When Disney bought Pixar eight years ago, the Mickey Mouse creator was coming off such lows as the non-hit Chicken Little.

That made it critically important for Pixar, which had a string of hits such as Toy Story and Finding Nemo, to maintain its own creative culture, nurtured under tech genius Steve Jobs and creative director John Lasseter.

But the turnaround the merger wrought on Disney’s animation house was the real surprise, says Ed Catmull, now president of Pixar and Disney Animation.

Ed Catmull

Ed Catmull, president of Disney Animation and Pixar, is the author of Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. (CBC)

In his book, Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen  Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, Catmull describes how the Pixar culture took hold at Disney Animation, changing the company from within.

Pixar has a culture of risk-taking, allowing creative people to attempt new things, and to fail, as long as they continue to learn from their failures. So films that don’t work aren’t sent out to the marketplace to fail, but reworked, sometimes from the very start, until they are successes.

'Creativity has to do with problem solving and everyone is creative. The issue is that companies and the officer ... put blocks in the way – well-meaning, trying to think they’re being safe or help things along, but in fact they’re throwing blocks up.'- Ed Catmull

Catmull says the first key decision was to keep Pixar and Disney Animation as separate studios.  

“Disney Animation was demoralized as a company and believed they’d failed as company and they knew it,” he said in an interview on CBC-TV’s The Lang & O’Leary Exchange.

Then the same principles that had worked at Pixar were applied to Disney – among them creation of a “brain trust” to advance innovative ideas and creating permission to be candid.

“It took two years for it to sink in. Saying them isn’t enough, you actually have to live them,” Catmull said of those changes.

Disney Animation has since had a string of hits, including Tangled, its biggest movie since Lion King and Frozen, which just passed the box office for Toy Story 3.  

“Here’s the key takeaway – it’s largely the same people who were there when they were failing. All we were doing was trying to remove the roadblocks,” Catmull said.

It’s difficult to find these roadblocks, but it`s a key tenet of working with any group of creative people, no matter what your industry, Catmull said.  

“Creativity has to do with problem solving and everyone is creative. The issue is that companies and the officer ... put blocks in the way – well-meaning, trying to think they’re being safe or help things along, but in fact they’re throwing blocks up,” he said.