The myth of creativity

People tend to think of creativity as a mysterious solo act, and they typically reduce products to a single idea: This is a movie about toys, or dinosaurs, or love, they’ll say. However, in filmmaking and many other kinds of complex product development, creativity involves a large number of people from different disciplines working effectively together to solve a great many problems. The initial idea for the movie—what people in the movie business call “the high concept”—is merely one step in a long, arduous process that takes four to five years.

A movie contains literally tens of thousands of ideas. They’re in the form of every sentence; in the performance of each line; in the design of characters, sets, and backgrounds; in the locations of the camera; in the colors, the lighting, the pacing. The director and the other creative leaders of a production do not come up with all the ideas on their own; rather, every single member of the 200- to 250-person production group makes suggestions. Creativity must be present at every level of every artistic and technical part of the organization. The leaders sort through a mass of ideas to find the ones that fit into a coherent whole—that support the story—which is a very difficult task. It’s like an archaeological dig where you don’t know what you’re looking for or whether you will even find anything. The process is downright scary.

Ed Catmull discusses How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity (emphasis mine).

This is very different picture of creativity than the one John Gruber paints in The Auteur Theory of Design. Where Gruber tends to imply that you need someone imposing their will from above (a sort of trickle-down theory of design), Catmull seems to be talking about a much more grassroots type of design. It’s an interesting distinction. Both Gruber and Catmull talk about the leaders of a project, but where Gruber emphasizes the leader’s role as the final arbiter of taste, Catmull’s focus is much more on supporting creativity throughout the organisation. Certainly both are important, but unless someone leading a project is able to choose great people and get the best out of them, their “taste” isn’t going to matter much.