The Pixar Founder: How Ed Catmull Got His Start

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Creativity, Inc." by Ed Catmull. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Who is the Pixar founder? How did Ed Catmull get started in computer-generated animation?

Ed Catmull, one of the Pixar founders, studied computer science at the University of Utah before working on computer animation at the New York Institute of Technology. As a Pixar founder, Catmull saw the company through its early struggles.

Read more about Ed Catmull, Pixar founder, and the early years of Pixar.

Ed Catmull, Pixar Founder

When Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, started his career, he had one goal: Create films using computer-generated animation. At the time, all animation was done by hand, and the concept of using a computer to create characters was deemed nearly impossible. In fact, his early pitches of computer animation were rejected by major studios such as Disney. 

Though the Pixar founder faced a multitude of challenges, Catmull persevered. He worked tirelessly to advance the technology of computer animation and, eventually, co-founded Pixar to marry his love of animation with his expertise in computer technology. Through the journey of Pixar’s creation, Catmull developed leadership strategies that fostered creativity in the workplace while ensuring the company remained profitable and successful. Before we explore Catmull’s leadership strategies and eight tools for maintaining a team’s creative spark, we’ll examine Catmull’s background and the decisions that led to the rise of Pixar.

University of Utah

Catmull graduated from the University of Utah (U of U) with undergraduate degrees in physics and computer science. During his time in U of U’s graduate program, he learned how to work with highly creative and highly intelligent people. His professors gave him and his colleagues the freedom and resources to create whatever they wanted. They created programs that were forerunners of Photoshop, Netscape, PDFs, and user interfaces.

New York Institute of Technology

After graduate school, Catmull took a job at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) under the direction of Alex Schure. Schure believed that computers were the way of the future and brought Catmull in to run a research lab dedicated to the computer animation process. While Catmull made significant advancements with the NYIT research lab, both Catmull and his close collaborator, Alvy Ray Smith, believed the innovations they discovered would mean nothing if they didn’t have creatives and filmmakers working alongside them. 

They contacted studios such as Disney to promote their services and technology as the “next big thing.” However, these studios still didn’t see the value of computer animation and passed on their proposal. 

The Pixar Founder at Lucasfilm

Using technology in filmmaking wasn’t seen as important in Hollywood until 1977 with the release of an industry-changing blockbuster: George Lucas’ Star Wars. While Lucas’ studio, Lucasfilm, used a lot of practical effects, Lucas saw the ways computers could improve the filmmaking process and create stunning new worlds. In 1979, Lucas created a computer division at Lucasfilm and hired Catmull to run the department.

Catmull experienced some success, including the creation of a new computer called the Pixar Imaging Computer. However, in 1983, Lucas tried to sell Lucasfilms’ computer division (also known as “Pixar”) following a divorce in which he lost half of his assets. Unfortunately, most companies still didn’t see the value of computer animation. 

This changed with Steve Jobs. In 1985, the Pixar founder scored a meeting through a friend and showed Jobs the technology they had created. Though Catmull and Smith were uneasy at first, they eventually agreed to a deal: Jobs purchased Pixar for $5 million in February 1986, and the company “Pixar” was born. 

Pixar’s Early Years

At first, Pixar struggled financially and was torn between its identity as a computer company selling products and an animation studio producing films. Jobs had never marketed high-tech machines like the Pixar Imaging Computer, and neither Catmull nor his colleagues had ever run a company before. Catmull tried to better his managerial skills by reading books but found most of them to be shallow and useless. 

Abandoning Computer Sales

Despite Catmull’s best efforts, Pixar was constantly in the red. Though they had a fair amount of success as an animation studio (their early films earned them two Academy Award nominations and one win), they only managed to sell 300 computers. These sales didn’t cover the cost of building and developing the hardware.

With this in mind, Catmull decided to stop selling hardware. The team was much more passionate about filmmaking, and removing the costs of creating hardware would save them significant amounts of money. The problem, however, was that they now had no source of significant income. The short films they were making may have garnered awards and praise, but they didn’t bring in box office money.

Pixar Founder Sees Success With Toy Story

Though Pixar was struggling financially, their film work had gotten the attention of major studios, including the biggest name in animated films: Disney. They called the Pixar team in for a meeting at their headquarters in Burbank. They were primarily interested in the talents of Pixar’s John Lasseter, who had worked for Disney in the past, but, since he wouldn’t leave Pixar to return to Disney, Disney agreed to make a deal with the studio that led to the creation of their first feature film: Toy Story.

Toy Story was a critical and commercial success. Many on the Pixar team expressed pride in having created such an acclaimed and important piece of cinema. Catmull, however, didn’t share in this excitement. Though he was immensely happy with Toy Story and its reception, he had a new obstacle on his mind: maintaining momentum. Toy Story set the bar extremely high, and Catmull wanted Pixar to continue to meet and exceed expectations.

The Pixar Founder: How Ed Catmull Got His Start

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Here's what you'll find in our full Creativity, Inc. summary:

  • How Pixar went from selling computers to successful animation studio
  • What it takes to build a creative workplace culture
  • Why George Lucas sold Pixar to Steve Jobs

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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