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A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Even with framed cartoons on his walls, Ed Catmull’s office on the Pixar Animation Studios campus in Emeryville, Calif., is downright bland compared to the museum of toy trains, trucks and memorabilia that is John Lasseter’s space down the hall. Catmull, a Utah-born scientist and pioneer in computer graphics who began his career at Lucasfilm before launching Pixar Animation Studios with Steve Jobs and Lasseter in 1986, often is described as the brains of the operation, while Lasseter is the heart. But Catmull disagrees with that assessment: “First of all, John is extremely smart. And I think creativity happens when you combine the technical with the artistic.” That might be a motto for Pixar’s extraordinary success; the studio that popularized digital animation has released 15 films without a flop among them (its 16th, The Good Dinosaur, opens Nov. 25), grossing $9.3 billion in total box office. And since the 1,200-employee company was sold to Disney in 2006 for $7.4 billion, Catmull has pulled double duty at Disney Animation Studios, spending two days a week in Burbank reinvigorating the house Walt built with hits like Frozen and Wreck-It-Ralph This year, Catmull, 70, also became an author, writing (with Amy Wallace) the well-received Creativity, Inc., about the management skills he has honed over three decades. As Pixar pursues his strategy of making two-thirds original films and one-third sequels, the married father of six invited THR to the Steve Jobs Building on the idyllic Pixar campus for a candid chat.
With Inside Out and Good Dinosaur, Pixar is releasing two films in a year for the first time. How has that changed the way you work?
In truth, it has been challenging. Because you need to keep the quality up, regardless of the rate. We’ve given up thinking that there’s an easy way to do it. In fact, we’ve actually come to believe the opposite: If we’re trying to make it easier to make the films for cheaper, there is a way to do that, [but] you have to reduce the quality. And that’s not our goal.
You delayed Good Dinosaur a year to retool it. What did Disney CEO Bob Iger say when you told him?
They completely trust that we’re doing the right thing for the film and for the studio. Now, you can’t do that over and over again. (Laughs.) When Disney acquired Pixar and we decided to spread ourselves thin, there were a lot of people who thought that was not a good idea. In many ways, they were correct, that was a high-risk thing to do. It’s a risk that paid off, but in our history, we’ve always taken risks. Some of our risks don’t pay off, [and] we do delay. We’ll have angst and pain and most of it is inside the studio, people don’t know about it. But there’s nothing smooth about anything that we do.
Early in his career, Catmull wrote a program to animate a plaster cast of his hand (left). He unveiled it in 1972, he says.
How much pressure do you get from Disney to make more sequels?
Some people don’t believe this: They don’t give us any pressure and they don’t pick any of the films.
In your book, you write about the importance of maintaining a certain culture in the workplace. Do you feel Disney Animation and Pixar have kept their separate cultures?
We’ve explicitly set it up that way. Neither studio is allowed to do any production work for the other at all. When it comes to, say, technology or reviewing each other’s films, we will share. They may beg, borrow and steal from each other, but they don’t have to. The consequence is we’ve got two groups who do not have an existential threat from the other. There’s no saying, “Well, you’re better than the other.” They’re just different, they have different personalities.
But I’ve heard there’s a pretty big rivalry.
Well, it’s a friendly thing. We have an annual meeting where they get together and share everything with each other. Lucasfilm is now included in this too. The normal thing that would happen in companies is to say, “Why would I have three [research and development] groups? It would be more economical to consolidate the pipeline.” For me, this is exactly the wrong thing to do.
But it is more costly. This summer, Universal’s Minions made $1.2 billion on a budget of $74 million. Inside Out cost double that and made $850 million. DreamWorks is experimenting with lower-cost films. Do you feel pressure to trim expenses?
We do impose pressure on ourselves because we realize that the lower the cost of the films, the more risk we can take. But this is counterbalanced by the fact that we want the people here to completely own the film. There’s an integrative feel to our films that makes them last longer. So if you look at the low-cost films, there will be big hits — there are talented people in other places — but they’re more up and down, they’re more mixed. And we’re trying to consistently make really good films. The Pixar name means more than any other name. It’s very important to us to keep that name at a high level.
You’ve talked about the innovations on each Pixar film. What is the innovation for Good Dinosaur?
This one is interesting because we’re coming off a fairly abstract film [Inside Out], which is inside the mind of a little girl. In The Good Dinosaur, the world looks so realistic that when people saw [early] shots of it, they thought they were photo plates. The characters are caricatured inside a photorealistic world. So that was the technical challenge.
Catmull has a particular affinity for ‘Wall-E,’ ‘Ratatouille’ and ‘Up,’ three Pixar films that few would have predicted would be commercial successes. The jar was a staff gift: “Employees each took a marble and said something that came to mind. It was a touching thing to do.”
You began your career with George Lucas at ILM. How do you think he’s enjoying retirement?
