5 Product Lessons I Learned Making Pixar Movies

Star trails over the front of the Steve Jobs building at Pixar Animation Studios

I spent my early career as a technical director at Pixar, working on some classic films. When Steve Jobs died, we had a company tribute to him where people shared stories. One of the most memorable was a story from John Lasseter, about when he saw Steve towards the end and Steve’s direction to him was to always “make it great.” Pixar embodies those words in everything they do. I’ve been ex-Pixar for years now, and those words are still forefront on my mind.

But what goes into making something great? Even after working as a product manager at multiple other companies and learning from a diverse set of people, I keep going back to 5 key lessons I learned at Pixar to help me build great products. I want to share these with you, starting with the most fundamental advice — it’s all about the audience.

It’s All About the Audience

We had a mantra, Story is King, that we didn’t just give lip service to — we lived and breathed it. Ed Catmull has talked about how completely redoing Toy Story 2 was the studio’s defining moment, where Pixar decided they wouldn’t settle for “good enough” and would push to create the best story possible. While that was before my time, I saw this push first-hand many times over, whether it was throwing away a nearly-done sequence on WALL-E or replacing a director and completely changing the film on Ratatouille.

And why does that matter? Because the story is what the audience remembers from the film and what makes it timeless. Visuals that look amazing now will look dated in a decade. Actors who are popular now will be a footnote in 20 years. But a compelling story that addresses universal truths — not niche topics — keeps an audience re-watching a film 25+ years later. If we make sure the story’s excellent, we’ll give the audience the best experience possible.

When you’re building a product, the amazing features you’re pushing for will one day seem quaint or irrelevant: for example, once upon a time, having fax capabilities was a defining feature. What matters most is if you’re solving a real problem for a customer in a delightful way at a price they’ll pay, not how many features you have. If you keep your focus on solving an underlying need for your audience, you’ll ensure you build the right things with the right priority and deliver a great, satisfying product to your audience. After all, audiences remember how you made them feel, not your plot (or what feature list you had).

Impossible Doesn’t Mean Impossible

Making something that people remember positively often involves thinking big. We’d frequently take on films at Pixar where some component seemed impossible — long hair on Incredibles, visual detail on Cars, etc. — and trust that we’d figure out how to achieve it. We’d hire smart people who loved big challenges, and they’d make it happen. It turns out that “impossible” often means a mix of “very difficult” and “never been done before.”

(It’s worth noting we usually didn’t pick challenges we knew were too far away to be solved for a movie — we’d often aim for just out of reach “impossible.”)

The biggest advances for customers often happen when we push to make the impossible possible. Identify a customer’s need, define how to best solve it, and if the ideal answer sounds “impossible,” figure out if you can do it anyway. I’m reiterating identifying a customer’s need because making an “impossible” product real just to do it, without customers with a need for the solution, leads to solutions in search of problems and failed products.

All too often we limit ourselves, assuming we’ll fail before we even try. Ask for what you want. Push to achieve it. You’ll never achieve greatness if you assume you can only be mediocre.

Always Have Another Idea

Sometimes, “impossible” really means “impossible.” This is why it’s critical to have another idea so that you don’t stall.

I once heard a story from Brad Bird about a director who walked into a theatrical rehearsal to find everyone standing around. The director asked what was going on. The choreographer answered, “We can’t decide what to do.” The director replied, “Well do something, and we’ll change it!”

Before I worked directly in production, I worked on the software we used to make our movies. The first tool I worked on was a digital storyboarding tool, Pitch Docter. I built features that literally saved person-weeks of work per-sequence. But I’m pretty sure it didn’t lead to making the movies faster or cheaper. Instead, the time let us iterate more, and the more iterations we got, the better the movie was. It’s rare to have an idea that works perfectly the first time.

We never hesitated to throw out work when it wasn’t working or if we realized we could do it better. Our production pipeline was even setup to encourage throwing work out early! We’d start by making the movie in 2D storyboards, which are very low cost and high-fidelity. If an idea doesn’t work in storyboards, making it beautifully animated in 3D doesn’t magically make it work. There was a lot of iteration in storyboards, and no artist hesitated to pitch an idea, throw it out, and pitch something else.

Even if something works, if you can iterate more, you can make it better. After iterating on the storyboards, for every shot you see on-screen, we built an average of 3 versions in the Camera & Staging department, which is where the storyboard is built in 3D for the first time.

As a shot moved through the pipeline, it became more expensive to iterate on, but even then, we’d throw away work if it wasn’t working, like losing an animated and partially-lit sequence on WALL-E. And it’s never personal — when you’re creating something, it’s rare to have a perfect first draft, and that’s fine.

