The Pixar Touch: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: July 17th, 2011 by bobmorris

The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company
David A. Price
Vintage Books/A Division of Random House (2008)

I re-read this book after reading the more recently published book co-authored by Bill Capodaglio and Lynn Jackson, Innovate the Pixar Way: Business Lessons from the World’s Most Creative Corporate Playground. (They also co-authored The Disney Way, Revised Edition: Harnessing the Management Secrets of Disney in Your Company.) Karen Paik is the author of another book, To Infinity and Beyond!: The Story of Pixar Animation Studios, that also provides a wealth of information about a unique organization and the brilliant people who have been centrally involved in it for more than 20 years.

Others have their reasons for thinking so highly of The Pixar Touch. Here are thtree of mine. First, David A. Price’s does a brilliant job of delineating the complicated chronological sequence that began with the hiring of Edwin Catmull (then at the New York Institute of Technology) to head the graphics group within the computer division at Lucasfilm (1979). Subsequently, Pixar Animation Studios (later shortened to Pixar) was purchased by Steve Jobs in 1986. After a highly successful IPO (11/29/1995), Years later, Jobs sold it to the Walt Disney Company for $7.4 billion (in an all-stock deal) in 2006. Price covers each of the company’s transitions thoroughly without bogging down in details. With the predictable exception of Jobs, those who provided leadership at Pixar demonstrate remarkable composure, indeed style and grace, during difficult times and sincere appreciation when lavished with praise, awards, and wealth. (Jobs’s primary – if not only – motive was and remains, the creation of “insanely great work.”) Price’s mini-biographies of the major figures probably provide the information that most people require.

Second, I was especially intrigued by the fact that the key people provide what Price characterizes as “unlikely ingredients” for success when they joined Pixar. Lasseter was hired by Disney immediately after college and had just been fired.  Catmull had been turned down for a teaching position and “ended up in what he felt was a dead-end software development job” at Computer Graphics Lab. Smith was employed by Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) “and then abruptly found himself out on the street.” As for Jobs, he had been forced from the company he co-founded, was widely ridiculed, and considered a has-been. Price suggests that, despite and perhaps because of these and other serious setbacks, those who established and developed Pixar illustrate Joseph Schumpeter’s observation that successful innovation “is a feat not of intellect, but of will.”

Finally, I admire Price’s skills when explaining the artistic significance of each of the feature films that Pixar has produced from Toy Story (1996) until WALL-E (2009). He establishes a multi-dimensional context for each, identifying the challenges the production process faced and eventually overcame. With regard to the creative process, for example, the original attributes of the two central characters in Toy Story (Woody and Buzz Lightyear) underwent significant changes as did the initial thoughts about the relationship between them. Those involved in collaboration at Pixar have always followed John Lasseter’s admonition that “quality is the best business plan” and embraced Ed Catmull’s assertion that perfection is a minimum standard. Production of each of the other feature films also demonstrates the same commitment to artistic standards that few other films achieve.

Leaders in any organization can read and re-read this book, then attempt to apply the business principles and core values that define what Pixar does and how it does it. Although the principles and values are sound, however, they are insufficient. What is also needed is the Pixar “touch” and there is no way that David Price or anyone else can explain how to develop it but you’ll know it when you see it…in any of the Pixar films.

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

Leave a Reply