Well, usually what it is, you’re in an off-site, and you’re trying to solve the problems of the film and trying to explore new directions and making sure they connect emotionally. People are thinking about it and trying to solve problems and so forth.

When the magic happens, and all of a sudden the group as a whole gets so focused on the problem that it’s almost as if you realize that nobody is thinking about themselves or what they’re saying. They’re just playing off of each other, and things take rapid steps forward, and it isn’t as if any one person did it. It’s just as a group. They’re like mine meldings.

I don’t want to over play that, but because there are different skills that they’ve all got, but it’s just their functioning as a group is so strong that in the course of a short period of time you see the story evolve and move and become richer and deeper. It’s very hard do describe.

THE GREAT COURSES: We’ve come to think of the film business as the director’s movie, and it’s about the director’s vision, and all that, but everything you’ve talked about, everything is a group dynamic. It’s the power of a high functioning group.

ED CATMULL: Yes, it’s a high functioning group, and the set up is there is a director who’s making the choices. So what you want, in any organization I think, is a large number of ideas and most of the ideas, they maybe brilliant ideas, but they don’t fit into what you’re trying to do as a whole.

So you need, in the case of a movie, a director who will actually select the things that fit together in the whole. That’s why it’s got to be director led, and everybody respects and understands that this person is the one that’s making the call on what works.

It’s their vision, but in order for them to function well, it has to be necessary to live in a world where lots of ideas come up, most of which actually don’t work. And therefore, there has to be safety in the people who are presenting ideas to know that they’re going to put things there that will get rejected and that’s not a personal thing.

It’s not even a judgment of the idea. It is a judgment about whether or not it fits into, coheres with the particular story that’s being told.

And once you get that, then it’s a very freeing experience. You just throw out things, and they stick or they don’t stick. It’s not a personal thing. I’m just trying to help. And when a group reaches that, then everybody is elevated, and enjoying the process.

Creating A Sustainable Business Culture

THE GREAT COURSES: At what point did you decide or think, hey, I’m ripe to become a business book guru?

ED CATMULL: Well, there was a singular focus for 20 years to make the film. After Toy Story came out, there was a year-long period in which I realized, well, I just achieved my goal, and I can’t repeat that.


ED CATMULL: Yes, and at the end of that year I realized that the thing I had observed in other businesses, is most of them after they’re successful, when they’ve got these remarkable people, and I knew a lot of these people, then most of them fell apart. So that then became a new framework to think about things.

A framework in which to make decisions– so the framework was, how do we make a sustainable culture? So that was the next 10 years.

Then we were acquired by Disney. So then there was this interesting new challenge which was how do we keep Pixar sustaining as a successful company, but how do we turn Disney around? So this then became a new challenge.

It was clear when Tangled came out, which had been their biggest success since Lion King, that we had succeeded. At that point I was thinking, I believe that these ideas apply in most organizations.

Now I won’t say every organization. There’s certain areas I’ve never worked in, but I believe in most industries the principles apply and I just want to capture them. Plus I believe that in trying to write them down, that it would force me to think them through more deeply.

So writing the book was just a way to think them through and challenge them, test them, and work with other people to try and refine it.

The idea with the book, which is the same idea we have with a movie is, can you say something which has an effect in the world? And like movies, you don’t resonate with everybody, connect with everybody, but the success is: are there enough people that you can connect with and make a difference? That was really the goal?

THE GREAT COURSES:  So, Ed, every time there’s a business book out there, and yours has become a very popular one, a lot of business managers and business leaders, they’re looking for magic bullets to come out of these books and these insights. Because everybody wants a quick fix, and you talk a little bit about that in the book, right?

ED CATMULL: Yeah. First of all, it drives me nuts. Because the impetus is can I find the quick fix to get around the problem? Like a lot of things, we have two issues here. One is, you do want to make smart decisions, so you want to know what other people did and you want to learn from the problem.

There is the desire for clarity, but what happens is sometimes we want to get to the clarity by skipping around the problem.

You'll never find clarity by skipping around the problem. Click To Tweet

The fact is while you may want the clarity, none of that clarity or even those good concepts, whether from my book or from anybody else, actually takes you away from the fact that you have to go into the mess. There is no skipping around that.

The desire to skip around the mess leads a lot of people to become process oriented. I’ve seen this happen. It’s like, OK, we’ve got a successful business, and I want to control the processes, and if I control the processes I’ll affect my cost.

There’s a line of thinking all of which has got a rational reason behind it, but the result is you end up with something which is hollow or repetitive of something else. You actually have to go off and into some unknown directions and face your problem, and people try to avoid that.

So while the clarity and the costs are all really important, they’re not the goal. Those important things, like your costs and your processes, in a lot of organizations they become the goal. Mastering the process becomes the goal.

The truth is they’re not the goal. They’re important, but the goal is to make something which is really great. As long as you actually understand that, then those important things are actually put in the right context.

THE GREAT COURSES: Well, I know just from talking to you that you’ve gone into the process, you have no fear of the mess, and certainly everything that you’ve created over the years aspires to the greatness. So thank you so much for speaking with us today.

ED CATMULL: My pleasure.

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Edwin Catmull image:By VES_Awards_89.jpg: Jeff Heusser derivative work: Ahonc (This file was derived from  VES Awards 89.jpg:) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons