Disney’s Low-Key Superhero

Times Staff Writer

It’s tempting to see “Cars,” the seventh movie from Pixar Animation Studios, as a parable about the future of Walt Disney Co.

Early in the film, which opened Friday, a cocky race car named Lightning McQueen declares, “I’m a one-man show.” But by the time the credits roll, McQueen realizes he’s nothing without a great pit crew behind him.

It’s a lesson that Ed Catmull, Pixar’s co-founder and the new president of Disney Feature Animation, has built his career on.

When Disney acquired Pixar in January, Chief Executive Bob Iger put Catmull and his better-known creative partner, John Lasseter, in charge of reinvigorating the Burbank entertainment giant’s once-legendary animation operation. Lasseter, the charismatic idea man who directed “Cars,” will be essential in this effort.


But Lasseter says Catmull is the key to Pixar’s (and now Disney’s) success. The 61-year-old computer scientist, who is also president of Pixar, is nothing short of a spiritual leader, his colleagues say -- a soft-spoken man whose personal philosophies infuse the Pixar culture that has produced nothing but blockbusters.

“Ed is the reason we’re all here,” said Lasseter, noting Catmull’s anti-bureaucratic, artist-driven, bottom-up management style. “He’s the ultimate parent -- he helps you be the best you can be.”

It now falls to Catmull to put the “team” back into Team Disney. How does he plan to do it? By completely changing the rules.

“Sometimes, it’s the leadership that’s blocking something,” Catmull said in a recent interview in his new office at Disney, a place where animators have griped for decades about being micromanaged.


“I’ve always believed that you shape the management team around the talent rather than try to force people into a certain way of doing it.”

Mention Pixar to most moviegoers, and they’ll tick off the maverick studio’s parade of hits -- the “Toy Story” films, “A Bug’s Life,” “Monsters, Inc.,” “Finding Nemo” and “The Incredibles.” If anyone can remember an executive’s name, it’s likely to be that of CEO Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple Computer Inc. who launched Pixar 20 years ago and has always served as its public face.

But while Catmull will never be a household name, he’s a celebrity in the rarefied world of computer graphics. A brainiac who holds some patents and has won four Academy Awards for his technical feats, he has helped create some of the key computer-generated imagery software that animators rely on.

Catmull, who lives in Marin County with his wife, Susan, and their three kids, has never worked in Hollywood. Now, he finds himself a bona fide player. And there’s much at stake. Every one of Pixar’s movies has been a critical and a commercial triumph. Can the cult of Catmull yield similar results in Burbank?


It’s too early to know. But already, Disney animators say a remarkable change is taking place.

“It’s like somebody opened the windows and fresh air is coming into the room,” said Glen Keane, who during 32 years at Disney has supervised such hand-drawn hits as “Tarzan” and “Aladdin” and is set to direct the upcoming computer-animated film “Rapunzel.”

Chris Sanders, director of Disney’s last big 2-D hit, “Lilo & Stitch,” agreed. “It’s like the Berlin Wall being torn down.”

‘Formed in Ed’s Image’


Much has been written about the wonky, free-spirited playground that is Pixar’s 16-acre campus in Emeryville, across the bay from San Francisco. There, employees and their bosses ride around on scooters and skateboards, decorate their workspaces as tiki huts and castles and compete in pingpong tournaments in the middle of their shifts.

But Pixar is about more than what employees do to refuel between intense stretches of work. To spend a little time in its 220,000-square-foot facility is to realize just how much the place reflects Catmull’s sensibilities.

“Cars” supervising technical director Eben Ostby, who’s worked with Catmull for many years, says Pixar is “formed in Ed’s image.”

Pixar people frequently recite Ed-isms -- Catmull’s oft-repeated theories that inform how he operates and, by extension, how the studio is run.


Ed believes that you should always hire people who are smarter than you.

Ed believes that it’s more important to invest in good people than good ideas.

Ed believes in a “talent-ocracy.” If you make films for everybody, you need to listen to everybody’s ideas, whether they come from a janitor or a storyboard artist.

Ed believes that you learn by making mistakes and that success often disguises problems.


Ed believes that magic happens when you don’t operate out of fear.

The professorial father of five (he has two children from a previous marriage), who since being named to replace Disney’s David Stainton has divided his week between the Burbank studio and Pixar, has already radically altered how animated movies are born, nourished and produced “down south.”

For starters, he put one of Disney’s most experienced animation producers, 30-year veteran Don Hahn, in charge of the creative development team. In the past, that group reported to the animation president and was instructed to find story ideas to assign to directors. Now, directors think up their own ideas and the group supports them.

