The Creativity Code

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Making movies, making successful movies, has always been a tricky business. The film business – whether it is Hollywood or Bollywood – never really seems to have figured out reliably a fool proof model or a formula to make a film work. At best, it has educated guesses as to what works and what might not. Considering that films always entail a huge upfront investment, it is a risk movie producers and studios have had to take since the beginning of the movie business. But one studio has consistently churned out winner after winner – Pixar. Its latest offering, Finding Dory, raked in $136 million on its opening weekend in the United States making it the most successful opening for an animated movie ever (beating Shrek The Third from Dreamworks released in 2007). Pixar is an animation giant which in less than two decades has built a legacy to rival its parent company – Disney. Makers of, and trendsetters in animated movies, Pixar’s unusually long run of success has been a result of their rethinking the one key aspect of film making that has been as difficult to define and quantify as it been to harness – creativity. Hollywood is rife with legends of one line pitches of movie ideas that went on to become blockbusters but as the head of a major motion picture studio once told Ed Catmull (the Co-founder of Pixar and the current President at Pixar) over lunch that his ‘central problem was not finding good people – it was finding good ideas’. It would be quite fair to say that Pixar has changed that notion substantially. Businesses are often stumped when asked the question – what is creativity? In fact, one of the even more perplexing questions is ‘how does creativity work?’; a matter that has been dealt with in considerable detail in a book ‘Imagine: How Creativity Works’ written by Jonah Lehrer. In a company and an industry where creativity is the backbone upon which success thrives, the answer to the question was extremely critical. Writing for Harvard Business Review in 2008, Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar, explained thus: “People tend to think of creativity as a mysterious solo act, and they typically reduce products to a single idea: This is a movie about toys, or dinosaurs, or love, they’ll say. However, in film making and many other kinds of complex product development, creativity involves a large number of people from different disciplines working effectively together to solve a great many problems. The initial idea for the movie—what people in the movie business call “the high concept”—is merely one step in a long, arduous process that takes four to five years.” That process requires extensive collaboration among various groups of people – technicians, writers, actors, directors, and so on. Pixar’s challenge was to keep this process of creativity and collaboration flexible enough to encourage unexpected ideas (otherwise films like ‘Ratatouille’, where a rat wants to become a chef would have probably never happened) yet process oriented enough to deliver good results. They did it by identifying the most important item required to make creativity work right – communication. Pixar’s structure is unique among studios and Catmull’s own words describe it best: “Our philosophy is: You get great creative people, you bet big on them, you give them enormous leeway and support, and you provide them with an environment in which they can get honest feedback from everyone. Pixar created a free and fair peer culture which encouraged people to help each other and produce their best work. Each day at Pixar, the daily animation work being done by the current crew(s) working on a film is shown in an incomplete state to the whole crew. This process helps people get over any embarrassment about sharing unfinished work—so they become even more creative and it enables creative leads to communicate important points to the entire crew at once. Last but not the least, it can even inspire when someone sees a highly innovative piece of work and it encourages them to try harder. Pixar has also created a ‘brains trust’, a posse of Pixar’s senior most directors (Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird, Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Brenda Chapman, Lee Unkrich, Gary Rydstrom, and Brad Lewis). Whenever a director or a producer thinks they need help they can convene the group and seek honest and open feedback. There was one key factor, though – anything the group suggests wasn’t necessarily binding. At ITW Blitz, we take inspiration from Pixar’s approach and philosophy for designing and executing great ideas for our own clients. Cross functional teams who work on different aspects of a creative project such as conceptualization, brand integration, design, logistics – are what have enabled us to transform the most innovative and outrageous ideas into reality.

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