7 Lessons about Being Creative from Ed Catmull

By Britton Perelman · November 26, 2018

Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar Animation Studio and president of Pixar and Disney Animation, has been around creative people his entire life. 

In his book, Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, Catmull tells the story of his career, peppering the chapters with important lessons about creativity itself and what it means to be a creative person. Some of these lessons come from his first-hand experiences, others are passed along by colleagues at Pixar or Disney. Either way, the seven following lessons will help anyone attempting to channel their creativity into a long-term project.


Pete Docter, writer, director, and longtime colleague of Catmull, shared this sentiment: 

“I’ve heard some people describe creativity as ‘unexpected connections between unrelated concepts or ideas.’ If that’s all true, you have to be in a certain mindset to make those connections. So when I sense we’re getting nowhere, I just shut things down. We all go off to something else. Later, once the mood has shifted, I’ll attack the problem again.”


“Ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas. 

Why are we confused about this? Because too many of us think of ideas as being singular, as if they float in the ether, fully formed and independent of the people who wrestle with them. Ideas, though, are not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions, often made by dozens of people. In any given Pixar film, every line of dialogue, every beam of light or patch of shade, every sound effect is there because it contributes to the greater whole.” 


“When our people asserted that they only wanted to make films of the highest quality and when we pushed ourselves to the limit in order to prove our commitment to that ideal, Pixar’s identity was cemented. We would be a company that would never settle. That didn’t mean that we wouldn’t make mistakes. Mistakes are part of creativity. But when we did, we would strive to face them without defensiveness and with a willingness to change.”


“Change is going to happen, whether we like it or not. Some people see random, unforeseen events as something to fear. I am not one of those people. To my mind, randomness is not just inevitable, it is part of the beauty of life. Acknowledging it and appreciating it helps us respond constructively when we are surprised. Fear makes people reach for certainty and stability, neither of which guarantee the safety they imply. I take a different approach. Rather than fear randomness, I believe we can make choices to see it for what it is and let it work for us. The unpredictable is the ground on which creativity occurs.”


“On A Bug’s Life… Andrew Stanton compared making a movie to an archeological dig. This adds yet another element to the picture—the idea that as you progress, your project is revealing itself to you. ‘You’re digging away, and you don’t know what dinosaur you’re digging for,’ Bob [Peterson, Pixar creative] says. ‘Then, you reveal a little bit of it. And you may be digging in two different places at once and you think what you have is one thing, but as you go farther and farther, blindly digging, it starts revealing itself. Once you start getting a glimpse of it, you know how better to dig.’”


“We believe that ideas—and thus, films—only become great when they are challenged and tested. In academia, peer review is the process by which professors are evaluated by others in their field. I like to think of the Braintrust [Pixar’s creative meeting group] as Pixar’s version of peer review, a forum that ensures we raise our game—not by being prescriptive but by offering candor and deep analysis.”


“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… No matter what, the process of coming to clarity takes patience and candor.”

Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.

Photo credit: Variety


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