Innovation lessons from Pixar: An interview with Oscar-winning director Brad Bird

Posted on: January 20th, 2017 by bobmorris

What does stimulating the creativity of animators have in common with developing new product ideas or technology breakthroughs? A lot.

Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by Hayagreeva Rao, Robert Sutton, and Allen P. Webb for the McKinsey Quarterly, based on an interview of Brad Bord and published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out other resources, learn more about the firm, obtain subscription information, and register to receive email alerts, please click here.

To learn more about the McKinsey Quarterly, please click here.

* * *

If there’s one thing successful innovators have shown over the years, it’s that great ideas come from unexpected places. Who could have predicted that bicycle mechanics would develop the airplane or that the US Department of Defense would give rise to a freewheeling communications platform like the Internet?

Senior executives looking for ideas about how to make their companies more innovative can also seek inspiration in surprising sources. Exhibit One: Brad Bird, Pixar’s two-time Oscar-winning director. Bird’s hands-on approach to fostering creativity among animators holds powerful lessons for any executive hoping to nurture innovation in teams and organizations.

Bird joined Pixar in 2000, when the company was riding high following its release of the world’s first computer-animated feature film, Toy Story, and the subsequent hits A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2. Concerned about complacency, senior executives Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull, and John Lasseter asked Bird, whose body of work included The Iron Giant and The Simpsons, to join the company and shake things up. The veteran of Walt Disney, Warner Brothers, and FOX delivered—winning Academy Awards (best animated feature) for two groundbreaking movies, The Incredibles and Ratatouille.

Ten days before Ratatouille won its Oscar, we sat down with Bird at the Emeryville, California, campus of Pixar, which is now a subsidiary of Disney. Bird discussed the importance, in his work, of pushing teams beyond their comfort zones, encouraging dissent, and building morale. He also explained the value of “black sheep”– restless contributors with unconventional ideas. Although stimulating the creativity of animators might seem very different from developing new product ideas or technology breakthroughs, Bird’s anecdotes should stir the imagination of innovation-minded executives in any industry.

What attracted you to Pixar?

One thing that was unbelievably different about this company was that they were worried about becoming complacent. When I came here, they had made three movies — Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Toy Story 2 that had all been big hits. I was coming off a film called The Iron Giant that was a highly regarded financial failure.

Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull, and John Lasseter said, in effect, “The only thing we’re afraid of is complacency — feeling like we have it all figured out. We want you to come shake things up. We will give you a good argument if we think what you’re doing doesn’t make sense, but if you can convince us, we’ll do things a different way.” For a company that has had nothing but success to invite a guy who had just come off a failure and say, “Go ahead, mess with our heads, shake it up” — when do you run into that?

How did your first project at Pixar —
The Incredibles — shake things up?

The Incredibles was everything that computer-generated animation had trouble doing. It had human characters, it had hair, it had water, it had fire, it had a massive number of sets. The creative heads were excited about the idea of the film, but once I showed story reels of exactly what I wanted, the technical teams turned white. They took one look and thought, “This will take ten years and cost $500 million. How are we possibly going to do this?”

So I said, “Give us the black sheep. I want artists who are frustrated. I want the ones who have another way of doing things that nobody’s listening to. Give us all the guys who are probably headed out the door.” A lot of them were malcontents because they saw different ways of doing things, but there was little opportunity to try them, since the established way was working very, very well.

We gave the black sheep a chance to prove their theories, and we changed the way a number of things are done here. For less money per minute than was spent on the previous film, Finding Nemo, we did a movie that had three times the number of sets and had everything that was hard to do. All this because the heads of Pixar gave us leave to try crazy ideas.

What sorts of things did you do differently?

There are purists in computer graphics who are brilliant but don’t have the urgency about budgets and scheduling that responsible filmmakers do. I had to shake the purist out of them — essentially frighten them into realizing I was ready to use quick and dirty “cheats” to get something on screen if they took too long to achieve it in the computer. I’d say, “Look, I don’t have to do the water through a computer simulation program. If we can’t get a program to work, I’m perfectly content to film a splash in a swimming pool and just composite the water in.” This absolutely horrified them. Or I’d say, “You can build a flying saucer, or you can take a pie plate and fling it across the screen. If the audience only sees the pie plate very briefly and you throw it just right, they will buy it as a flying saucer.”

I never did film the pool splash or throw the pie plate, but talking this way helped everyone understand that we didn’t have to make something that would work from every angle. Not all shots are created equal. Certain shots need to be perfect, others need to be very good, and there are some that only need to be good enough to not break the spell.

We also made superelaborate storyboards. We even emulated camera movement in them, so everyone knew that “We only need to make things work between here and there.” Once I was able to commit to the camera angles, we could be very specific about how we built things. Something would look beautiful from one position, but if you moved five feet to the right, the image would disintegrate. I gave up the flexibility to move within a set, but in exchange I bought size and scope

* * *

Here is a direct link to the complete article.


Hayagreeva Rao
and Robert Sutton are both professors at Stanford University, where Rao is a professor of organizational behavior in the Graduate School of Business and Sutton is a professor of management science and engineering in the School of Engineering. Allen Webb is a member of The McKinsey Quarterly’s board of editors.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

bobmorris