Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Creativity the Warhol and Pixar way

An interesting similarity
I want to make it as a fine-art photographer. I also want to start a technology company that grows. As I aspire to succeed in both simultaneously, I crave creativity. I continually analyze ideas for new startups and dream of concepts for photography projects. Recently, I noticed a strong similarity in the approaches of two well-respected creatives: Andy Warhol and Ed Catmull. Both have had an amazing streak of creative successes, and though their personalities could not be more different, they both had a similar approach to nurturing creativity.

Warhol's Factory
"Andy Warhol by Jack Mitchell" by Jack Mitchell. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
"Andy Warhol" by Jack Mitchell via Wikimedia Common
Andy Warhol has been called the most important artist of the second half of the 20th century, if not the entire 20th century. The volume of his creative work is probably unparalleled by any artist. His influence still reverberates in painting and printed media, music, film, and photography.

Aside from his endlessly provocative artwork, I am fascinated with Andy Warhol’s mode of operation. After tasting some of his first success in the fine art world, Andy leased a warehouse and hired a technician to cover every surface with silver paint or aluminum foil. The result came to be known as “The Factory”. The Factory was an instant sensation that in many ways defined the youth culture of the sixties. It became home for a constantly changing group of artists, musicians, drug addicts, drag queens, and celebrities. It was the site of a never-ending drug-fueled, inhibition-free party. Many people became famous from their association with the factory, including actress Edie Sedgwick, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the proto-alternative band Velvet Underground, to name just a few.

While many people debate whether Andy Warhol was a creative genius or a rip-off artist, no one questions the influence that the Factory had on his work. Many of his films consisted of little more than his simply turning on a video camera and recording what he saw. When he came up with an idea for a new film, his cast usually consisted of whoever was around. Many of his ideas were originally recommended to him by his Factory “Superstars” in the form of “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” With this eclectic entourage, Warhol would later state that new ideas were given to him every five minutes.

Pixar's Brain Trust

"VES Awards 89 cropped" by VES_Awards_89.jpg: Jeff Heusserderivative work: Ahonc - This file was derived from: VES_Awards_89.jpg. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
"VES Awards 89 cropped" by Jeff Heusser via Wikimedia Commons

I recently finished Ed Catmull’s book, Creativity, Inc. It is a fascinating book that details the origins of the Pixar movie studio with commentary on how to apply the principles to business leadership in general. Mr. Catmull recounts his story from his interest in animation as a boy, to Steve Jobs convincing him to take the studio public, with plenty of details in between regarding his time as a PhD computer science student at the University of Utah, and the origins of Pixar as a computer hardware company at LucasFilm under George Lucas.

For those too young to remember life before the first Toy Story, it is difficult to describe how much of an influence this movie studio has had. Before Toy Story, computer animation was a nerdy distraction. With very few exceptions (most notably, a Lysterine commercial, which itself was created by Pixar) no one had ever animated anything on a computer that didn’t seem either completely unnecessary, or that it could have been done better if it had been done the old-fashioned way. Toy Story (and the ensuing Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, UP, Wall-E, and Toy Story 3) were remarkable because they were strong stories which used 3D computer animation as an effective tool. Pixar created, nearly entirely on its own, the entire industry of computer animation, and influenced nearly every movie made in the last decade with the computer effects that they pioneered, or at least with the computer-based editing tools that they made possible.

For me, the standout lesson of Catmull’s book (which was echoed countless times across many chapters) was the importance of Pixar’s “Brain Trust”. The Brain Trust is a rotating group of employees that represent nearly every group within the company. The group meets regularly (as frequently as necessary) to review progress on a film and to provide feedback to the director. Despite the fact that the Brain Trust is organized in a corporate setting, there is no hierarchy once the meeting has started. Much like the Factory, everyone is encouraged to speak up. Scenes are rewritten and entire movies are scrapped based on the suggestions that are made in these meetings. The director still has the final say, but the suggestions are valuable because they help the director see problems to which he or she had been blind.

Making my own
I want a brain trust. I want a Factory. I want to surround myself with people that are forthcoming with ideas. I think that my greatest weakness both in business and photography is my own inhibitions. I get blank page syndrome and have a hard time thinking of something other than what I’ve already done. Some of my favorite business ideas (one of which I’m pursuing right now) came from casual conversations with friends. I want to surround myself with people that are interested in experimentation and who aren’t disappointed when something “fails.”

I’m trying to figure out how to assemble such a group. Four years ago, I organized a conference call with a dozen of the most creative and successful people I knew. I had a PhD engineer from MIT, a YouTube film maker, a musician, an entrepreneur, a product marketer, a house flipper, and several others. I scheduled an hour-long call. I picked my dad’s business as a case study, and we all shared our thoughts on what he could do to improve his business. It was a fun exercise, but there was nothing tying the group together (besides everyone being friends with me) and I never thought of another idea to reassemble the team. The potential was there, but something was missing.

I really like the idea of collective workspaces. This seems to be a recent phenomenon as “remoting in” to work has become more common. Albuquerque has a workspace named FatPipe where individuals can rent a desk for the day and work in a large cubicle-free room with other startup-minded locals. Can we create a Factory in this kind of setting?  (I plan to try it out later this month.  I’ll let you know what I find.)

There is power when groups of people are trying to accomplish something. When people are empowered to share their unique insights, everyone can do more. I’d like to create this kind of environment in my own life. 

What ideas do you have? Have you ever had a Factory/brain trust experience? Any tips for assembling a group of people who can openly share their opinions? Let me know if you’re interested in joining the team. We could all benefit from it.

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