Defining Creativity with Pixar's Co-founder: Edwin Catmull

Defining Creativity with Pixar's Co-founder: Edwin Catmull

How does the head of creative powerhouse, Pixar actually define “creativity”? It’s not as complicated as you might think. Read through for more on how Pixar approaches creativity, recommendations on which creative projects your teams should concentrate on, and more insights from Edwin Catmull, co-founder of Pixar.


What exactly does creativity mean?

At its core, Catmull defines creativity as problem solving. To Catmull, problem solving can come in many forms — from kids interpreting new obstacles with a fresh set of eyes to pure science. Thinking through something new and unfamiliar, whatever that may be, is in itself, a creative act.  

Catmull’s broad definition of creativity means that he believes anyone, yes anyone, can be a creative force. 

At Pixar, problem solving encompasses everything from technical design work to render certain textures seamlessly into animation (think, water in “Finding Nemo”; Merida’s hair in “Brave”; and shiny surfaces in “Cars”) to overhauling the company’s underpinning software. 

Creativity also manifests in the development of a film’s storyline itself. Each is formed with a dual audience in mind — because in the end, Pixar films are actually created for adults. The reasoning? Children live in an adult world and if movies were made catered to them, it would accommodate for a situation that is unrealistic. The team needs to build a film where children can figure out what is happening and where adults have their interest piqued by the story. 

There’s also an incredible amount of research that goes into the filmmaking process. And with that, a lot of opportunities to solve problems creatively. Catmull references a “Finding Nemo” research trip to San Francisco, where the team analyzed sewer systems to determine if in fact, Nemo could escape to the ocean from a similar pathway. 


It’s All About Choosing the Right Battles

Ok, so we’ve defined creativity as problem solving, but which problems should you choose to tackle? Catmull recommends honing in on those that are deemed most important and which can be realistically solved. 

When it comes to animation and the teams at Pixar, that means zeroing in on design elements that movie-goers will notice the most. “They have to figure out which ones they can take and which ones are most important for the story,” Catmull says. 

Back to the “Finding Nemo” example. He concedes that some of the human animation in a particular scene were not up to the high caliber that’s come to be expected from Pixar. However, with exceptional animation on the focal characters (i.e., the fish) and a strong storyline, most viewers were not even aware of the minor animation flaws. And with how exciting and dynamic Nemo and Dory are splashed on screen, can we blame them? 


Balance and Creativity in Teams

As a manager and leader, Catmull trusts in the expertise of his team and leaves the creative process and problem solving to be determined at a local level, like working on films. Those are contrasted by larger, global projects — major advances in software and technology — which he cautions shouldn’t happen every single year, but are necessary for balance.  

In designing Pixar’s office, Catmull notes that former CEO Steve Jobs worked with architects to build a space that fosters openness and collaboration. At the center of the building is a large, open atrium surrounded by meeting rooms, eating areas, and other amenities. This layout provides not only access but a reason for employees to cross through, prompting what Catmull calls “accidental encounters.” These unplanned touchpoints, he says, are a “very important part of the culture.” Positioning that atrium in the center of the building was also intentional. “What it does is create an energy that goes throughout the building,” he adds. 

When it comes to individual offices, Catmull says there are very few restrictions with how employees decorate their white walls, instead preferring to let people flourish and be creative. 

Throughout his discussion, Catmull shares that anyone can embrace and take creativity into their lives and workplace, regardless of job or title. So, go forth and be creative problem solvers!