Pixar U and Whistling While You Work
Motley Fool 11/16/06

Pixar U and Whistling While You Work

Animation giant Pixar has produced a long line of box-office blockbusters, including Cars, Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Monsters Inc. So what animates the success of the now Disney-owned company? Will Disney and Pixar produce a fairy tale ending? And is there really a Pixar University? I recently talked about the power of Pixar with Bill Taylor, author of Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win.

Question: In your book, I was really interested to read about Pixar, the animation giant, and specifically Pixar University. Tell us a little about Pixar U.

Bill Taylor: Steve Jobs bought control of it [Pixar] 20 years ago for $10 million and, as everyone knows, sold it to Disney earlier this year for $7.4 billion, so he did pretty well. He and the shareholders at Pixar all did pretty well for themselves by producing hit after hit in the movie business.

We went into Pixar expecting to be dazzled by their technology and their computers and their software. When we got to know the company, they really had very little interest in talking about that. What they really wanted to show us was Pixar University, because much like Whole Foods, they believe that the reason they're successful in the marketplace is they've got such a distinctive approach to the workplace.

So at Pixar, rather than a traditional movie studio where, when you make a movie, everybody is a free agent and you get a director from one place and a producer from another place and a screenwriter from another place and everybody is cutting their own deal and being a free agent -- at Pixar, everybody is an employee of the company. Brad Bird, the Oscar-winning director of The Incredibles, helps out with all the other movies. He's just a member of the team like everybody else. And Pixar University is the institution inside Pixar that makes all this possible.

So it offers 110 different courses to all the employees. Everybody is expected to spend at least four hours a week taking classes in drawing, screenwriting, lighting; and that goes by the way -- maybe you're part of the script-writing crew, but maybe you're a marketer or maybe you're an accountant or maybe literally you're a security guard. You're still expected to take four hours a week in courses in Pixar University for two reasons. One, they want everybody at the company to understand how to think like a filmmaker. Not just because it's a neat thing to say or a nice idea, but because they feel their advantage is they've got more teamwork than the typical Hollywood studio where everybody's out for themselves, and ultimately the way they're going to produce hit after hit in the marketplace is to create a workplace where everybody is loyal to one another. There's not a lot of loyalty in Hollywood, and so we took a class in lighting and shading...

Question: And how was your lighting and shading?

Bill Taylor: Not so good, I have to say, but to some degree, it kind of wasn't the point. The real idea was to take a wide array of people from Pixar. Very senior executives, Chef Luigi -- one of the company's chefs -- was in the class, a 20-something programmer who had just gotten off an all-nighter from working on Cars. Cars hadn't been released yet when we took the class.

The idea is for everybody to learn a little bit together, get to know each other, kind of fail together, see how my lighting and shading skills really aren't that great, but that's OK. The point is how much of it can you develop and you just build this culture of teamwork and honesty and communication and collaboration, which really sets them apart from most Hollywood studios.

When you would talk to the Pixar executive about what the killer app at Pixar is -- it's not about the computers. It's not about the digital animation software. It's about they believe they have developed a better and smarter way for creative people to work together. Their mantra is, "How do we do art as a team sport?" In a Hollywood legendary for individualists and self-interested people, how do we create a culture of collaboration and a culture of people who want to stay around here for decades producing great work? So, another great example of the power of ideas and people...

Question: And do you think that culture is going to change now that Disney owns them, or do you think Disney is smart enough to leave them alone?

Bill Taylor: Well, I think it's maybe none of the above. I think the hope is that Pixar will be allowed in its own ways to change the culture of Disney. So I think clearly Disney is going to be smart enough to leave them alone. I think it has the chance to be certainly within the realm of the animated output of Disney, almost kind of a reverse takeover where Disney may have bought Pixar's shares, but the hope is that the Pixar culture methodology approach to creativity winds up casting a long shadow over all of the Disney people involved in the world of animated movies.

It's funny, because the original kind of cultural DNA, if you will, for Pixar was established in a memo written 70 or 80 years ago by Walt Disney himself, talking about the right way to build a great animation company, and John Lassiter and Ed Catmull, the co-founders of Pixar, discovered that memo and said, "This is the kind of company we want to build."

We spent a lot of time with Randy Nelson, the dean of Pixar University, and when Randy showed up for work on the first day, they handed him the so-called "Walt memo" and said, "This is what we want to build, just like Walt Disney said." Pixar University is going to be a key to it, and so it's kind of poetic justice that so many years later, Disney itself spends a fortune to acquire Pixar. I think the hope is some of that Walt Disney-inspired Pixar culture will rub off on Disney itself.
Pixar U and Whistling While You Work