Creative Exec Behind 'Frozen,' 'Toy Story' Reveals Secrets for Inspiration

Ed Catmull is the president of Disney Animation Studios and Pixar.

April 22, 2014, 2:20 PM

April 22, 2014— -- The highest-grossing animated film of all time is Disney’s “Frozen.” The second highest is Pixar’s “Toy Story 3.”

One common denominator between them: The same man is in charge of both companies.

Ed Catmull may not be a household name, but you’ve seen his movies -- and his imagination. He helped create the entire field of computer animation.

“As a child, my heroes were Walt Disney and Albert Einstein,” Catmull said. “So I basically wanted to be an animator, but when I left high school, I didn’t know how to proceed. There were no schools for it.”

Catmull first found a job with George Lucas, who early on was looking to add special effects to his “Star Wars” movies.

“He believed that technology was going to change the industry,” Catmull said. “No studios believed this at the time, so George hired me to bring technology into the industry.”

The first time computer graphics were ever used in a movie was in a largely forgettable 1976 film called “Future World.” The film included Catmull’s hand, animated through a piece of code he wrote as a student called the “Catmull spine,” which went on to become a building block to much more memorable effects later on.

“We did a minor effect in one of the ‘Star Wars’ movies because we were still in the research phase,” Catmull said. “So the first time that actually had something of significance, that was really noted, was in the second ‘Star Wars’ movie… a flyby over the planet… that really caught people's attention.”

In his new book, “Creativity Inc.,” Catmull describes Lucas’ management style as being Yoda-like. He said Lucas encouraged Catmull and his creative partner John Lasseter to trust their feelings and “use the Force.” Then, another powerful leader moved in.

“When Steve [Jobs] came and acquired Pixar from Lucasfilm, it was just after he had left Apple,” Catmull said. “Steve believed in passion, and he saw this amazing passion in us, and he responded to that.”

Catmull said Jobs helped him and Lasseter to achieve their dreams of making the first feature-length computer-animated movie ever: “Toy Story,” which was released in 1995.

But it took a while to get there. The team’s first big success was an animated short that went on to win an Academy Award. The short was of the famous hopping lamp, which became Pixar’s logo -- there is even a statue of it at Pixar headquarters.

“The most common question that people asked was, ‘was the big lamp the mother or the father?’” Catmull said. “For us, that was this incredible success. It wasn't about the technology anymore… and John [Lasseter], to this day, still loves the idea of … if you can make somebody think that an inanimate object can think, then you're actually doing some of the very best animation.”

“Toy Story” started off as a short film as well. No Woody. No Buzz. Just a Tin Toy trying to escape a drooling baby. Later Pixar came up with a feature-length story about the conflict between the latest and greatest action figure and an old-fashioned doll.

But in the original script, Woody was the villain.

“He was downright mean,” Catmull said. “He was an unlikable character, but that's the way all the films are. When they begin, they don't work. And we have to go through this process of figuring out how to make them work.”

Everything in Pixar headquarters is designed to promote creativity. But when Disney bought Pixar in 2006, and put Catmull and Lasseter in charge of both companies, Catmull noticed the offices at Disney Animation were starkly different. The Walt Disney Company is also the parent company of ABC News.

“They had cleaned everything out because they wanted to make a good first impression on the new boss that walked in,” he said. “You don't want cleaned-out cubicles and clean things, you want them to be personalized.”

Around the same time, Disney Animation had hit a bit of a slump. Catmull and Lasseter kept the two companies separate, but introduced Disney to a more collaborative, less top-down working process.

The first big hit for the Disney Animation Studios was a hugely popular reworking the story of Rapunzel in 2010’s “Tangled.”

“It was the biggest thing since ‘Lion King,’ so now they had the confidence, and they had also earned the confidence of the marketing people,” Catmull said. “Then we did ‘Wreck-It Ralph,’ which was a big success, and now ‘Frozen,’ which has now become the biggest animated film of all time.”

It’s a new Golden Age of animation in an era that Catmull helped to create, and the results speak for themselves.

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