Lessons from Pixar 1: The Braintrust

Over the holiday, I started reading a book called “Creativity, Inc” by Ed Catmull, one of the co-founders of Pixar. Ed shares the story of the inception and growth of Pixar over the years. Like many of you, I’ve been a huge fan of Pixar movies over the last two decades. And I’ve always wondered: what is Pixar’s secret sauce to create such amazing stories and iconic characters? How have they been able to churn out so many fantastic, high-quality movies over the years? Movies like Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, Wall-E, Up — each one that breaks new ground and connects with the audience in new ways.

Ed answers these questions and more in “Creativity, Inc.” This book is an absolute must-read for anyone who wants to invent, to create new products, to delight their customers. The kind of stuff that entrepreneurs, product managers, designers, and artists all want to do.

In the first of a three-party series, I’ll write about one of the principles of creativity that Ed discusses in his book: Foster creativity through candor. What exactly is candor? It’s forthrightness and frankness — the ability for people to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Ed argues that candor is absolutely essential to the creative process.

By creating an environment where candor is possible, directors and creative teams can give and receive direct and constructive feedback to each other, raising the game of all products (movies in this case) in the process. One tool that Pixar uses to achieve this level of candor is called the Braintrust.

The Braintrust is a group of trusted colleagues that gets together periodically to review the progress of a Pixar film that is in development: the characters, the story, and the design. According to Ed, the job of the Braintrust is to “push towards excellence, and root out mediocrity.”

Let’s take a closer look at the Braintrust process at Pixar, and how it helps Pixar’s filmmakers with their creative process. The Braintrust starts with the premise that an initial starting point for a movie usually sucks. Ed writes:

“Early on, all of our movies suck. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them… go, as I say, ‘from suck to non-suck.’”

Can you imagine that? Here’s one of the founders of Pixar saying that all of their films suck at first. We often have this idealistic view that some genius was in a tower, creative muscles flexing, and then all of a sudden a light bulb went off and suddenly Toy Story emerged. What Ed is saying is critically important for us to understand as we begin our own creative process — the initial version of any great product idea is usually going to suck.

The process of transforming a product idea that sucks to something that doesn’t suck involves multiple rounds of peer review with the Braintrust. The Braintrust is comprised of a group of smart, passionate people that see each other mainly as peers. This group is built on trust and candor — each member is focused on identifying and solving problems, and they’re focused on analyzing the product (or film, in the case of Pixar) at hand, without any hidden agendas. Most importantly, they care about raising the quality bar for each and every film that’s being analyzed. They’re not motivated by getting credit for an idea, looking good to their boss, etc. They just want to engage in creative thinking, problem-solving, and analysis because they care about the quality of the film.

Why is something like a Braintrust so important to the creative process at Pixar? Ed says that it’s because in many cases, the film’s director — the creative leader behind the product — gets so immersed in their own work that they can lose the forest for the trees. They benefit from having the perspective of smart, helpful colleagues who can analyze the film from different angles. As Ed says:

“The Braintrust is valuable because it broadens your perspective, allowing you to peer — at least briefly — through others’ eyes.”

What makes the Braintrust different from other forms of feedback?

  1. It’s made up of a group of colleagues that have expertise and empathy. In the case of Pixar, these are people “with a deep understanding of storytelling, and usually, people who have been through the process themselves.” In other words, they know what they’re talking about (expertise) and can provide extremely helpful advice. And in addition, they are sensitive to what the director is going through (empathy) because they’ve encountered these challenges themselves.
  2. The Braintrust has no authority. In other words, “the director does not have to follow any of the specific suggestions given.” After the meeting, the director can reflect on all of the feedback and come up with her own solutions to the problems that have been identified. The suggestions proposed during the meeting are not prescriptive, not top-down, not do-this-or-else.

There are two analogies that Ed uses to describe the Braintrust process. For those of you familiar with academic research, you may identify with the analogy of academic peer review. This is the process by which researchers are evaluated by others in their field. As Ed says:

“I like to think of the Braintrust as Pixar’s version of peer review, a forum that ensures we raise our game — not by being prescriptive but by offering candor and deep analysis.”

