Opening this past June, the Museum of Science in Boston is hosting an extraordinary exhibit on the Science of Pixar which enthralls visitors to go behind the scenes of some of the most memorable and entertaining animated movies of the last 20 years. The exhibition, which is over 10,000 square feet, contains 40 interactive elements allowing you to enter into the world of art, science and technology that makes Pixar the groundbreaking company and studio it is. A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to bring my son and three of his close friends to experience the exhibit as part of his 13th birthday party. While the boys bounced from booth to booth, I was able to really explore the fascinating and awe inspiring world that makes Pixar so special.
As a description by the Museum of Science explains “Created by the Museum of Science and Pixar, and featuring more than 40 interactive exhibit elements, The Science Behind Pixar demonstrates the technology that supports the creativity and artistry of Pixar’s storytellers. The exhibition is broken into eight distinct sections, each focusing on a step of the filmmaking process – Modeling,Rigging, Surfaces, Sets & Cameras, Animation, Simulation, Lighting, and Rendering – providing visitors with a unique view of the production pipeline and concepts used at Pixar every day.”
Moreover, the timing of the visit came on the heels of having assigned the book, Creativity Inc. to my senior leadership team this summer as part of our summer retreat. The Museum of Science exhibition focuses on the STEAM concepts used by the artist and computer scientists who bring some of our favorite Pixar characters and stories to life. If one is truly interested in learning what makes Pixar such an amazing and special place, reading Ed Catmull's book takes you behind the scenes of how a complex and creative organization manages challenges, overcomes adversity and explores the infinite creative potential of its artists and technical teams.
Creativity Inc. is a book that has been widely written about and many of the key underlying concepts have been openly shared by writers across the internet. What resonated for me, as the Head of an independent boarding and day school for the arts was the key to Pixar’s culture and how that single thread weaves into everything the organization does and believes. When you are trying to figure out how to make the thousands of strands of blue fur for Sully in Monsters Inc. you combine art and science together so that the character and story can ring true. The hundreds of hours that go into that process require candid feedback, open dialogue, a willingness to tackle challenges as a team and strive towards excellence in every facet of the project.
Here are the top three that resonated with me and my team. I have grouped a few together that felt linked and related.
Number 1: Develop a Braintrust and Learn to Trust Each Other By Being Honest
Central to the work that Pixar does is the concept of the Braintrust. It developed organically through the work of the team that created the first Pixar film, Toy Story. John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich, and Joe Ranft would gather during and throughout the production process with their creative teams and use these meetings to drill down on what was keeping the project from moving forward. It’s entire focus was to work on improving the film and central to that process was the need for trust, honest and candor. The book outlines how the team would attack a problem and not each other. This lesson is true for any creative or executive team working through a set of problems or issues. Understanding that each of us can get stuck or that we might be unable to see the problem clearly requires those around us to assist us and hear from one another. None of this is possible unless there is trust, honesty and candor.
Number 2: The Future is Not a Destination, It’s a Direction
There is ultimately no end goal to engaging in creative work. If you are a photographer, a writer, a painter, school leader, biology teacher, there is something powerful and profound in recognizing that the purpose of your work is not to reach some predetermined end result. One of my most important mentors shared with me the concept that the on journey is where the growth and learning happens. This is true of anyone or any team or place that seeks to find it’s inner creative spirit. At Walnut Hill, one of our core values is growth, another creativity. When we seek to find concrete examples of our ability to live by these ideas it requires an understanding that the work itself does not end. There is not final product or ultimate resolution. Catmull shares in his book “To keep a creative culture vibrant, we must not be afraid of constant uncertainty. We must accept it, just as we accept the weather. Uncertainty and charge are life’s constants. And that’s the fun part.”
Number 3: Stop Trying to Drive the Train
Finally, one quote that has remained with me since first reading the book was shared with me by a member of my team over a year ago.
I feel it bears no real explanation as it beautifully describes what any leader needs to truly know and feel. The role of leadership is much harder and less visible than the person who gets to drive the train. Setting the course for any organization, big or small, requires courage, hard work, discipline and passion for the mission you are working for. I strive to remember this idea every single day.