Going from Suck to Non-Suck

The reality for any creative process is that we must be able to go from “suck to non-suck,” as Ed Catmull describes the reality of Pixar’s creative process, something he has observed and understood for over 30 years as the company’s cofounder and president. That takes hours of practice — and a lot of easy-to-ask for, hard-to-implement advice.

That’s because Catmull and Pixar’s directors think it’s better to fix problems than to prevent errors. Their strategy has always been: “be wrong as fast as we can”, which basically means, “we’re gonna screw up, let’s just admit that. Let’s not be afraid of that.”

So, for instance, Pixar does not begin new movies with a script. Far from it. Film ideas begin on rough storyboards until they work through thousands of problems throughout the process in order to take films from suck to nonsuck.

“Every time we show a film for the first time, it sucks,” Catmull will say. People then email their comments to the director to explain what they liked, what they didn’t, and why, and substantial changes are made.

In fact, directors say that Pixar’s films will suck virtually until the last stage of production–problems are constantly identified and fixed. As Pixar’s chief creative officer John Lasseter expresses his perfectionism, “We don’t actually finish our films, we release them.”

Summing-up: Pixar’s culture is defined by a pursuit of excellence and quality. Being able to go from suck to nonsuck is a process of ongoing prototyping, a process that facilitates experimentation as it allows for a rigorous and continual scrutiny of the work in progress.

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