Inside Out: Collaborative Creativity and the Pixar Braintrust

Curator's Note

The recent publication of Pixar Animation Studios President Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. has illuminated one of the company’s foremost management tools, the Pixar Braintrust. Founded by key personnel John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter and the late Joe Ranft, the Braintrust is an interim support network offering ‘work-in-progress’ advice throughout a film’s gestation period: the locus for a unique alliance between storytelling talent and critical candour. Charged with pushing Pixar “toward excellence and to root out mediocrity,” this highly-functional institutional model is a valuable reflection of the studio’s collaborative production culture otherwise atypical of the Hollywood template for project management. Following the removal of Bob Petersen from The Good Dinosaur (2015), for example, Pixar’s prehistoric tale is now under the guidance of the current Braintrust members. While Petersen is not alone in having his directorial duties rescinded—Brad Lewis (Cars 2) and Brenda Chapman (Brave) suffered a similar fate—by assigning the business of inspiration and imagination to the Braintrust, Pixar have outwardly (re)negotiated authorship in contemporary Hollywood cinema as a strongly collective enterprise. Since Walt Disney’s $7.4 billion acquisition of Pixar in 2006, this collaborative model for creativity has even proved to be a gamechanger for Pixar’s parent company too. The credits of Disney’s Oscar-winning Frozen (2013) includes a dedication to the “invaluable contribution” made by the Pixar Braintrust, but also the Disney Story Trust, a workgroup initiated in 2007 to reproduce Pixar’s healthy creative culture. One of Pixar’s earliest films to require the nurturing input of the Braintrust was their culinary comedy Ratatouille (2007), whose narrative premise bears the imprint of its own troubled history. Original director Jan Pinkava was replaced by The Incredibles (2004) director Brad Bird, who previously shared classes in Character Animation with Lasseter at CalArts during the 1970s. Just as ‘Gusteaus’ restaurant in Ratatouille is coasting by on its reputation—losing its way since its glory days as the pinnacle of Parisian haute cuisine—the fresh intervention of Bird reinvigorated the Pixar recipe following the lukewarm critical response towards Cars (2006). However, the ability of rodent chef Remy to impossibly puppeteer human Linguini in Ratatouille also gestures towards the Braintrust’s creative passions and the rich collective action it promotes. Given the Pixar studio’s healthy appetite for computer-animated perfection, the implication seems that when it comes to the desire for quality in the final dish, it matters little which gourmet chef is pulling the strings.


Thank you for starting out week on Pixar. I really appreciated your piece and was wondering if this is an example of a highly effective working relationship that gets stretched when too much is demanded. With Pixar leadership now overseeing much of Disney (as you pointed out) is there any indication that their success can continue? Or do they fold over the demands of expectation and a lack of "start-up" style chemistry?

Hi Ethan, and thank you for your response to the post! There is little doubt that the Pixar Braintrust has offered an effective and highly productive working culture for the studio, yielding particularly strong results in the case of Ratatouille (winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2007). But as a disclaimer to this, Bird's film was conceptualised, produced and released at a time when Pixar themselves were at the height of their powers. Bird's involvement (following the removal of Pinkava) was intended to eradicate a mild staleness apparently seeping into the studio's computer-animated features, and to preserve the winning formula that the previous film Cars had otherwise deserted, albeit admittedly only at certain junctures. Yet Pixar's more recent critical and commercial "downward" turn when compared against other contemporary animation studios, divisions and subsidiaries has since reframed the Braintrust as more of a necessary 'go to' operation. The challenge posed by DreamWorks, Blue Sky and now Illumination Entertainment to Pixar's seemingly-unwavering animated authority has given greater visibility to the inner workings of the Braintrust at a time when How to Train Your Dragon (2010) and the Despicable Me films (2010 & 2013) have performed in a way that Pixar's Cars 2 (2011), Brave (2012) and Monsters University (2013) have not. While the Braintrust certainly recasts studio involvement as a more positive enerprise by weakening the cliche of agreeable filmmakers having to appease clueless corporate interference, it is a model becoming increasingly viewed as an urgent intercession and recourse to a 'panic mode' style of working rather than simply a useful step within the creative process. While the Braintrust is perhaps charged more than ever with having to save the Pixar studio in the face of more sustained competition, its future success may ultimately be measured away from its original application. The creative merger between Disney and Pixar, and the influence (and seeming success) of the Pixar Braintrust when implemented at their parent company too, suggests it is an operation that can be successfull applied, adopted and reworked. Given the critical plaudits directed towards Disney's Wreck-It Ralph (2012) and now Frozen, the notion of a "Braintrust" more broadly also demands greater focus be placed upon those industrial processes underscoring how today's animated features are actually made.

I find discussion of Pixar’s Braintrust quite ironic in light of the themes of Ratatouille. The trust seems to operate in many ways as the final arbiters of taste—they are Anton Ego. And the studio has deliberately foregrounded the success and significance of this Braintrust, as it is referenced in nearly all publications about/by Pixar. I suspect that this rhetoric supports the efficacy of brand management on two levels. First, audiences trust this group to deliver quality content in the way that every brand wants to be trusted. Second, the Braintrust probably contributes to internal organization. The approval of this group may make or break a person’s career. I would be interested in comparisons of Pixar’s organization to other technology start-ups, in which, I suspect, there exists much blurring between collaboration and competition.