Similarly, Catmull has halted the practice of executives yanking back movies from directors at various stages of production and making changes as they see fit.


Catmull believes that the filmmakers should have “complete ownership” of their movies from beginning to end. He’s empowered the production teams to set their own schedules, manage budgets and control all other aspects of the filmmaking process. Most important, he’s entrusted them to solve their own problems.

“They’re not passing them by me,” he said.

Directors no longer get mandatory notes on their films from three levels of executives. Instead, they get feedback from their peers at Disney and Pixar. Directors describe it as a refreshing free-for-all of ideas and uncensored opinions.

“Ed’s been the catalyst for new times around here,” Hahn said. “It’s a team sport that I haven’t seen in a long, long time. This is a cultural change.”


And the animators aren’t the only ones rejoicing. In an interview, Disney CEO Iger praised Catmull for providing what had been lacking for too long.

“It’s important to know the edge of our competency and just how far your leadership can go,” Iger said of his decision to entrust Disney’s 700-member animation team to Catmull.

“I felt we needed help in animation. It was not just about buying Pixar, but about buying the great talent at Pixar.... Ed has emerged as a real leader of a creative business.”



Guiding Spirit

Catmull doesn’t direct movies or draw on the computer. He leaves that to others. His role is to keep the larger creative enterprise humming. Call him a troubleshooter, a problem solver, a managerial sage.

“He’s never been the guy to bring you the answers,” said “Finding Nemo” director Andrew Stanton. “He knows how to get in the way or get out of the way to just guide you along.”

Now, he’s guiding double the number of people he did at Pixar alone.


On Jan. 25, one day after the merger was announced, Catmull and Lasseter flew to Burbank to address the animation troops for the first time. Catmull spoke affectionately about Disney’s heritage and assured those gathered in the studio’s huge Stage 7 that the building blocks were in place to return the company to greatness.

“We’re not here to turn Disney into a clone of Pixar,” Catmull said. “What we’re going to do is build a studio on your talent and passion.”

Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook, to whom Catmull reports along with Iger, said Catmull’s remarks drew “whooping and hollering” from the gathering. “You could feel the electricity in the room -- it was very inspiring.”

Steve Anderson was one of the first Disney directors to see Catmull’s theories put into action. When Catmull and Lasseter took over, Anderson’s animated comedy “Meet the Robinsons” was already a troubled project.


Immediately, Catmull arranged a screening for a core group of Pixar directors. They flew to Disney and spent six hours brainstorming with Anderson about how to punch up the film. One director suggested making the film’s buffoonish villain, known as the Bowler Hat Guy, more threatening.

Anderson was wowed. “It was very helpful,” he said.

At the end of the session, Catmull told him: “Now, it’s up to you.”

Catmull said Anderson’s struggles were a natural part of the creative process.


“With every film there’s a different crisis,” he said, noting that Pixar always conducted postmortems on its movies, no matter how much they grossed at the box office, to learn what went right and what went wrong. “Our job is to address problems even when we’re successful. If you don’t, you will fail.”


Born Problem Solver

To understand how compulsive Catmull is about solving problems, consider the washer-dryer conundrum. Irked that clothes dryers have 40-minute cycles, while washers take just 20, he knew just what to do: Buy two dryers.


This kind of “rational extravagance,” as one colleague calls it, is pure Catmull. He’s quirky -- a collector of high-tech kitchen gadgets, an aficionado of poolside water slides and an “American Idol” fanatic who also listens every morning to audio books with titles like “The History of Philosophy.”

Above the desk in his Pixar office -- littered with scholarly reports and periodicals -- hang two framed photographs that neatly bookend Catmull’s own history.

One is a black-and-white print of the “Nine Old Men,” Walt Disney’s legendary stable of animators. The other, by celebrity photographer Annie Leibowitz, is in color: a portrait of Pixar’s nine-man brain trust that includes Catmull, Lasseter, Jobs and directors Stanton, Pete Docter and Brad Bird.

Born in West Virginia, Catmull grew up in Salt Lake City, the eldest of five children in a conservative Mormon family. Education was his parents’ calling: His father was a high school math teacher and later a principal; his mother was a school secretary.


As a child, Catmull had two idols: Albert Einstein and Walt Disney. He loved “Peter Pan” and “Pinocchio,” and fed his dream of being a Disney animator by making “flip books” of characters he invented and studying 8-millimeter versions of early Disney cartoons.

