Animation studio based in Eugene Bugaev 1991

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How to create a creative team? Tips by Pixar.

Animation studio - PIXAR

"The technology inspires art, and art advances technology" - John Lasseter

Ed Ketmell, one of founders of Pixar studio and the present President of Pixar and Disney studios, tells about principles which allowed creating solid collective, to create the creative atmosphere and to cope with extreme situations.

“The main secret of creation of popular films from Pixar studio consists in the correct approach to the solution of problems in production.”

Ed Ketmell
A few years ago I talked to head of one of leading film studios who was convinced that the main problem consists not in finding good people and in finding good ideas. After that conversation, I often asked to representatives a miscellaneous of studios a question which is more important — people or ideas. To my amazement, about half answers said that idea is more important. I don’t agree with it. I think, such opinion appeared because of the wrong understanding of creativity as it is. Importance of idea is too strongly exaggerated in creation of the final product. And it leads to misunderstanding as in critical situations to operate production.

On technology and artistry the Pixar studio is unique in own way. In the 90th we were known as pioneers in the field of computer animation. Our development came to the culmination in 1995 with an exit of the first-ever feature computer animation film “Toy Story”. Within the next 13 years, we released eight other animated films: “A Bug's life”, “Toy Story-2”, “Monsters, Inc”, "Finding Nemo", "The Incredibles", "Cars", "Ratatouille", "WALL-I" which also became blockbusters. Unlike the majority of studios, we never bought scenarios or ideas from outside. All our stories, the worlds and characters were created directly by our artists. And at creation of films we continued to expand borders of computer animation, registering a set of patents in the course of work.

I am not so silly to say that we never will be mistaken, but I don't think that our success is simply great luck. It is result of strict observance of some principles and rules which allow to operate talents rather and to cope with critical situations. Pixar is the integral balanced society. We put a priority on long relationship and we keep some firm belief, such as talent is a rarity. And planning doesn't prevent risks, but provides restoration possibility if there is any failure. We should check constantly all the assumptions, and to find cracks in the company which can harm.

The last two years we had a possibility to check our principles more globally. In 2006 after merge of the Pixar and Walt Disney Company, the Bob Iger heading Disney Animation asked me, John Lasseter and other senior Pixar managers about the help in studio restoration. The success of our measures prompted that I should apply the principles and belief to creation of the strong and creative organization.

What is the creativity?

People usually consider creativity as separate idea of the final product: this cinema about toys, dinosaurs or love. Nevertheless, the huge number of people which work together participates in creation of the film solves a set of problems and tasks in adjacent areas. And the initial idea is only one step to this long and difficult way which proceeds usually around four – five years.

In the film tens of thousands ideas are combined. They everywhere, performed by each line, a symbol, a background, in characters, chamber positions, in color and the lighting, separate shots. The director and other leaders of production don't build the film only on the ideas; each member of creative group of 200-250 people does the offers and brings something in the general process. Creativity should be present at each development stage. A lot of ideas are sorted, and among them there are suitable for creation discovering and history continuation. It’s like archeological excavations: you don't know where and during what moment you can find something valuable.

Acceptance of risks.

People want to see something new each time they go to a cinema, and it is big risk for us. It is a question of new unexpected ideas and will they be apprehended by public. Our last film "WALL-I" is a story about love of the robot in the post-apocalyptic full of garbage world. The previous film "Ratatouille" was about a rat who wants to become chef. We didn't know at an initial stage of development, whether this film be accepted or not, but we relied on someone's wild idea and decided to try.

To operate such a way we as heads of studio should resist to natural desire to lower risk or to avoid it in general. In the film industry many people are guided by a principle that it is safer to copy successes, instead of to try to create something new. That’s why you can see so many similar films. And it explains why it is not enough good films. If you want to create something original, you should risk and be capable to be restored if the organization fails. And what is a key for company restoration? Only talented people! Contrary to belief of the head of known movie company to find good and talented people is not so simply.

Especially the most important that talented people should be able to work effectively in collective. Such things as trust and respect to the subordinates the management of studio cannot “give” at once, it’s appear over time. What we can make is to create an environment where we can trust, respect can develop. Also we can conditions for liberation of creative potential. If to meet these conditions, the friendly staff where creative people are loyal to each other as a result turns out, everyone feels a part something special and surprising, their fire involves as a magnet of other talented people. “I know that I describe” contradicts usual foundations and the widespread methods in the film industry, but I believe that to create a constructive collective is very important.

Sources of our company.

