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Disney's Low-Key Superhero

The studio's animators love their new boss' emphasis on creativity over bureaucracy.

June 12, 2006|Claudia Eller | 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."

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