“Originality is fragile. You have to love and protect your ugly babies, your early creative projects and original ideas.”
– Ed Catmull, Pixar co-founder and former president of Walt Disney Animation Studios
Because of Pixar’s highly successful track record emotionally resonant and commercially successful films, Ed Catmull says many people assume Pixar films are born being resonant, striking, and meaningful. But as he explains in his book “Creativity, Inc.”, Catmull says all Pixar films are born as ugly babies.
“The early reels of all Pixar films are pretty ugly. Their potential glimmers. But what is most striking is their flaws.”
Industry-leading and experienced directors like Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich didn’t create the versions of “Finding Nemo” and “Coco” that Pixar fans know and love today on the first try… not even close. And Pete Docter was afraid he was going to get fired because the story concept of what became “Inside Out” simply wasn’t working, and he didn’t know how to fix it.
Something truly original and creative is always a risk.
Catmull says an infant project’s potential can be hard to judge at the early stages. Potential can be shy to reveal itself in baby projects that start life ugly. Projects that are as pink and perfect as the Gerber baby can have strong initial promise, but eventually peter out.
Pixar spent years developing a film about an endangered lizard raised in a lab which they were certain would be a big hit… only to shelve the entire project after deciding they simply couldn’t make the story work.
How does Pixar know the difference between baby projects that will mature into successful films and those that can’t go the distance?
Pixar nurtures their baby projects by assigning teams to develop a story idea before it is pitched at one of Pixar’s “brain trust” meetings – a gathering of Pixar’s top directors, writers, creatives, and executives who offer feedback and suggestions to each baby project’s director.
Before the brain trust decides whether to greenlight a baby project into production – a huge investment of Pixar’s resources – the baby is given time and support to develop its potential. The brain trust tracks the baby’s development and after each meeting decides to either keep investing in the baby’s growth, or re-assign the baby’s caretakers to nurture other babies.
Your creative babies need support, investment, and … … … … time.
Some of your early creative projects will fail to mature and gain strength and you’ll have to put them to rest. Try not to beat yourself up about this natural selection process. It happens all the time, even to the pros at Pixar. Thank the baby for its contribution and thank yourself for the valuable experience you gained in learning how to nurture your creativity.
Don’t pit your middle-schooler against someone else’s Olympian
Our analytic brain frequently sabotages our creativity because it’s impossible not to compare our baby project with someone else’s magnus opus. It’s impossible not to conclude that our baby will never grow into beautiful maturity. Despair and child abandonment soon follow.
According to Catmull, that’s an unfair comparison to make. “It’s the creative equivalent of pitting a middle-schooler against an Olympic-level athlete.”
Taken a step further, we can then leap to the dead-end conclusion that we simply don’t have the talent to ever produce something that is as meaningful and resonant as the works of artists we admire.
Here’s what’s really happening:
“You’re trying to do a triple backflip in a gale force wind… and you’re mad at yourself for not sticking the landing. It’s amazing you’re still alive.”
– Brad Bird to Pete Docter during a Pixar brain trust meeting for “Inside Out”
The Harry Potter Problem
Stories of creativity striking like lightning abound in our talent-obssesed culture. One of the most famous examples is J.K. Rowling coming up with the idea for the Harry Potter series during a delayed train ride and immediately starting to write the first novel that same day.
While these events are true according to Rowling, if taken at face-value, her enviable experience of having a fully developed premise and fantasy world fall into her lap gives a dangerous impression. It can reinforce the idea that first drafts of anything destined for success are perfect and complete on the first try.
I call this…
The Salieri Complex
Focusing solely on the moment of inspiration and ignoring the years of development and hard work required to elevate an inspired idea into a finished work of art creates the illusion of overnight success.
It also perpetuates the myth that real geniuses get it perfect without any struggle or self-doubt, as a jealous rival composer Salieri observes of Mozart in the film “Amadeus”.
“These were first and only drafts of music. But they showed no corrections of any kind… He had simply written down music already finished… in his head. Page after page of it. As if he was just taking dictation.”
– “Amadeus”, screenplay by Peter Shaffer
There is an epilogue to the Harry Potter inspiration story that doesn’t get much press. According to The Friendly Editor, Rowling rewrote the first chapter of the first book so many times that that her early attempts “bear no resemblance to anything in the finished book.”
In pages of Rowling’s early drafts published in “Harry Potter: A Journey Through a History of Magic”, Voldemort is a little, red-eyed dwarf, and Mr. Dursley has a conversation with the minister of magic about what to do with baby Harry.
“An overnight success is 10 years in the making.”
The math in Tom Clancy’s quote above applies to the Harry Potter series. Rowling wrote multiple books she never attempted to get published before Harry Potter. It took her more than 15 drafts to sculpt the published version of the now famous first chapter ‘The Boy Who Lived’. And she spent over 6 years planning the series and creating the wizarding world before she completed a first draft of the first book.
Rowling invested almost 20 years of her life to create the Harry Potter series. Whatever Salieri may believe, she did not take dictation from a creative muse that tapped her for greatness – duck-duck-goose style – on the 11:00 train from Manchester to London.
A similar mystique surrounds Stephenie Meyer. She had a dream that gave her the idea for the Twilight series and wrote the first draft in three months, having never written anything before, and while caring for three small children. Like Rowling’s story, these events are true according to Meyer. But the often-intimidated-but-never-duplicated success of the Twilight series makes Meyer the exception that proves the rule.
The idea that the creative process is “inspiration + execution = success” is false.
This formula creates the following thought pattern: “My work isn’t an instant success, so inspiration must be the problem.”
Or even worse: “I executed my most inspired idea and it still failed. That proves I don’t have any good ideas.”
Our initial inspiration will probably fail to measure up to the lightning-strike stories that are associated with Rowling and Meyer. Our first drafts will probably be weak and confused and fall short of the first-try perfection Salieri attributed to Mozart.
Take it from Ed Catmull and the Pixar brain trust on how the creative process really plays out.
“A basic truth: people who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process.”
Struggle and self-doubt are inevitable… and a normal part of the creative process.
When you’re ready to throw your baby project out with the bathwater, remember the nurturing support and patience of the Pixar brain trust. Remember the 6 years of development that Rowling invested in Harry Potter before she published the first book. Remember that Mozart was trained from infancy by his domineering, professional musician father who invested all of the family’s resources in his son at the expense of his potentially equally talented daughter.
Give yourself and your creative baby a realistic chance to develop. Be prepared for ugly cries, snot, and sleepless nights. Every Olympian started out in diapers.