My belief that good people is much more important than good ideas, shouldn't surprise. I had a surprising possibility to work with tremendous people in the beginning developments of computer graphics.

All began at Utah University with such a people like Jim Clark who organized the Silicon Graphics and Netscape companies, John Warnock who has based Adobe and Alan Kay - one of developers of object-oriented programming. We were financed by Department of Researches of the USA, and professor gave us the open space for studying and creativity.

At New York Institute of technology I headed new laboratory of computer animation and Elvi Ray Smith who has made break in computer graphics became one of the first workers in it. It led me to understanding that there is nothing terrible in employing people who cleverer than you.

Then George Loukas employed me as the head of department of computer animation in the Lucasfilm Company to bring computer graphics in films and in the future in games. These researches were fascinating and were beyond one film. George didn't try to limit and keep us technology only for itself allowed us to publish our researches and to impart experience with other institutes. It allowed involving the best people in the area such as John Lasseter an animator from Walt Disney which was very impressed with new possibilities.

And, at last, Pixar began the independent life in 1986 when Steve Jobs bought computer department of the Lucasfilm Company. Steve gave us base and created remarkable team of the management. Some of us kept each other decades, dreaming about the creation of such films and still we were working together with pleasure.

Only when in the Pixar company became ripe crisis at creation “Toy Story-2”, I started to understand how to create and organize creative collective. In 1996 while we worked over our second film “A Bug's Life”, there was an idea to make a sequel of “Toy Story”. We had enough technical directors for parallel creation of the second film, but all creative people who created the first “Toy Story” including John who was a director, writer Andrew Stenton, the editor Lee Unkrich and screenwriter Joe Ranft – all of them worked over “A Bug's Life”. So, we needed to form new creative team which didn't participate yet in creation of similar films. However we judged that it is normal, after all John, Lee, Andrew and Joe never participated in production of animation films before “Toy Story”.

Disney which at that time extended and financed our films, originally headed for that “Toy Story-2” will be on sale only as a home video and won't begin to extend in cinemas. It was in some way the successful model which meant that quality and the price of the project will be lower. However it was unpleasant to us that in our studio there will be two different quality standards. After a while Disney Company agreed to let out the second part of “Toy Story” in film distribution. But creative management of the project still remained a problem for us.

At the initial stage we draw a storyboard which we mount under music and dialogues. We call it “story reel”. The first versions very crude, but they provide guidance on difficulties and tasks which should be solved. Then we make changes and with each new version the story everything becomes better. In a case with creation “Toy Story-2” we had an excellent idea of the film. However the first “story reel” was not such as we would like it to be. It didn't improve over time. Despite it directors and producers didn't undertake attempts something cardinally to change…

But “A Bug's Life” was completed. John, Andrew, Lee and Joe were free and headed creation “Toy Story-2”. By this moment 18 months had passed since the beginning of production. There were only 8 months to finish the film before the deadline. Knowing that the future of the company depends on team, they were working in a mad mode. Eventually new management supported them to finish the film on time.

How John and his team rescued the film? The initial idea was not problem. The main character of the film, a cowboy doll Woody was kidnapped by the collector of toys who was going to sell it in a museum of toys in Japan. In a culmination point of the story of Woody should solve, go to it to Japan or try to run away and return to the owner child Andy. Well, but after all you guess that it will return to the child, this plot is easy for predicting. If you can easily predict an outcome, after all it’s not so interesting! Therefore the problem consisted in bringing an element of the drama and to force audience to believe that the choice really was. The first team working over the film couldn't solve this problem.

The second group decided to add some elements, such as, fears of toys and to show the attitude of people. As a result there was a history of Jesse the doll. Jesse is a girl-cowboy doll who should go to Japan together with Woody. She wants to leave very much and explains everything to Woody. The audience hears her history during the touching song "When she loved me". She was a favorite toy for one girl who grew, and she threw Jesse out. Really – children grow, their life changes and something must leave. From this point the audience understands that the choice really is, and it grasps people. These elements allowed the history "revive".

“Toy Story-2” became the solving and critical moment for Pixar. During this moment I clearly understood truth about a superiority of people over ideas: if you give good idea to mediocre group, they only will develop it. But if you give mediocre idea to magnificent team – they will correct it or even thrown it away and will find something new.

Also we acquired one more important lesson: the level of quality should be identical to each film which we make. Each person in studio sacrificed time to correct “Toy Story-2”. We stopped all other works, asked people to remain after work and worked in very busy schedule. It was inadmissible if about our company could think like of mediocre and unfair one. As a result quality turned out magnificent, and many companies wished to cooperate, make DVD, toys and other things with our characters.

