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The Inside Story: 5 Secrets To Pixar’s Success

Oren Jacob, the former chief technical officer of Pixar, provides a rare glimpse into company culture.

Recently at Jump, I had the pleasure of interviewing Oren Jacob, the former chief technical officer of Pixar, in front of a small group of invited guests. Oren shared a number of fascinating stories of what went on behind the scenes at Pixar during his 20 years there.

During his tenure at Pixar, Jacob helped the company grow into one of America’s most successful companies (all 12 of Pixar’s full-length feature films to date have been blockbusters!). You need only spend five minutes with him to realize he embodies everything we have grown to love about Pixar movies. He speaks passionately, shares emotional stories that resonate with everyone, and yes, he is quite animated (even leaping off his stool to emphasize a point).

But what strikes me most about Jacob is his ability to cross traditional organizational, academic, and industry principles to make great stuff happen. He is the epitome of a hybrid thinker. A mechanical engineer by training, he has played significant roles at Pixar beyond creating Pixar University and the company’s own proprietary software platform to manage the animation pipeline. He was also an integral part of the storytelling process and a steward of company culture.

Throughout Jacob’s talk were lessons on how to use hybrid thinking to solve the large, ambiguous challenges within organizations (the visual illustration of the talk, by Jump’s Jonathan Gabrio, is pictured above). While much of the discussion fell under the "What happens in Vegas" rule, I was able to net out a few takeaways that Oren was comfortable sharing with a wider audience. Here are five principles I heard:

1. When It Sucks, Say So.

In December of 1998, Pixar had finished three years of work on Toy Story 2. The movie was set to be Disney’s end-of-the-millennium shining star. The problem was the movie wasn’t very good. With just eight months left to finish production, Jacob did the unthinkable and, after talking it through with his producers, went to the executive team and told them that Toy Story 2 didn’t pass muster. In fact, Jacob and a few others said the movie was horrible and might ruin the company if released as it was. After watching the movie, Steve Jobs, Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter, and President Ed Catmull, and others agreed and set in motion the plan to overhaul the movie.

The movie was completely rewritten and produced in the remaining eight months. Toy Story 2 went on to become one of the most critically acclaimed Pixar movies of all time, but only because Jacob and others on his team had the guts to say the work wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t something they could believe in.

It’s easy to be lulled into thinking creativity lives and breathes better when free of criticism. While quick judgment can kill great ideas in the nub, a straight-up, critical assessment is just as important as any brainstorm technique.

Be honest with yourself. When the work isn’t great, say so. Then get to work making something you can believe in.

2. Defend Your Opinion, Then "Hit Play Quickly."

The production process at Pixar is a lengthy one, with many groups participating and weighing in at various stages. A critical point in the process is called the Notes Session. It’s when several key individuals, such as the director and head writer, sit down to watch the full movie. They then capture changes that need to be made on notes and hand them back to the team (hence the name Notes Session).

These can be stressful times for everyone. Depending on the notes, a lot of rework could be ahead for the teams. Jacob explained that while you aren’t required to make the changes written on the notes, you better have a darn good explanation for why you didn’t. Yet spending too much time explaining why you didn’t make the changes can be suicide. "Keep your explanations brief, then hit play quickly," Jacob said. Let the work speak for itself.

The same is true in creating new businesses. Avoid falling into a meta-discussion that derails the much needed momentum. Instead, let people experience firsthand what you are creating.

3. Look Upstream for the Source of the Problem.

Jacob explained that when someone is confused watching one of your movies, 99.99% of the time it’s not because of what’s happening in the scene. The problem usually lies earlier in the movie. Either the characters weren’t developed well enough or pieces of the story weren’t explained thoroughly. If you simply react and change the scene at the point where someone got confused, you’re chasing a red herring. Instead, it’s important to think about why someone doesn’t get it and focus on fixing that.

This principle is applicable to many processes within organizations, particularly to developing new offerings, platforms, and businesses. Before reacting to feedback, ask why someone is seeing things the way they are. You might discover what needs to be changed is back upstream.

4. Match the Medium to the Message.

Early on in his role as director of studio tools, Jacob realized that the company needed to create its own software platform to manage projects throughout the production process. After all, Pixar knew animation better than anyone, and there was no point being at the mercy of a software company that was mainly interested in serving the needs of the video game industry.

When it came time to pitch the idea to executives, including Steve Jobs, Jacob chose to explain his argument with hand sketches—50 pages of them, to be exact. Why? Because "storyboards are the currency of the building." Jacob had also learned the hard way that if an idea is too polished it will evoke negative criticism rather than help to push the idea forward.