But by the end of high school, he had come to a painful realization: “I wasn’t good enough.”

He studied physics and computer science at the University of Utah, taking so many courses in four years that he earned a bachelor’s degree in each discipline.

After graduating, he worked briefly as a computer programmer at Boeing in Seattle before returning to Utah to go to graduate school. It was the fall of 1970, and computer graphics was a new, hot field. Catmull realized that it perfectly combined his artistic and technological passions.


“Wow, I can make pictures!” he recalls thinking.

He ditched his plan to develop computer languages in favor of a new dream: using computers to make animated movies. It was 25 years before Pixar would release “Toy Story,” the first animated film to be entirely created on the computer.

So what if there were no software programs for making pictures on the computer? Catmull wrote his own. His initial project was an animated rendering of his left hand that eventually ended up as a scene in the 1976 sci-fi thriller “Futureworld,” the first movie to incorporate computer graphics.

By then, Catmull was running the computer graphics lab at the New York Institute of Technology. His team developed some fundamental software, but the goal of making a computer-animated movie eluded him.


Then George Lucas called. It was 1979 and Lucas, still basking in the success of “Star Wars,” was looking for someone to set up a computer group at his Northern California-based Lucasfilm.

“He wanted to bring high technology into the film industry,” recalled Catmull, who took the job.

In 1984, Catmull made a hire that would change his career: Lasseter. Then an exuberant young animator at Disney, Lasseter was frustrated by his uninspired bosses -- people, he said, who had been “second-tier animators during Walt’s time.”

Lasseter recalls being told, “We don’t want to hear your ideas -- just do the work.”


By contrast, Lasseter felt at home in the world Catmull had built at Lucasfilm. True to his philosophy -- always recruit people smarter than yourself -- “Ed had hired all the top technical talent in the world,” Lasseter said.

In 1986, Catmull helped persuade Jobs to acquire the computer division of Lucasfilm and rename it Pixar. Catmull’s dream finally had a chance of coming true.


A Form of Activism


Not long after Pixar was founded, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tried to honor Catmull with a technical Oscar.

He wouldn’t accept it. His former colleagues at Lucasfilm deserved it more than he did, Catmull said. Jim Morris, then the president of Lucas’ special effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, picked up the Oscar on behalf of the Lucasfilm team.

“If I was sitting in my office and someone called and said, ‘You’re going to get an Academy Award,’ would I have the fiber to turn it down?” said Morris, who is now Pixar’s executive vice president of production.

People who know him well say Catmull isn’t in the film business just to make money or win awards. For him, animation is a form of activism.


“I really want to make movies that touch people and make them better,” he said in a way that actually sounded believable, not trite. “Otherwise, what are we doing here?”

Catmull is willing to put himself on the line for his beliefs. During the Vietnam War, he sought conscientious objector status despite the fact that his father, a World War II veteran, and the rest of his family were embarrassed by his antiwar views.

As a manager, Catmull has risked losing his best people to stand on principle: He doesn’t believe in employment contracts because he thinks they send the wrong message.

“The first thing it says is, ‘I don’t trust the employee,’ ” he said, preferring to try to keep his best performers by treating them right.


In 2000, when Catmull and Lasseter hired Bird, the exuberant director had a reputation for being a troublemaker. He’d been kicked off two Disney movies for trying to do things differently.

“I had been fired for rocking the boat, never hired for rocking the boat,” said the man who would go on to direct “The Incredibles.”

Bird was surprised to discover that the leaders of Pixar, having enjoyed three consecutive hits, had one gnawing fear: that the company might become complacent and repetitive in its success. That, they told Bird, was precisely why they needed him.

“Go ahead, throw us for a loop,” Bird recalls them saying.


Now, Catmull seems determined to throw Disney for a loop.

Just three years ago, after Pixar’s and DreamWorks SKG’s successes with computer-generated imagery, Disney’s then-CEO Michael Eisner decreed that no new films would be made using the techniques that Walt Disney had pioneered. The stated reason: Audiences had lost their taste for hand-drawn films.

In perhaps the most surprising change since taking the helm, Catmull has repealed that decision, which he calls “a lame excuse for the failure of story.” He believes that directors should work in the medium of their choice, even if that medium is traditional, hand-drawn animation.

Bring us the tales you want to tell, he’s urged the creative troops. Tell us what medium best serves the story.


“Disney has had two major heydays,” Catmull said, referring to animation’s two golden eras -- the first beginning in the late 1930s, the second in the 1990s. “We’re going to make a third.”