Certainly, many heads spend large sums for finding good employees, whether but many of them understand, how it is important to create environment in which people can effectively work in team and hang together. After all the monolithic collective it is much better, than the sum of separate slices. Exactly so we also try to work.

Force of creativity.

The creative collective surely should be combined with the creative management harmoniously. This obvious truth miss in many film studios, and, probably, also affairs are and in other branches. Our philosophy is as follows: you find talented people, provide them with the good environment for work so that everyone could honest and state openly the ideas, support and trust of.

After “Toy Story – 2” we changed the department of development. Now instead of looking for new ideas for films, the department should collect small "incubatory" groups to help studio to give rise, develop and supplement own ideas. Each such group consists usually of the director, the screenwriter and several artists. The purpose of such approach to find people who effectively will work together. At this stage still it is impossible to judge quality; the material turns out quite crude, there are many problems and questions. But it is possible to estimate, as the group works and how effectively solves the problems put before them. The management watches that these groups developed and functioned.

In the management cooperation of two people especially important. The director and the producer should become strong partners. They not only aspire to make the magnificent film, but also watch terms, the budget and people. (Good artists are able to stop in time). At film creation we leave a choice and decisions to the main creative persons in production and we do not try to straighten something under ourselves.

Actually, even, when there are obvious problems, we don't undermine their authority and the management, and we support. One good example, at us the director can ask at any moment of the help for group “brainstorm”. (This group is specially created for the solution of difficult tasks). If it doesn't help, we can add in the management of the project more than one person – the writer or the co-producer to strengthen creative group.

What is necessary for the director to become the successful leader? Certainly, the director should be a master as regards the plot story. It means that it should bring together thousands ideas and undermine them under one vision, and also it is fine to represent that his employees can make, and that - No. It should have a maximum of information and possibilities for work, but shouldn't specify, how something to do. To each person it should be given opportunity to bring the, let even small idea or the decision.

The good director not only itself should possess excellent analytical thinking, but also to be capable to involve in the analysis of the employees, and somewhere and will rely on their life experience. The director should be the fine listener and listen to all offers. He appreciates all ideas and a contribution of each employee even if this idea won't be used. And he always chooses the best.

Equality.

One more important quality of good studio is equality among employees. Under such circumstances all people are interested in performing the work to the maximum. They really feel that here one for all and all for one. A good example of such strategy is work of group of brainstorm.

Group of brainstorm.

This group consists of John and eight other directors (Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird, Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Brenda Chapman, Lee Edward Unkrich, Gary Rydstrom and Brad Lewis). If there is a need, this group is collected and shows them the current version of the film. Then two-hour discussion follows how to make the film better. And thus there are no quarrels, quarrels or something similar – everything occurs in the respect and trust atmosphere. All understand that it is much better to understand and correct a problem at the beginning of a way than when will be already too late.

The management of the film receives result of discussion in the form of councils, there are no obligatory instructions, and the group of brain storm has no powers of the management. It generates trust and helps the management of the film to make decisions. When we gave to this group the management over the project – it turned out nothing, but it was necessary to say:”all as equals, councils” as at once all work became much more effective are necessary only.

There was this group at creation of “Toy Story”. When in production of the film became ripe crisis, the group of four people – John, Andrew, Lee and Joe got together. As they respected each other, could conduct very hot discussions, always remembering thus that their emotions belong to a created history and don't become personal. Over time other people joined us, and today it is group of people which always can rely at each other.

Dailies

The habit to work together concerns every day in our company not only the managements. Good confirmation to those daily viewings which we call dailies during which each employee of studio receives feedback that it does in the project. These rules are based on principles which John saw in other large companies, such as Disney, ILM, Lucasfilm.

Obstacles

In the course of work surely there are obstacles and something is necessary for remembering always. First, when people in the course of work overcome difficulties, they start to think creatively. Secondly, the director should direct creative team and watch process. Thirdly, people study each other. And, at last, people would like their work was executed well and that there was no situation when having enclosed a lot of work, the person understands that his work at all that the director wanted to see. Continuous supervision over process allows avoiding such situations.

It is also important, that people of different professions communicated as equals. An obstacle here in natural emergence of classes and divisions as the organization is after all structure. To one people can seem that their work is much more important, than at others. Other obstacles are distinctions between professions or even simply physical distance between offices. In the creative companies it is similar to ours, all these barriers are necessary for destroying.