The sketches worked. Jobs approved the unprecedented budget request and said, "Don’t screw it up." Pixar’s next movie, Brave, coming out in 2012, will be the company’s first fully developed film with this new, proprietary software platform.

Sketching storyboards and acting out scripts are the currency of ideas at Pixar. Try a variety of different media to find what works best for you and your organization.

5. Hire for Excellence.

When Pixar is evaluating potential hires they look for three traits: humor, the ability to tell a story, and an example of excellence. These aren’t unique qualities to assess in applicants, but how excellence is defined is not that common. It doesn’t matter what you are excellent at, just that you have reached a level of excellence. It’s important that you know what excellence feels like and what it takes to achieve it. It could be gardening, jujitsu, or cooking. The main thing is you’ve had a taste of excellence and will know how to get there again.

What do you hire for? Is a taste of excellence one of your requirements?

It is because of hybrid folks like Jacob, who see past the status quo to create better systems that enable greatness, that we stand a chance to solve the toughest, most ambiguous problems facing our world today. Hopefully, these pointers will prove useful in your own hybrid approach.

[Illustration by Jonathan Gabrio, copyright Jump Associates]

Add New Comment


  • James Mcfadden

    5 Secrets of Pixars Success. REALLY! Only one secret and they will not tell that! Jorgen Klubien knows it. Jan Pinkava knows it. So if all the key people are still in place, why is Pixar fast becoming a memory? It will catch up....

  • Dayinthepark

    I remember reading a playboy magazine interview of Steve Jobs; as the interviewer was sitting in the waiting room, an employee walked by and asked if the interviewer was there to see Jobs.  "Yes" the interviewer answered.  The employee responded, "Get ready for the snow job of a lifetime."  Mr. Jobs seems to have had a very dynamic presence, and in so having, showed attention to the ability to perform, in himself and others.  From this, I know I'll never be a Steve Jobs, but at the same time, I'll try to put some effort into professional presentation.  It seems to count for way more than I had ever imagined.

  • George_pagorek

    It’s important that you know what excellence feels like and what it takes to achieve it...
    Vision the situation that needs achieving.....put yourself in the vision.....image how you will feel when accomplished = excellence

  • Michele Soregaroli

    A beautiful combination of Conviction, Meaning and Mastery ... obviously the results of this strategy speak for themselves.

  • Isabel Rodríguez

    Thank you for introducing us to such an excellent, genious and terrific guy, with so much love inside (which traduces into everything he states, and lives).

  • Bo Pentecost

    This was a brilliant and inspiring read. So many "nuggets" that any business could hang on to.

  • Howard Stein

    Let people experience first hand what you are doing. Excellent advice as I watch good projects being swapped from desk to desk, delays that could potentially spell demise. As a designer, the first thing I try to do is begin a free flow of ideas with stuff we can LOOK at.

  • orenjacob

    Thank you for all the kind comments everyone. I very much appreciae it. @orenjacob

  • steven f

    Oren Jacobs is an Advantage-Maker. He provided unparalleled advice! Take these five principles to guide you and you will create advantages.

    Steven Feinberg, PhD
    author, The Advantage-Makers: how exceptional leaders win by creating opportunities others don't

  • markwojtasiak

    Great post! I especially appreciate the "Technology is not enough"  message in the image. For any engineer, marketer, sales person, teacher, etc. these are words to live by. It's all about storytelling whether you are talking to your piers, consumers, customers, students...and it appears Pixar is exceptional at it in what they produce, who they hire, and how they communicate with each other. 

  • Bruce Huxley

    Wait. "Hybrid?". 

    What a nice article. It corroborates the anecdotes in Peter Sims' book "Little Bets" (Steve Jobs and Pixar, after all are much storied). And then right at the bitter end there is this completely incongruous and gratuitous references to "hybrid". Nowhere in the article is any reference to what two elements Jacob and Pixar are a "hybrid" of. That in my opinion is a shameless plug by Jump Associates to their "hybrid" marketing slogan.  What? The editors of Fast Co Design aren't aware of that?! Didn't pick that up? How tacky! Whereas everything I've heard about Jump so far is very admirable.  

  • Michael Rybin

    Thank you for sharing those great insights from Oren Jacob.  These gold nuggets goes hand in hand with "Crucial Conversations", a book I recently read.  Michael Rybin

  • Reboot

    Funny. The lack of these things is pretty much why LucasArts has failed for the last 10-15 years. Sad, actually.

  • Linda

    Excellence is the key. Once an individual has realized that they are excellent in something..anything...they can be inspired to transfer that knowledge and experience to other areas of their lives.  Too many people think they are not creative.