BERKELEY -- Once upon a time, a young man helped build an empire in a forlorn, largely forgotten corner of the world. Years later, surveying the rejuvenated landscape, the scores of awards, the thousands of workers employed, he declared the empire ... an imperfect, perpetual work-in-progress.
Ed Catmull, president and co-founder, with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter, of Pixar Animation in Emeryville, will share aspects of the company's dynastic dominion at a Berkeley Arts & Letters event at BAM/PFA, 2626 Bancroft Way, at 7:30 p.m. April 7.
Pixar Vice President and Creative/Director Pete Docter will join Catmull in a conversation and audience Q&A.
The subject of discussion will spring naturally from the pages of "Creativity, Inc." (Random House, April 2014), Catmull's new book, written with Amy Wallace.
Using fluid, philosophical storytelling, Catmull details the scaffolding behind the computer animation company's groundbreaking films: "Toy Story," "Finding Nemo," "The Incredibles," "Cars," "Up," "WALL-E," and more.
A treasure trove for its historical record alone, the book's nakedly honest expositions flesh out the company's successes and setbacks. Behind-the-scenes stories about generation-shifting innovators like Jobs, Lasseter, Docter, Andrew Stanton, and Catmull himself, offer intriguing windows on how flaws, failures, friendships and furious hard work resulted in fantastic collaborations.
Intent on dissecting the elusive structure of creativity, Catmull is unafraid -- exposing fingerlike projectiles leading to disaster with the same enthusiasm as those leading to Academy Awards.
His deeply practical narrative includes management principles applicable to all companies striving to sustain a creative culture (33 "thoughts" Catmull cautions should be considered only as "starting points") to end the book by inviting future innovation.
Catmull explains his resistance to managerial dogma and the importance of recognizing that most creative endeavors "go off the wheel" more than once.
"Two people in a meeting can leave with completely different ideas of what has happened," he says. "And things go wrong that you can't see. It's critical to address why a group stops functioning well."
At Pixar, that meant the Braintrust, a feedback delivery system consisting of packing a room with smart, straight-talking people unafraid of candor. Or Notes Day, an organized, belly-button-examining free-for-all that "we hoped would break the logjam and reinvigorate the studio" during a three-part crisis, Catmull writes.
"Collaboration doesn't mean complete harmony," he says. "Most people want to jump over the hard questions to 'How do I do it?' The book goes into the underpinnings of why these things are so damn hard to do."
Catmull says writing the book allowed an opportunity to ask himself, "How do I think about creativity?" and "Can I apply the lessons personally?"
Clarity came with Wallace's deft crafting of his abstract ruminations and from thinking through Pixar's history. Balance, between being too simplistic or too deep, was always on his mind. Illustrating points with examples, he wondered if readers might remember the stories, more than the overarching ideas, like co-worker Stanton's "fail early and fail fast."
"Pixar always evolves and the act of talking to others about it made me realize there's always some problem," he says. "The consequence is, we always go back and examine the assumptions. New conditions mean the conclusions you made even in re-examining are no longer correct."
Catmull, prone to questioning, says one thing is certain: it won't get easier.
"Managing is not about getting faster, better, cheaper. It's easy for that to sound trite," he admits. The trick, he insists, is not getting sidetracked by secondary issues and never forgetting that great work is rarely accomplished by a single, lone genius. Instead, it takes the mysterious alchemy of a team to build and sustain an empire.