Technology + Art = Magic

Walt Disney perfectly understood this principle. He considered that continuous change of the company, introduction of innovations and combination of achievements in equipment and art can yield amazing results. Many look back at the early period of the company and speak: “You only look, what artists were!”, but don't pay attention that there were also technological breaks – the first color, a sound in the animations, the first application of a xerography etc.

In Pixar we believe in force of interaction of technology and art, constantly we try to apply in production the technology best at present. John has a saying: “The technology inspires art, and art advances technology”. For us it isn't simple words, it is style of our work.

Organization rules

There are some rules which we adhere in the company:

1) Structures in the organization should be closely interconnected.

The hierarchy and communications in the organization are different things. Employees of any department should contact easily other department for the solution of questions and tasks. It means for managers that there is nothing terrible if about some changes they learn not first of all, and it is possible only at general meetings. In the course of work there is a set of problems and their decision doesn't need special permission of the management, in it sometimes it is necessary to trust the employees.

2) All ideas should express freely.

At film creation constantly something changes. We try, that we always had a new view on problems for what we involve different people of absolutely different professions, and receive many points of view. All current work is available to criticism of any employee of studio, managers always can write by mail that it not to be pleasant to you and why.

3) We continue to watch development at universities.

And for this purpose we promote artists of computer graphics, we publish their works and research, we participate in research conferences. These communications have huge value; through them we involve new talented people. All this approves our position even more that people it is more important, than ideas.

Also we aspire to clean barriers between separate disciplines and professions. For this purpose we suit internal courses which we call Pixar University. It helps to prepare and develop professional skills at employees. There are also unessential occupations which allow people of different professions to meet and estimate that work which each of them does. Some treat our production directly (writing of scenarios, drawing, modeling), and some – aren't present (for example, yoga). In classes can meet both beginners, and masters of the world level, wished to raise the skills. The Pixar University helps them with it and in general to study together it is cheerful…

Planning of our buildings serves the same purpose. The majority of them bear industrial mission, but at all. For example, in the center between buildings we have a closed courtyard with cafeteria, a conference hall and bathrooms. The result of such situation is difficult for underestimating.

Remain in shape

Supervision over take-off and falling of many computer companies made upon me strong impression. Many companies possessed tremendous abilities and conceived excellent products. They had the best developers, technologies and the skilled management. However in the zenith they made such ridiculous decisions which ruined their company completely. How such clever people could be mistaken and not stand so strongly? I repeatedly ask myself a question: “If we are always so successful, whether that isn't present danger to go blind?”

Many people from those companies weren't capable to estimate themselves and to change. When Pixar became the independent company, I decided that we will be others. Yes, it is always difficult and inconvenient for organization to estimate and analyze itself. Difficultly in it to be objective. With complacency to have to fight and open constantly problems, even when your company is successful. Communication, inflow of the new forces, healthy criticism – all this will promote only to the correct development. Very important part is the strong management; it promotes stability and confidence of employees of collective.

Blamestorming session

One of our first films “A Bug's life” was very successful, but I noticed that the success too made conceited to many employees. Later I very often observed that people study much at analysis of mistakes, but very much don't like them to carry out. The management wants to praise more than people, employees like to say that was correct and good, than about mistakes. People try to avoid unpleasant subjects.

There are some ways of the solution of this problem. You can arrange search of lessons and remarks in the created material, but it can inefficiently appear. Or can ask each group of workers that they defined five most important achievements which they will repeat in the following work, and five main mistakes which they will try not to make any more. The balance between the positive and negative moments will keep the benevolent atmosphere. If people don't wish to analyze the actions, it is wrong. Try to analyze work and to send it in the following department only when everything is all right.

We don't want, that people thought that if we are successful, everything that we do — it correctly. And consequently we carry out analyses of mistakes and results.

Fresh blood

The successful organizations face certain problems when employ new people. But thanks to our culture and newly arrived with their ideas can be apprehended immediately. Brad Bird who has headed creation of films "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille", John Morris who has become the producer "WALL-I" etc. were such people, for example.

Within 20 years I dreamed of creation of the first computer animation film and if it is honest when work on creation of “Toy Story” was complete, I slightly became puzzled. I created Wednesday, in which such film could be made. Studio creation in which it is possible to create magic films became my following purpose together with John.

Now within the last two years after merge to Disney Animation we had additional possibilities. And it is extremely pleasant to see, how principles on which we built Pixar studio, continue to operate and develop. Our team, I and John, and also those who already isn't present in live and who based with us the Pixar company, reached our main goal and now Pixar and Disney make animation films which mention world culture.

Animation studio PIXAR - cartoon Ratatouille

Source: dlight.ru