The other analogy that Andrew Stanton, the Pixar director who created “A Bug’s Life” and “Finding Nemo,” likens the Braintrust to is a panel of doctors.

“If Pixar is a hospital and the movies are the patients, then the Braintrust is made up of trusted doctors. In this analogy, it’s important to remember that the movie’s director and producer are doctors too. It’s as if they’ve gathered a panel of consulting experts to help find an accurate diagnosis for an extremely confounding case. But ultimately, it’s the filmmakers, and no one else, who will make the final decisions about the wisest course of treatment.”

In order for a process like the Braintrust to work well, it must be built on trust and candor. That means that the “panel of trusted doctors” must be willing to provide very direct, clear, and constructive feedback. Pixar filmmakers provide each other “notes” that capture their feedback during a Braintrust. As Ed writes:

“A good note says what is wrong, what is missing, what isn’t clear, what makes no sense. A good note is offered at a timely moment, not too late to fix the problem. A good note doesn’t make demands; it doesn’t even have to include a proposed fix. But if it does, that fix is offered only to illustrate a potential solution, not to prescribe an answer. Most of all, though, a good note is specific.”

All of the feedback and criticism have to come from a good place. As I mentioned earlier, the participants in the Braintrust are experts with empathy. Ed says:

“Candor isn’t cruel. It does not destroy. On the contrary, any successful feedback system is built on empathy, on the idea that we are all in this together, that we understand your pain because we’ve experienced it ourselves… The Braintrust is fueled by the idea that every note we give is in service of a common goal: supporting and helping each other as we try to make better movies.”

If you’re on the receiving end of this feedback, it’s essential that you don’t get defensive when you hear criticisms of your work. The secret to doing this is to divorce yourself from your idea. As Ed mentions in the book:

“You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged.”

As Ed writes in another part of the book, “It’s the film, not the filmmaker, that is under the microscope.” If you can understand and believe that, you can avoid getting defensive when others provide you with critical feedback about your product.

The other concept for receiving this feedback is to think of it as additive, not competitive. Think AND, not OR, in this world. The feedback and criticisms being offered are not meant to supplant your own vision. Rather, you should incorporate the best ideas and suggestions you’re hearing into the product idea as you iterate it.

“The key is to look at the viewpoints being offered, in any successful feedback group, as additive, not competitive. A competitive approach measures other ideas against your own, turning the discussion into a debate to be won or lost. An additive approach, on the other hand, starts with the understanding that each participant contributes something (even if it’s only an idea that fuels the discussion — and ultimately doesn’t work).”

One of the core principles for Pixar’s success is the ability to foster creativity through candor.

Candor is essential to creativity because it enables the director (or product manager, or entrepreneur, or artist — fill in your title here) to receive direct and constructive feedback that allows her to transform an idea that sucks to one that doesn’t. And most ideas early on in their lifecycle — even the iconic Pixar movies like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Up — they all suck at the beginning.

One of the most important tools for Pixar to foster creativity through candor is the Braintrust.

The Braintrust is the equivalent of an academic peer review process, or a panel of trusted doctors. The Braintrust is comprised of experts with empathy, who focus on identifying and diagnosing problems, not prescribing solutions. It’s up to the director/PM/etc. to decide whether and how to incorporate the feedback provided. By going through multiple rounds of feedback from the Braintrust, the quality of a film greatly increases and it begins to shine.

After reading this, I’ve been inspired to incorporate the principles behind the Braintrust into my own work. Even if it’s not possible to replicate the exact Braintrust system that Pixar uses, each of us can benefit from the principles of peer review, providing “good notes,” and being open to hearing and incorporating feedback. I’m confident that incorporating the principles of Pixar’s Braintrust will enable me and my team to raise the creativity and quality of our thinking and our products. Not everyone can produce something as revolutionary and iconic as Toy Story — but the Braintrust concept makes it much more likely that we will.

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