A Non-Technical Chat with Ed Catmull

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In Tom Sito’s excellent and exhaustively researched new book, Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation, no one has quite as many index listings as Dr. Ed Catmull, current president of both Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios. And that’s as it should be, since Catmull’s shadow looms as large over the entire digital film industry as anyone’s (and yes, I’ve read the text of Tom’s book, too, not simply the index).

The great thing about talking to Ed Catmull is that he checks his doctorate at the door. You don’t have to have an advanced technical degree to understand and appreciate what he says. I first found this out in 2000, when he was chief technology officer and head of development for Pixar. In our conversation, he actually downplayed the technological factor. “I think people are drawing the wrong conclusions,” he began, elaborating:

“What I keep seeing is people looking at our films and saying, ‘Oh, you guys have been extraordinarily successful, it must be because you’re doing 3-D.’ I think that is an incredibly unfortunate way of looking at it, and I think it’s wrong. It’s true that in our case the technology is part of a thing that this group of people uses, that have us think about things in a somewhat different way. But we are very careful, internally, to say that’s just the way we make films. We can very easily make a bad CG film, or a great 2-D animated film, but if one ever forgets that it’s the story that makes the difference, then you’re in trouble.”

Ed was also insightful about the pigeon-holing of animation as kids stuff. “I’m hoping we get past it” he said, but went on to note how that assumption’s other edge ended up helping Toy Story 2:

Toy Story 2

Toy Story 2

“One thing we found with Toy Story was that a significant number of people did not see it until their kids bought the videotape, and then they watched it at home with their kids. We have an extraordinary number of comments [from adults] that said, ‘I was surprised to see how good it was,’ and ‘I enjoyed it so much,’ but they didn’t go out and see it as a movie. So when Toy Story 2 came out, we found it did even better, because we had all those people who believed that they, as adults, could enjoy it. It appealed to both children and adults. It’s okay to have a film aimed at adults where the kids can’t understand everything. But I believe if you aim something at children, not only do you make it unwatchable for adults, you also make it not very good for children. In this country it’s unfortunately true that people generally assume that animation is aimed at children. How do we get past that? It’s going to take a few more films that really satisfy the adult sensibilities, and we want to do that, but we’re not going to get there until we tell those kinds of stories.”

I think everyone would agree that Pixar was Up for the challenge.

Ed Catmull

Ed Catmull

  • Kansas

    Let’s beat DreamWorks Animation, their latest film, Turbo, and Mr. Katzenberg down, Mr. Catmull; you, Lasseter, and Pixar are the best! You were right about the thing about animation. It’s not just for kids; it’s for everyone.

  • Tom Sito

    Thank you Michael. What’s fascinating about Ed is how he began as a research scientist and software engineer before the title existed, then became a movie producer, then the CEO of a studio. And he has succeeded at all three careers where for anyone else. one would be more than sufficient.