Learning from Pixar…from the Inside Out

(note: the following post was originally published on LinkedIn on February 29th, 2016)

Watching Pixar take home the Oscar for Best Animated Film reminded me that we all have loads to learn from Pixar Animation Studios.

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Much has been written and celebrated about their creative process, including in Ed Catmull’s must-read book (‘Creativity Inc.’), but I thought I’d distill and share five lessons I’ve learned from Pixar. Specifically, these are parables I’ve cribbed from their head of development Mary Coleman, whom I was fortunate enough to invite to keynote the recent Kidscreen Summit, which is an annual focus in my industry.

1. Iterate, iterate, iterate….until it’s great. When I first got to know the people at Pixar, what struck me was that they make every film between five and seven times before an audience ever sees it. They call it ‘putting it up on reels,’ the process of editing together the storyboards (think: blueprints) into a cohesive skeletal structure of the film. Storyboards are a lot cheaper than animation and practically beg for revision and improvement – a chance to road test a product. It’s not about appeasing a focus group, but instead about soliciting focused feedback from a small group of trusted experts. Pixar calls it their ‘brain trust’ and it’s a model we can all learn from. Can you try out your product before you have to ‘mass produce’ it or release it out in the ‘the wild?’ Who’s in your brain trust?

2. The devil is in the details, but angels watch from up on high. Nearly every frame of a Pixar film could be hung on the wall as art. If an average Pixar film runs about 100 minutes, and there’s 24 frames per second, that’s 144,000 pieces of wall art per movie. But trying to make every frame perfect would’ve broken Pixar long ago. The key is to focus on what matters to viewers, and what’s different from what anyone else might be doing. The key is balance the details of perfection, with the necessity to actually deliver to the screen (the market). Striking that balance can make or break. Where is that balance point for your project?

3. Story must drive Technology, not the other way around. In business, and in life, we too often see what we called at P&G “a technology looking for a consumer” (i.e. hey, we’ve got this incredible capability, let’s try to sell it to people). It is easy to fall in love with cool technology – such a VR right now – but without a compelling narrative, tech isn’t worth the code it’s written in. At Pixar, the needs of the story push the boundaries of technology – such as making Sulley’s fur fluid enough for him to feel cuddly. If we consider all of the disruptive technology companies today, their tech serves a narrative – Uber gets you a car, Airbnb gets you a bed, and Google gets you, well, pretty much everything you need to know. If the tech feels like magic, you’re probably onto something. If the technology is noticeable, it isn’t magic. When someone espouses the brilliance of their technology, ask yourself if you need to know how the watch works…or just want to know the time.

4. A vision can be singular, but delivery must be collaborative. Pixar calls itself a filmmaker-driven studio. It starts with the director and asks that filmmaker what movie they want to make. Everything else flows from there, including the choice of writer and the development of the script (which is a reverse from the Hollywood norm, where often directors are “attached” to scripts already written). But a director like Pete Docter can’t pull off Inside Out alone. His singular vision inspires a small army of creative and technicians (who often both at the same time) to work together to achieve the vision. Whether it’s a movie, show, product or service, who’s the “director”? Whose singular vision is it?

5. Be about something. In Pete Docter’s acceptance speech, he says, “anyone out there who’s in junior high, high school, working it out, suffering — there are days you’re going to feel sad. You’re going to feel angry. You’re going to feel scared. That’s nothing you can choose. But you can make stuff. Make films. Draw. Write. It will make a world of difference.” Inside Out basically gives a generation of young people permission to be sad, lonely and even depressed. In a consumer culture the sells happiness, that’s a powerful, even revolutionary, message. And all Pixar films are about something more than what’s going on on-screen – Finding Nemo is about over-parenting, Monsters Inc. is about fear, Wall-E is about hope – and they resonate more than other highly accomplished animated films because they speak to a higher purpose. I’ve heard lots of business plans over the years, most focus on making money; but the ones that stand out also are about something bigger than themselves.

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