pixar's creative process

What does the word innovation mean to you?

Too often we think of it as some sort of magical thing that strikes randomly and simply “delivers” us a brilliant idea.

It isn’t.

I always sigh when I hear of great companies like Apple or Pixar referred to as simply “innovative.” While they certainly are, this label only tells a fraction of the story. The genius of Pixar (and Apple) doesn’t lie in their “innovative thinking.” Rather, it comes from their commitment to the actual process of creativity.

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Pixar is known for making innovative movies time and time again. How does their process keep them so innovative? Image credit: Disney/Pixar Animation Studios

In his recent book Creativity, Inc., Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull (with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter), outlines how the legendary animation studio has made a habit of being innovative. In many ways, Ed unlocks the creative process, and it is something that we can all use to do better work, including in our content marketing.

How Inspiration Works

When you look at something great, like the iPhone or the first Toy Story movie, you can’t help but feel like it was the result of some sort of divine inspiration, some kind of magic, but it wasn’t.

As Catmull covers in his book, creativity isn’t about an idea or a sudden burst of information. It is a process, and often a messy one. There are three big takeaways from this book that we can use to unlock creativity and inspiration in our own content creation process.

Pixar Lesson #1: Creativity Is A Learned Skill

In her landmark book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (circa 1979), art teacher and writer Betty Edwards outlined the creative theory that has dominated art education for the last 30 years. Her method builds on the notion that the brain has two ways of perceiving and processing reality – one verbal and analytic, and the other visual and perceptual.

This method is frequently described as the left brain (analytical) and the right brain (creative). While we now know that this physical left vs. right idea isn’t particularly true, the two methods that the brain uses for processing information are very accurate.

Using this theory as his basis, Catmull observes a common drawing mistake made by young children (or untrained adults) who are learning art. These artists will often overemphasize certain aspects of the human figure, and underemphasize others. Frequently, this will result in human faces with larger than normal eyes and smaller than normal foreheads. We can see this phenomenon clearly in young children that frequently miss the human torso entirely!

Creativity and Innovative Content marketing - child's drawing.

Early artists often overemphasize meaningful facial elements.

As Catmull and Edwards would agree, this is the the analytic brain at work.

These artists are drawing what they know best about the human figure (an analytical approach),  like the eyes (a tremendously important feature of the human face), and extremities like arms and legs. Until someone has learned to embrace their visual and perceptual side, they tend to overemphasize the information like this in their analytic brain.

As Edwards outlined in her landmark book, drawing instructors often help new artists break this tendency by drawing “what is not there,” or by learning to see the negative space. Rather than drawing a chair, the students learn to drawn “around” the chair, thus learning to see reality in a new way.

Edwards - Content Marketing Innovation

Before and after comparisons of adults learning to draw using Edwards method. Notice the facial tendencies.

In this example, it is clear that innovation and creativity really are about learning how to see things differently rather than how to create things differently.

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Another way that this idea manifests itself is in color theory.

Usually when we look at an object that is blue, we see the blue, and therefore draw the entire object as blue. In reality, though, that object is not solid blue. While a majority of the object may be blue, there are parts of it that may be darker than others because of shadowing and highlights. Even further, the object may actually be comprised of many purple, pink, and yellow flecks that simply make it appear blue. Or, rather, blue-ish.

This is something that Pixar animators have become exceptionally adept at seeing, and it is a big reason why they have created some of the most well-know animated films of our time. They have learned to see things differently, and this has led them to great levels on innovation.

Take Away: Creativity is a learned skill. Innovation happens when we learn to (literally) see things differently.

Pixar Lesson #2: Creativity Is A Process

Catmull is know for saying that early in their life, Pixar films aren’t all that magical. In fact, some of them are downright terrible.

In his book, Catmull outlines the early ideas behind the 2009 film Up, and paints a very bleak picture about the quality of the early story.

