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Edwin Catmull, president Of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios. (Anthony Jenkins For The Globe and Mail)
Edwin Catmull, president Of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios. (Anthony Jenkins For The Globe and Mail)

the lunch

How Pixar's meditative chief spurs innovation in digital animation Add to ...

At Pixar, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

For a company that occupies the intersection of Hollywood and Silicon Valley – two industries legendary for their lavish employee perks – Pixar’s simple, ground-floor cafeteria is an unassuming curiosity. After all, the Googles and Twitters and myriad technology behemoths that live just across the Bay from Pixar’s West Oakland, Calif., offices are famous for their all-you-can-eat, don’t-pay-a-dime dining halls. At Pixar, the employee cafeteria maintains a relatively spartan menu, and sells everything at cost.

This, Edwin Catmull maintains, is by design. Give the food away for free, and the employees who make it may start to feel that there’s no value to their work; price it too high and employees might leave campus en masse to eat elsewhere.

Here is the most powerful man in the animation industry, the president of both Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios – worrying about the fine balance of cafeteria pricing.

As he celebrates his 69th birthday and prepares to hit the road next week to promote his first book, Creativity, Inc., Mr. Catmull is spending a lot of his time talking about the happy medium – that oasis where art and industry can co-exist. It is evident not only in the title of his book, or the way he runs the company behind more than a dozen of the world’s most-watched animated movies, but also in his own corporate upbringing. A computer scientist by training, Mr. Catmull developed as a postgraduate student many of the mathematical concepts on which Pixar’s animators rely – and yet, over the past two decades, he has had to supplement all that technical knowledge with on-the-job managerial training, much of it learned from his former boss, the late Steve Jobs.

That search for a fine balance is also clear in the challenges with which Mr. Catmull is today preoccupied: how to capitalize on Hollywood’s storytelling expertise without inheriting any of its lazy reliance on formula; how to harness the brainpower of a phalanx of computer science PhDs without producing a dry, un-magical product; how to balance the bottom-line pressures of box-office gross and rampant merchandising with the overarching mission of simply telling a good story. In almost every one of Mr. Catmull’s professional responsibilities, veering too far in any direction would invite disaster.

“It’s very easy to think about the extreme in any situation, but the more nuanced place is actually in the middle somewhere,” Mr. Catmull says, as he nurses a coffee at a table on the outskirts of Pixar’s cafeteria, not far from where Pixar’s haul of Oscars and other industry awards sits in a glass case, watched over by smiling wax-museum replicas of the characters from Monsters Inc. “For me, the middle doesn’t mean calm – that’s actually the place where the extremes collide, and that’s where we should be.”

The Brain Trust

The first draft of Toy Story was a failure. Far from the noble cartoon hero we know today, the original Woody the cowboy was written as an edgy weirdo. The movie’s original lead was a ball-headed drummer boy called Tin Toy.

WALL-E’s original ending was anything but – in a rehash of the familiar damsel in distress trope, boy-robot Wall-E was the one who saved girl-robot Eve, not the other way round. The movie was also originally called “Trash Planet.”

Another Pixar feature, Newt, was nixed altogether, in part because it was too similar to the movie Rio. The project instead moved in an entirely different direction, resulting in a project called Inside Out, due for release next year, about anthropomorphic emotions living inside the brain.

In other words, as Mr. Catmull puts it, the first version of every Pixar movie sucks; his job is to help make it un-suck.

“These are highly problematic films,” he says. “How do you encourage someone or allow them to blow up something and start over?”

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