Pixar’s method of creating memorable, award-winning, and heartfelt movies is relatively simple. Through collaboration, small teams, each with a director in charge of the project, brainstorm ideas which then get presented to a hivemind of top creatives and refined through a process that involves catalytic questions, then the process is repeated till a product is finalized and rolled out. The key takeaways from their method include true collaboration, creation is a structured process that takes time, and criticism should improve an idea, not foster resentment. These items put together can help your business succeed as long as you’re able to adapt them correctly.

Collaboration at Pixar’s Level

True collaboration, meaning getting viewpoints from people that differ from your own will lead to more full and diverse ideas, with the caveat that you take their views with an open mind. Hearing ideas that go against your own and not reacting negatively is difficult but it is necessary in order for ideas to reach the next level. On the same page, it is important that everyone has a chance to share their ideas and overcome any fear of judgment. Not sharing because you don’t want your idea rejected doesn’t add anything meaningful to the pursuit of a great end product, in fact, you would be hindering the team’s efforts by not sharing. Bouncing ideas off of each other will only lead to a better end result as everyone’s ideas adding onto or checking one another will help show the holes that need to be filled. Collaboration allows for team members to complement each other. Strengths add to each other and weaknesses get covered when collaboration happens properly. 

Pixar’s Creative Process

Creative thoughts may happen sporadically, but consistently fostering good ideas requires a whole process. Pixar teams have several back and forth before presenting their idea to the Braintrust, even then this process is repeated a number of times before a finished product comes out. 

The first step is always to start. The initial brainstorming doesn’t have to be good, but a base needs to be established and bad ideas need to be cut before any real progress will be made. The 2009 film Up, was created with a different story altogether. For reference, as it stands, Up is about a bitter old man who is fulfilling his deceased wife’s goal of visiting a waterfall via his house which is flying because of balloons. Part of the original premise was used in the final cut, but most of it was changed. Although there were changes made, the initial idea allowed the team to come together and refine it, present it to the Braintrust, then proceed to make more edits based on any questions or concerns heard until the movie we know today was made. According to Ed Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar, “it isn’t unusual for Pixar films to start terrible, and remain terrible, for years before they finally find their true identity.” Having the tenacity to keep working even after ideas are rejected is what separates Pixar from its competitors.

Apple has a similar process. They will go through several prototypes and iterations before finally releasing a finished product. The iPhone had multiple prototypes with rumors of all the different types of ideas Apple came up with. The team behind the idea has to go through several cycles of pitching ideas and going back to refine them, imagining new ideas altogether, or scrapping them completely, like in the case of the iPad calculator app.

Essentially, create an idea, it’s just a starting point and the finished product doesn’t even need to resemble the first draft. After creating an idea you can take it to other people, preferably those with more experience than you, in order to have it picked apart and refined. This process is repeated until a final product is released.

Give and Take: Constructive Criticism

In direct correlation to collaborating with your team, being able to take criticism constructively is an essential part of creating better ideas. Going on the defensive or being combative will only hinder your team, learning to take criticism will expedite the creative process. Some people will find it hard to listen to ideas that differ or even contradict their own, but getting used to this in a team environment is crucial in order for better ideas to manifest. If you ever find yourself taking criticism poorly, just remember to stop your first reaction and that everyone there is trying to help the team reach a common goal.

Going back to the example of Up, the original story had a floating city with two princes competing to inherit the throne. Parts of the original idea were still incorporated into the film, the entire story was scrapped, but ideas from it survived. The story wasn’t rejected because it was bad, rather because it had two main characters who weren’t relatable. Two princes with everything they ever wanted competing to see who would rule isn’t something a large audience can relate to. Without the criticism it received, we could’ve watched a completely different movie. Swinging back to the Apple example, without rejections, the iPhone could have turned out unsuccessful and Apple wouldn’t be the giant company it is today (highly doubtful as Steve Jobs was the one who signed off or rejected ideas).

Wrap Up

Adapting these ideas into your company culture might take time, or you might even have to completely change them in order to get the method to work for you. Getting to the point where people can give and take criticisms properly, may take time, but it will pay off in the long run. The ability to problem solve at a high level and in a way that has everyone pitch in, benefits everyone, small details could be missed by some but instantly noticed by others. It is this structured, creative process where nothing falls in the cracks that separate Pixar from its competitors.