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Early sketches of Carl from Up, long before it was the treasure that we know today. Credit Disney/Pixar Animation Studios

This view is usually the exact opposite of what we expect. When we watch a Pixar movie, we see a great film with a great story. It is easy to label it as “innovative” and “creative” without realizing the painstaking process that went into making something that started out not-so-great into something truly great.

We see the end, but we never see the beginning, or the three years that it took to make a film. According to Catmull, it isn’t unusual for Pixar films to start terrible, and remain terrible, for years before they finally find their true identity.

Often, however, we don’t allow for this process in our own creative process. We except things to be great right from the get-go, but that isn’t how innovation works.

The iPhone is another great example of this.

When we consider the iPhone, we don’t usually think about the many hundreds of versions that came before the one we use today, and I’m not talking about the iPhone 1. I’m talking about the terrible versions that came prior to that. The versions that Apple never even showed us, like the rumored click wheel iPhone that never was .

Click-Wheel iPhone

The click-wheel iPhone that never was.

Apple is frequently heralded as one of the most creative and innovative companies of all time, but I wonder what we would think about them if they revealed some of these early versions to us. Would we respect the process of creativity, or would we question their label as a true innovator?

Innovation is a process, not something that wakes us up at night in a moment of inspiration. Removing this misconception from our mind can really go a long way in understanding true creativity.

This means that in order for us to make our content and our work more creative, we need to continually “create our most recent worst version.” What I mean by this is that with every iteration, our content should slowly be getting better. The truth is that it will never be our best. It will simply be “our our most recent worst version.”

In the case of Pixar, that is what we see at the box office, but it may have only come after thousands and thousands of prior worse versions. The one we see is simply the most recent. It just so happens that it is usually pretty darn spectacular.

most recent worst version

Take away: Innovation is a process that is developed over time. We have to embrace that, and give it time.

Pixar Lesson #3: Creativity Is A Commitment

One of my favorite stories from Catmull’s book is about the film Ratatouille.

This film required the animation team to understand several things that they weren’t necessarily familiar with, like French dining, fine food preparation, and of course, French sewers. As Catmull tells it, the company’s creative lead John Lasseter put a bunch of people from the animation team on an airplane, and sent them to France to experience all of it. Even the sewers.

Now that’s a commitment!

pixar french sewers

There’s no better way to learn about French sewers than being there.

There is a common attention to details like this at truly innovative companies like Pixar and Apple. Catmull refers to this phenomenon as what Pixar producers call “the beautifully shaded penny.” This simply refers to the fact that artists working on Pixar films will frequently care so much about every detail that they will sometimes spend days or weeks crafting what one producer calls “the equivalent of a penny on a nightstand that you’ll never see.”

You may never see it, but this attention to detail matters. It is the thinking that led Apple to their well-know mantra of “it just works.” It works, because they pay closer attention to details and they make sure that it does work.

In every creative venture, like blogging, there is always a “me too” problem that sneaks in and disguises itself as creativity. Graphic designers know this a the Dribbblisation of design. It basically means that rather than being creative ourselves, we begin emulating the creativity of others.

In short, everything starts looks the same and creativity is lost.

In content marketing, as it grows in popularity, there is a strong tendency to move towards this “me too” problem. We must work extra hard to to stand out from the common voice and to remain “innovative” in what we do. I addressed this idea directly in my post about the blue ocean strategy that seeks to distance oneself from the competition and find a wide open ocean of opportunity.

An opportunity, lead by innovation and creative thinking.

Take away: You must look deeper and demand more to truly uncover creativity.

Pixar is a great company. They are innovative, they are creative, and they have a surprisingly long history of maintaining their creative lead in the industry. How does that happen? It isn’t by accident, is it?

The simple truth is that Pixar understands creativity, and has built a company (and a process) that doesn’t stifle the opportunities that true innovation requires. In our own work, and in our own content, we can easily stifle our own creative process by falling into the “me too” mentality, and missing these simple lessons that Pixar has made so clear over the years.

The challenge, however, is now yours. Use these ideas, use Pixar, and start creating more innovative content.