Lessons from Disney Pixar on how creativity leads to more summative success
Pixar, since it was purchased by Disney, gives off an air of resilient creative and commercial success, but the journey is rarely that smooth. In fact, the more creative the output, the more commercially successful it is, for Pixar at least, and the processes used by the teams is remarkably close to what we see in highly effective classrooms.
During a keynote en français in Québec, I wondered why learning today sometimes felt less personalised than 30 years ago when personal computers first hit my primary school. Inspiration came to me from my daughters, Catriona and Anna, as for the nth time they sang along to the karaoké version of Disney's Frozen title track, Let It Go:
I was fascinated by the obvious success of this film in hooking my kids, and wondered if I might be able to make some links between what we know works, from the research of Dylan Wiliam, Hattie and the like, and what we see works in the creative industries with films like this. Much of the insight comes from a new book by Pixar’s President, Ed Catmull, which is released this April: Creativity, Inc.. Excerpts from the book can be read in this month’s Fast Company.
“After the original leaders of animation left Disney in the 1990s, the new people running things were from production. And they brought their values, which were to keep the production people busy and productive with one movie after another. So story development was organized in the same way they organized production. As a consequence of this "feed the beast" mentality, a balance was lost at Disney.
“The cost of that becomes clear when you think of how a movie starts out. It's a baby. It's like the foetus of a movie star; we all start out ugly. Every one of Pixar's stories starts out that way. A new thing is hard to define; it's not attractive, and it requires protection. When I was a researcher at DARPA, I had protection for what was ill-defined. Every new idea in any field needs protection. Pixar is set up to protect our director's ugly baby.”
This process is markedly not just a creative one - it involves critical thinking, too. But the point at which critical analysis is introduced is, well, critical. Too early, you kill your baby before it has a chance to grow fully. We do this all the time when we survey progress too early, or don't know what the purpose of an immersion period is.
2. We’ve been through the process ourselves. We share the language and steps
“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.”
Key to making sure that the balance is struck, and struck at the right time, is having a process on which you can depend, and which everyone in the team can trust. Most creatives we know at NoTosh use design thinking, or some version of it. The language between each team is different, but the language within each team is shared and common.
They all recognise that in the initial period of immersion it is too early to make the call as to the worthiness of any given problem or challenge. By synthesis they know that there is an opportunity to critique, to make sure that we’re headed on the right path. By the time you enter the ideation, prototyping and feedback loop, you are constantly starting and stopping, but each idea is small enough, light enough and on strong enough foundations of the immersion, to cope with tweaks, both major and minor. New ideas can get ditched easily, with a fresh crop of better ones emerging from the dust of the feedback.
3. Decide on your rules
“Earlier, before the screening, Pete had described what they'd come up with so far. "What's inside the mind?" he asked his colleagues. "Your emotions--and we've worked really hard to make these characters look the way those emotions feel. We have our main character, an emotion called Joy, who is effervescent. She literally glows when she's excited. Then we have Fear. He thinks of himself as conﬁdent and suave, but he's a little raw nerve and tends to freak out. The other characters are Anger, Sadness--her shape is inspired by teardrops--and Disgust, who basically turns up her nose at everything. And all these guys work at what we call Headquarters."
“That got a laugh, as did many scenes in the 10-minute preview that followed. Everyone agreed that the movie had the potential to be, like Pete's previous ﬁlm Up, among our most original and affecting. But there seemed to be a consensus that one key scene--an argument between two characters about why certain memories fade while others burn bright forever--was too minor to sufﬁciently connect audiences to the film's profound ideas.
“Midway down the table, Brad Bird shifted in his chair. Brad joined Pixar in 2000, after having written and directed The Iron Giant at Warner Bros. His ﬁrst movie for us was The Incredibles, which opened in 2004. Brad is a born rebel who ﬁghts against creative conformity in any guise. So it was no surprise that he was among the ﬁrst to articulate his worries. "I understand that you want to keep this simple and relatable," he told Pete, "but I think we need something that your audience can get a little more invested in."
“Andrew Stanton spoke next. Andrew is fond of saying that people need to be wrong as fast as they can. In a battle, if you're faced with two hills and you're unsure which one to attack, he says, the right course of action is to hurry up and choose. If you ﬁnd out it's the wrong hill, turn around and attack the other one. Now he seemed to be suggesting that Pete and his team had stormed the wrong hill. "I think you need to spend more time settling on the rules of your imagined world," he said.
“Every Pixar movie has its own rules that viewers have to accept, understand, and enjoy understanding. The voices of the toys in the Toy Story ﬁlms, for example, are never audible to humans. The rats in Ratatouille walk on four paws, like normal vermin, except for Remy, our star, whose upright posture sets him apart. In Pete's ﬁlm, one of the rules--at least at this point--was that memories (depicted as glowing glass globes) were stored in the brain by traveling through a maze of chutes into a kind of archive. When retrieved or remembered, they'd roll back down another tangle of chutes, like bowling balls being returned to bowlers at the alley.
“That construct was elegant and effective, but Andrew suggested that another rule needed to be clariﬁed: how memories and emotions change over time, as the brain gets older. This was the moment in the ﬁlm, Andrew said, to establish some key themes.”
