The Inside Secrets to Pixar’s Success
Recently at Jump I had the pleasure of interviewing Oren Jacob, former Chief Technical Officer of Pixar, in front of a small group of invited guests. Oren shared a number of fascinating stories of what went on behind the scenes at Pixar during his 20 years there.
Oren is an amazing individual. He has accomplished a lot in his career and helped grow Pixar into one of America’s most successful companies (all 12 of Pixar’s full-length feature films to date have been blockbusters!). You only need to spend 5 minutes with Oren to realize he embodies everything we have grown to love about Pixar movies. He speaks passionately, shares emotional stories that resonate with everyone, and yes, Oren is quite animated (even leaping off his stool to emphasize a point).
But what strikes me most about Oren is his ability to cross traditional organizational, academic, and industry boundaries to make great stuff happen. Oren is the epitome of a hybrid thinker. A mechanical engineer by training, Oren has played significant roles at Pixar beyond creating Pixar University and Pixar’s own proprietary software platform to manage the animation pipeline. He was also an integral part of the story-telling process and a steward of the culture.
The stories he shares of overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles underlined how important hybrid thinking is for solving the ambiguous problems facing companies today.
Throughout Oren’s talk were lessons on how to use hybrid thinking to solve the large, ambiguous challenges within organizations (the visual recording of Oren’s talk by Jump’s Jonathan Gabrio is above). While much of the discussion fell under the “What happens in Vegas…” rule, I was able to net out a few takeaways that Oren was comfortable sharing with a wider audience. Here are five principles I heard in Oren’s talk:
1. When it Sucks, Say So
In December of 1998, Pixar had finished 3 years of work on Toy Story 2. The movie was set to be Disney’s end-of-the-Millennium Christmas shining star. The problem was the movie wasn’t very good. With just 8 months left to finish production on the movie, Oren Jacob did the unthinkable and, after talking it through with his producers, went to the executive team and told them that Toy Story 2 was not good enough. In fact, Oren and a few others said the movie was horrible and might ruin the company if it was not overhauled. After watching the movie, Steve Jobs, John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer, Ed Catmull, President, and others agreed and set in motion the plan to redo the movie.
The movie was completely rewritten and produced in the remaining 8 months. Toy Story 2 went on to become one of the most critically acclaimed Pixar movies of all time, but only because Oren and others on his team had the guts to say the work wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t something they could believe in.
It can be too easy to be lulled into thinking creativity lives and breathes better when free of criticism. While quick judgment can kill great ideas in the nub, a straight-up, critical assessment is just as important as any brainstorm technique.
Be honest with yourself. When the work isn’t great, say so. Then get to work making something you can believe in.
2. Defend Your Opinion, Then “Hit Play Quickly”
The production process at Pixar is a lengthy one, with many groups participating and weighing in at various stages. A critical point in the process is called the Notes Session. It’s when several key individuals, such as the director and head writer, sit down to watch the full movie. They then capture changes that need to be made on notes and hand them back to the team (hence the name, Notes Session).
These can be stressful times for everyone. Depending on the notes, a lot of rework could be ahead for the teams.
Oren explained that while you aren’t required to make the changes written on the notes, you better have a darn good explanation for why you didn’t. Yet spending too much time explaining why you didn’t make the changes can be suicide. “Keep your explanations brief then hit play quickly,” Oren shared. Let the work speak for itself.
The same is true in creating new businesses. Avoid falling into a meta-discussion that derails the much needed momentum. Instead, let people experience first-hand what you are creating.
3. Look Upstream for the Source of the Problem
Oren explained that when someone is confused watching one of your movies, 99.99% of the time it’s not because of what’s happening in that scene. The problem usually lies earlier in the movie. Either the characters weren’t developed well or pieces of the story were not explained well enough. If you simply react and change the scene at the point someone got confused you’re chasing a red herring. Instead, it’s important to think about why someone doesn’t get it and focus on fixing that.
This principle is applicable to many processes within organizations, particularly to developing new offerings, platforms, and businesses. Before reacting to feedback, ask why someone is seeing things the way they are. You might discover what needs to be changed is back upstream.
4. Match the Medium to the Message
Early on in his role as Director of Studio Tools, Oren realized the company needed to create its own software platform to manage projects throughout the production process. After all, Pixar knew animation better than anyone, and there was no point being at the mercy of a software company who was mainly interested in serving the needs of the video game industry.
When it came time to pitch the idea to executives including Steve Jobs, Oren chose to explain his argument with hand sketches—50 pages of them to be exact. Why? Because “storyboards are the currency of the building.” Oren had also learned the hard way that if an idea is too polished it will evoke negative criticism rather than help to push the idea forward.
The sketches worked. Steve Jobs approved the unprecedented budget request and said, “Don’t screw it up.” Pixar’s next movie, Brave, coming out in 2012, will be the first fully-developed with this new, proprietary software platform.
Sketching storyboards and acting out scripts are the currency of ideas at Pixar. Try a variety of different media to find what works best for you and your organization.
5. Hire for Excellence
When Pixar is evaluating potential hires they look for 3 traits. Humor, the ability to tell a story, and an example of excellence. These aren’t unique qualities to assess in applicants but how excellence is defined is not that common. It doesn’t matter what you are excellent at, just that you have reached a level of excellence. It’s important that you know what excellence feels like and what it takes to achieve it. It could be gardening, jujitsu, or cooking. The main thing is you’ve had a taste of excellence and will know how to get there again.
What do you hire for? Is a taste of excellence one of your requirements?
It is because of hybrid folks like Oren, who see past the status quo to create better systems that enable greatness that we stand a chance to solve the toughest, most ambiguous problems facing our world today.
What are your thoughts?