As a PM, I find this mentality critical for everything I do, from working on a document or presentation to evaluating the products I’m building. Equally important is having a culture where it’s OK to make mistakes, first drafts aren’t expected to be perfect, and you’re able to show work-in-progress to get feedback. This is also why I love product development workflows that include iterating with mockups and prototypes; low-cost, high-fidelity tools to get the right feedback!

No one will know if you didn’t ship something sub-optimal or remember if you finish a great product later than intended, but they will remember if you do something poorly or release a bad product. Always being willing to have another idea lets you say no to a sub-optimal idea.

Sweat the Small Stuff

It’s not just the big ideas that contribute to greatness — the details can make or break what you do and build and deserve consideration and iteration.

I don’t know if Pixar’s extreme attention to detail existed before Steve bought the company or if Steve’s belief in “painting the back of the fence” complemented Ed, John, and everyone else’s attention to detail. But details matter! Everything we put on the screen was crafted, and we wanted to ensure that everything supported the story. We have reviews where people would watch a near-final shot once and catch small, 1 pixel shader pops that happened on one frame. You could argue that it’s not worth the cost to fix, as no one would notice, especially when they view it on their phone, but we’d fix it anyway because we believe in making the highest-quality product possible; quality involves caring about the details.

The products we build have a lot of details to worry about. What’s a customer’s first experience, what happens if they use it on a different device or configuration than you’re developing on, what happens if something goes wrong, what happens when we migrate from a prior version, and so forth. On a robot I worked on, I was even concerned with how a material would change after the product’s lifetime in case someone became attached to the robot and kept it even after it broke.

It’s all too easy when to mentally go, “I don’t care” with some details. But if we don’t care, who will? And what will a customer think when they encounter the thing we didn’t care about? Think about when you’ve received an “unknown error” rather than an actionable error message. It’s our job to consider all the details and ensure we push our teams to focus on the ones what impacts a customer’s experience.

To be fair, unlike film, tech products have a shorter life, can be updated, and have more sensitivity to market timing. It’s also our job to assess which details need more attention than others based on what impacts the customer experience (and other key metrics) the most. But that tradeoff should be a conscious decision, not a result of inattention or unawareness.

Taking the time to sweat the small stuff also means that you have to be careful not to take on too much and be spread too thin. Focusing on one great result is worth far more than ten mediocre ones. That’s not just true for building products! I’ve found I enjoy being great at photography instead of being mediocre at photography, drawing, sculpting, etc., as my focus lets me pay attention to the details and differentiate myself, which gives my audience a better result (check out my Instagram or website and let me know if you agree :) ).

Teams Do More

It’s hard to do pay attention to every detail or build the impossible alone. Pixar has some amazingly smart and talented folks. But even there, no one knows everything or can do everything. Every Pixar movie involves a wide range of artistic and technical skills, and working together forces you to figure out how to communicate with people with completely different backgrounds and talents than you to achieve something bigger than either of you could do alone. Ed once told us that he thought part of the reason Steve was so successful when he returned to Apple is that at Pixar, he encountered many talented and passionate people who could do things he couldn’t, and he learned to respect them and the importance of the team.

Even within skillsets, no one person can do everything. Pixar’s directors are each amazing, but I believe that our best films emerged when the directors worked as a team, combining their strengths. Pete Docter’s strengths are different than Lee Unkrich’s, and their collaborative approaches created some of our best films.

Very few product managers started their career as a PM. We all have different backgrounds that complement each other on a PM team, and we can achieve more if we take input from our peers and ask for help when we need it. But what we all have in common is that we gave up our past career when we switched to product. Just because you were a great designer or engineer before doesn’t mean you are now — it’s critical to not be prescriptive about how to do something and to instead focus your discussions on what you’re trying to achieve and why. Your job now is more like an orchestra conductor, working to get the strings and brass making amazing music together and pushing them to be the best orchestra possible, even if you can play trumpet better than anyone else in the orchestra.

Ed would frequently say “if you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they’ll screw it up. But if you give a mediocre idea to a great team, they’ll make it work.” I’ve seen time and again how a diverse and smart team achieves far more than any of us could do on our own.

To sum it all up, the 5 key lessons I learned from Pixar that I think go into “making it great” are:

Now go build something great!

Product at Roblox. Formerly product at Embodied, Magic Leap, & Lytro. Ex-Pixar. Views are my own. Find me on Twitter at @joshanon