If it takes a long time for Catmull to describe the formation of rules that guide the creation of a film, it takes an equally long time to make them clear in a learning situation. Taking Dylan Wiliam’s five key areas that teachers and schools might develop, one might feel that there are ready-made rules about “the way we should teach and learn”, ready to take off the shelf:
But schools need to have internal discussions amongst staff about how to internalise these into the story they are trying to tell, with their clientèle in their locale, work out what the rules of their game are. Then teachers have to have the same conversations with their students, taking time out to think about thinking, to learn how to think - those learnings become the rules of engagement for the class, keeping learning on the straight and narrow, even when a project is complex, even when the project team is only seeing trees and no forest.
4. Know how to take feedback, and find a producer to help you through it
“An important corollary to the assertion that the Braintrust must be candid is that ﬁlmmakers must be ready to hear the truth; candor is only valuable if the person on the receiving end is open to it and willing, if necessary, to let go of things that don't work. Jonas Rivera, the producer of Pete's ﬁlm, tries to make that painful process easier by "headlining" the main points of a Braintrust session--distilling the many observations down to a digestible takeaway. Once this meeting wrapped up, this is what he did for Pete, ticking off the areas that seemed the most problematic, reminding him of the scenes that resonated most. "So what do we blow up?" Jonas asked. "And what do you love? Is what you loved about the ﬁlm different now than it was when we started?””
Getting critiqued is never pleasant, even if you’re used to feedback and feed forward from your peers. Despite the feeling that we give good feedback to students, teachers are, in a decade of seeing their feedback on conferences, less strong at giving feedback on their own learning. It takes work, effort, energy and sometimes a little painful learning to get feedback that is, in the words of Ron Berger, Kind, Specific and Useful. In the film industry, the Producer’s job in these “brain trust” advisories is to capture that feedback, headline it and begin to make it as useful as possible for the Director, who’s just had his worked critiqued, and might feel a bunch of things, not all positive.
In a classroom setting, when we are giving and receiving feedback, who is the third person playing the role of Producer?
5. The Pupils' View
During my talk, I asked a group of seven students to act as my own braintrust during the talk, providing me with the actions they as students might undertake to make a vision of a more shared learning journey come true, and to highlight which elements of this (new and slightly too hot-off-the-press talk) I should emphasise in the future. Here's what Marianne, Laurie, Marie-Pier, Roxanne, Mathieu, Éloïse and Joana from l'Ecole des Sentiers put to me via Twitter, and what I read out as my conclusions for the talk:
- As students, we must also get involved! When teachers offer ideas using technology, they are easily discouraged, but students also have their long journey to undertake, too.
- We must show them that we are interested and we are ready to encourage. Teachers feed the enthusiasm of their students.
- We should be encouraged to be creative, to risk failure to rise, dust ourselves down and be better next time. Do not prioritize performance above all else.
- As students we should create a school forum where everyone would be comfortable giving their ideas and asking questions.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to assert your ideas, as the opinion of the students is also important. We have a head on our shoulders.
- And sometimes we can see things from another side :)
- Our idealistic idea: find a way to finance the purchase of tablets for each pupil. There’d be no more need for a heavy textbook, manual or notebook. And we could connect with interactive whiteboards, with communication between student and teacher encouraged. There’s also an ecological advantage.
- Students want to be involved in the course. No more lectures. Students could also talk in front of the class, expose other ideas, what we have understood. Help us not to have to depend on teachers so much.
- Students would be able to give their ideas, eg for course topics or written work ... All ideas are welcome.
- Suggesting an idea is the best demonstration of intelligence.
- Do not aim solely at the acquisition of specific skills encourage overall development.
- We must be able to define our own rules :)
En tant qu'élèves, on doit aussi s'impliquer! Quand les enseignants proposent des idées en utilisant les technologies, ils se decouragent facilement. Donc les élèves on aussi leur bout de chemin à faire.
Il faut leur montrer qu'on est intéressé et qu'on est prêt à les encourager. Les professeurs se nourrissent de l'enthousiasme de leurs élèves
On devrait être encouragé à la créativité, le risque, à tomber pour se relever meilleur. À ne pas prioritiser les performances.
En tant qu'élèves nous devrions créer un forum école où tout le monde serait bien à l'aise de donner leurs idées et poser leurs questions
Pas avoir peur de poser des questions et de s'affirmer, car l'opinion des élèves est aussi important. On a une tête sur les épaules
Et on voit parfois les choses d'un autre côté :)
Idée idéaliste: trouver un moyen de financer l'achat de tablettes propres à chaque éleve. Plus besoin de manuels ni cahier de notes,
Et connecter avec les tableaux interactifs, la communication élève-prof est favorisée. Avantage écologique également
Les élèves veulent être impliqué dans les cours. Plus de cours magistraux, les élèves pourraient aussi parler en avant de la classe, exposer
Aux autres leurs idées, ce qu'ils comprennent. S'aider entre nous et ne pas dépendre des enseignants
Les élèves aimeraient pouvoir donner leurs idées, par exemple pour les sujets de cours ou de productions écrites… Toute les idées sont bonnes
Une idées c'est la plus belle demonstration de l'intelligence
Se developer en tant que personne a l'école. Ne pas viser l'acquisition de compétence trop spécifique et encourager le développement global.
Il faut pouvoir définir nos propres règles :)