As far as I can tell, he’s really enjoying it. The last time I talked to him, his young child was on his lap.
What does he think of the Star Wars hoopla Disney is creating?
What he wanted was to make sure that whomever he sold it to was going to treat the film in the right, respectful way and be able to do something with it. Disney is doing something pretty extraordinary with it. Keeping it alive, having this legacy, was very important to him.
Where are you with Frozen 2? It seems to be a slow process.
Well, if one ever does a sequel, you have to think: “OK, where are they going?” And it takes a while to work that out. We haven’t figured that all out yet.
Pixar has described Toy Story 4 as a romantic comedy. Is it more of an adult story than the previous movies?
In the case of Toy Story, we had basically the perfect trilogy. So in this case it’s not like, “OK, you can go on to the next step.” We really wrapped that one up. At this point, you’ve got to go in a very different direction. This is a different kind of exploration.
Concept art from each Pixar film, including Monsters, Inc. (center), adorns his wall.
Two Pixar directors, Andrew Stanton (John Carter) and Brad Bird (Tomorrowland), have made expensive live-action flops for Disney. Will there be reluctance to draft Pixar filmmakers for these big Disney projects?
It’s not that we “draft” people into live action. These are two people who’ve been extraordinary here and they love live action, so that just is what it is.
Disney is now making live-action remakes of its classic animated movies. Would you endorse a Pixar film being remade?
It has never come up. So I haven’t even thought about it. We’re not involved in that.
Of all the Pixar films, only Brave was co-directed by a woman. Why aren’t there more female directors here?
It is an important issue for us. You look back and say, “OK, what’s the dynamic of the feeder pool of people?” Over the summer, we put on a program called Girls Who Code, so we had somebody from all the schools in the Bay Area, and they spent 10 weeks here. The idea is to get them at the junior-high level, and then they come into a place where they’re using technology. The notion is to get the mind-set right at that time in life when people tend to go down stereotypical directions. In building up that stronger base, I think we’ll end up in a better place in the long run. We have some people who came [to direct] from writing. So Jennifer [Lee], who was one of the directors on Frozen, was originally a writer and now she’s a director. So that’s a path. The story people, there are more women there, so we’ve got some saying, “OK, now there’s a path.”
Do you think Pixar will have a solo female director in the next five years?
Yeah. I do.
You haven’t seen Steve Jobs. What do you think Steve would have thought of him being the subject of this movie?
I think he’d be appalled. And they actually can’t tell the story because the story’s wrong. He went through an arc in his life. There was a time the way he worked with people was not good, and I saw that when I first worked with him. But people look at that dramatic part, and they’ll make a movie about that — and that’s not the story. That was the beginning of a more interesting and complex story because when he left Apple, he then entered into what really is the classic hero’s journey: He’s wandering in the wilderness, he’s working with NeXT, it’s not working. He’s working with Pixar, we’re failing. In that process, Steve learned some major lessons, and he changed. He became an empathetic person, and we all saw this when [the Walter Isaacson book] was being written. Nobody’s going to psychoanalyze Steve while he was alive. That aspect of the change of Steve was missed. That’s the real story.
Pixar’s mascot, Luxo Jr., star of the company’s first short film, signals 12 o’clock on Catmull’s desk clock.
But I read the book, and it had elements of that.
Elements. But the focus was more on the early part [of his life] and Apple versus Microsoft. That was a very important story. What was missed is that last part, where the actual transformation took place. Walter Isaacson is a very good writer, he did a very good job for what he had. What I’m saying is, those he actually interviewed did not tell him the stuff that we saw.
What do you think the right path is for DreamWorks Animation?
I have no idea.
You don’t want to give them advice?
Well, we have never been secretive about how we work. I wrote a book about how we work, right?
Will Pixar go to two movies each year?
No. One and a half is pretty damn hard. It’s not for lack of ideas or talent, it’s just when you’ve got to maintain that bar, it’s too much.
You say in the book the goal is to create a culture that will outlast you and John. Have you secured that?
Last year we promoted Jim Morris to be president of Pixar, and down at Disney it’s Andrew Millstein. They are extraordinary, but the important thing from my point of view is that next level down. When I’ve looked at other companies, one of the reasons they never click is they don’t have that next level in place. Walt [Disney] didn’t do it, even with filmmaking. When Walt died, it went downhill. And then when they came back uphill, when Katzenberg and [Michael] Eisner and Frank Wells came in, they went up [for] only 10 years. They realized they had a gold mine and then produced four culturally changing films: Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. Then those leaders moved on and they hadn’t put in place that next level. We’re now very aware of what took place, and Steve was very clear at Apple and he talked to us about it. He did not want to do to Apple what he felt Walt did to Disney. He very carefully groomed his successor.
Name a rival’s film that you’ve liked recently?
I liked the first Kung Fu Panda.
That was more than seven years ago!
I did like Despicable Me. I thought it was quite good.
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