Ed Catmull, one of Pixar’s founders, came out with a book last year called “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration”. I’ve got it and have it in my To Read stack. In the meantime, here is an overview via Digital Tonto of one section of the book focusing on feedback. Catmull makes four points on the subject:
Every Idea Starts Out As An Ugly Baby
People tend to think that great works are born out of sublime inspiration. There may be some truth to that, but it’s only a small part of the story. Catmull calls Pixar’s initial ideas “ugly babies,” because they start out, “awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete.” Not everyone can see what those ugly babies can grow into.
Feedback Requires Candor, Trust And Empathy
While rushing to judgment can stop the creative process in its tracks, excessive positivity can be just as bad. The only way an ugly baby idea can get better is through honest feedback. You have to identify problems before you can solve them and the sooner that happens, the better. Every creator has to face hard truths.
However, that requires trust. An idea is never just an idea, but also a part of the person who puts it forward.
Keeping The Cooks Out Of The Kitchen
One of the key principles of creativity is that you want to take ideas from everywhere. Truly original ideas never come from any one place, but from synthesizing disparate domains and applying them to a new context. However, while casting a wide net is great for generating ideas, it’s often fatal for developing them
At Pixar, there is a group called the “braintrust,” made up of a small group of the company’s top directors and producers that is charged with giving feedback to films in development. Importantly, everyone on the braintrust is a filmmaker and is capable of putting themselves in a director’s shoes.
The Purpose Of Feedback Is To Move The Project Forward
One of the most interesting things that Catmull had to say was that, although he had met an extraordinary amount of creative geniuses—and I would assume he included Steve Jobs in that group—he had never met “a single one who could articulate what it was that they were striving for when they started.”
Not a single one.
Often, feedback sessions are seen as a chance for people to give their input. Nothing could be further from the truth. The purpose of creative feedback is to move the project forward. Anything that does not fulfill that purpose—not matter who it comes from—has no place in a feedback session.
Every single one of these points is directly relevant to the story-crafting process of a screenwriter, TV writer, novelist, any storyteller.
* We have to accept the fact that our stories are imperfect, sometimes significantly so. We ought not look at this as a reason to quit the story, rather we should call it what it is: A starting point.
* We have to be willing and able to receive honest feedback, no matter how tough it is to hear. That said, we have to trust the creative instincts of the people providing the critique.
* Feedback from too many sources can be ruinous as disparate takes on the material can lead to nothing but confusion, so we should seek out reactions from a small group of readers we trust or a respected evaluator of scripted content.
* We need to suss out the intention of the people critiquing our stories because believe it or not, there are a lot of a-holes out there who get their kicks by deriding scripts and degrading writers. Seek out people who will be honest, who we can trust, and who we know are offering feedback in the spirit of advancing our project toward a better draft.
One approach: Become part of a writers group. Not your friends, family, or inexperienced writers, but people who know Story, and qualify per Catmull’s advice.
If you can’t source a writers group, I can recommend the workshops and classes at Screenwriting Master Class. Our philosophy of constructive critique exemplifies the four points noted above. Moreover you not only get peer feedback, but also comprehensive comments from Tom Benedek or myself.
Then the bonus: Many of our workshop writers go on to create writers groups. It’s something Tom and I actively encourage. There are writers who took online classes with me over a decade ago who still have ongoing writers groups.
Writing is rewriting and feedback is one of the crucial aspects of that process. Ed Catmull has articulated the spirit of the Pixar approach and it’s one we, as writers, ought to try to emulate as part of our own feedback system.
For the rest of the Digital Tonto post, go here.
HT to Deborah Salter Kawaguchi for a link to the article.