I absolutely agree, Eric. In response to your comments, the congratulatory rhetoric surrounding the Pixar Braintrust (as you say, seemingly a touchstone for all publications around the studio itself) certainly maintains desired elements of the Pixar brand. Not only does it quality assure each individual project through mention of the high-profile involvement of a team of creative minds, but evidently operates within the internal infrastructure of the company too. Elevation to Braintrust status is typically part of an animator, editor, and so forth having to some extent 'made it' at the studio. Interestingly, various internet sources seem to differ over the identity of the members. Some lists include as a newly indoctrinated member Brad Bird, others Gary Rydstrom (who was promoted from Sound Designer to a Director of their short films. His feature length debut, Newt, was cancelled). However, in the case of Brenda Chapman (Brave), Brad Lewis (Cars 2) and Joe Ranft (The Good Dinosaur), there is the strange situation of a key member of the Braintrust (and one who is directing their first feature-length film) having to actually be removed and replaced by fellow Braintrust members. The fact that 2 of these 3 have now left Pixar entirely, with Chapman now consulting for Lucasfilm animation and Lewis leaving in June 2011 to join Digital Domain, implies that the Braintrust arbitrates the quality of the product, but also passes judgement on the perceived merits of the personnel involved too.

In Shamus Culhane's "Talking Animals and Other People," Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston's "The Illusion of Life," and many other first-person accounts of working at the Walt Disney Studios in the 1930s-1950s, one finds many of the same collaborative production techniques that are attributed to Braintrust. To prevent the dreaded "waste" of animated labor (the costs of reshooting a live-action film scene, in most cases, pale in comparison to the economic crisis of botching an animated scene), the Disney studio demanded: peer brainstorming and feedback at almost every stage, hierarchical checks and balances, reviews and approvals. Animators write about screening rough drafts of their scenes in the "sweat box," a hot room in which no feelings were spared, but which was ostensibly done for the benefit of the animator and the cultivation of the best product with the widest appeal. One objective of the management system was to create a ladder that would conform all animation to Walt Disney's vision. But even without the oversight of Walt Disney personally, we can think about this collaborative process as integral to maintaining a continuous and unified aesthetic style/brand -- in other words, the workshops in some respects operated as limiting and correcting mechanisms. Keeping in mind this longer historical connection, and taking cue from Eric's comment on brand management, perhaps we might think of Braintrust as Pixar's version of Uncle Walt.

Thanks Alla! I agree that the collaborative impetus attributed to the Braintrust is nothing new, particularly given the shift towards animation as an industry in the U.S. around the Golden Age period, whereby generally-speaking large-scale collaborative labour replaced individual artistic expression otherwise synonymous with the earlier silent-era cartoons (McCay, Blackton, Booth vs. 'Disney'). I think you are also entirely correct to equate the Braintrust as a reconceptualisation of Walt Disney himself: a connection that seems especially pertinent given the merger between the two companies. It is perhaps significant that the visibility of the Braintrust as a working model for the production of animated features seems, to me at least, to only have really accelerated since Pixar and Disney came together in 2006. The renewal of their distribution deal and subsequent formation of their creative partnership neatly coincides with the first noted application of the Braintrust during troublesome gestation period of Ratatouille in 2007, and the move to replace original director Jan Pinkava with Brad Bird. Only a year after that, an article by Ed Catmull was published in the September 2008 edition of the Harvard Business Review titled "How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity," which touched on continuities in production between Pixar and the way 'Walt did it'. So although the terms of the Disney/Pixar union regularly default to Pixar's 'reviving' of Disney animation into box-office gold once again and returning the magic to the kingdom, one wonders whether the Braintrust is evidence of things moving the other way. Could it be that Pixar's own "Disneyfication" is evidenced by the coercion of the Braintrust into something that more obviously resembles "Uncle Walt", with the shaping of the business model into a shorthand for 'creativity' at a time back in 2006 when the identity of the two studios was becoming irretrievably folded in together?

I imagine that for Bob Petersen (The Good Dinosaur), Brad Lewis (Cars 2), Brenda Chapman (Brave), or Jan Pinkava (Ratatouille) would not call the Pixar Braintrust a “collaborative model for creativity” or “(re)negotiated authorship” (it sounds more like the authors were given no option but to leave the films). You said in your response to Ethan that the Braintrust is more of a “‘panic mode’ style of working rather than simply a useful step within the creative process.” Forgive me if I’m missing information, but it seems that the Pixar Braintrust should be more involved from the start (as it sounds like it was for Frozen). I understand having the need to keep the films all within an award winning brand, and it seems like once they are involved Pixar’s movies do just that; but I would hope that in the future the Braintrust would be collaboratively involved from the start so that directors would not need to be replaced on the projects.

Thanks for your comment Morgan! Petersen, Lewis, Chapman and Pinkava probably have a less-than-favorable perspective on the Braintrust given the manner in which they were ousted, but while some have their directorial duties rescinded and ultimately leave the company, others stay on and are still seemingly involved in feature-film production (even if this is not in the capacity as director). In the case of The Good Dinosaur and recent news concerning its production - including the need for voice actors to rerecord new lines of dialogue as a result of drastic plot alterations - we may never know the true story behind these high-profile personnel switches. As a Disney film rather than one made by Pixar, Frozen benefited from Disney's Pixar-esque "storytrust", but I absolutely take the point that the possible involvement of a collaborative structure for Frozen from the very beginning may have yielded a smoother path during production. I guess I now understand the idea of a Pixar 'Braintrust' as only something we hear about in the popular press when the model is needed to step in and 'save' an animated film: it is a name activated only when a production is in dire straits. But I understand too that members of the Braintrust have some involvement along the way, and their input is not solely felt when something is not living up to Pixar's own high standards. John Lasseter oversees the production of every Pixar film in his role as Executive Producer (in addition to his role at Walt Disney Feature Animation as Creative Advisor). Perhaps the specific 'Braintrust' label has come to be a shorthand to connote a particularly troubled project in need of an overhaul (to help explain delayed release dates, director switches, and so on), rather than necessarily used to describe the collaborative culture with which the studio has been increasingly branded?

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