David A. Price on The Pixar Touch

David A. Price instantly piqued my interest recently with his thorough examination of Pixar, called The Pixar Touch:  The Making of a Company. The book aims to cover “the history of Pixar Animation Studios and the ‘fraternity of geeks’ who shaped Pixar’s story.” According to Price’s bio, he “has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Inc., Forbes, Business 2.0, and Investor’s Business Daily. He received his bachelor’s degree in economics and computer science from the College of William and Mary and law degrees from Harvard Law School and Cambridge University. His previous book, Love and Hate in Jamestown, a history of the Jamestown colony and the Virginia Company, was published by Knopf in 2003 and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.” It was a true pleasure to get to interview Price about his latest book. I particularly respect him even more after learning his interview philosophy/no-pressure approach.

Tim O’Shea: You’ve been a fan of Pixar since the late 1980s, but how long had you been considering an examination of the Pixar company?

David A. Price: I became a Pixar fan after I saw an unfinished version of Tin Toy at a conference in ’88. But I didn’t start thinking about writing their history for another 15 years. In 2003, I had finished my book on the Jamestown colony and everyone was telling me to tackle another story out of the colonial period. That’s the standard advice — to build on what you’ve already done.

There were a couple of things that pushed me in a different direction. The kind of nonfiction I like to write has very strong characters at its center. As I pondered ideas for another book on early American history, I came away with the feeling that most of the really important and interesting figures had already been covered ad infinitum. I wasn’t confident I had anything to say that was worth saying.

At the same time, I was feeling drawn to the idea of a company book that would be heavy on reporting and that would have some literary ambitions. Pixar bubbled to the top of the list very quickly. I liked that it would give me the chance to write about art and technology in addition to business.

O’Shea: Who do you think is the target audience for this book–fans of computer animation; business students with an interest in working in Hollywood; or both?

Price: Certainly animation fans seem to be a big part of it. But I’ve also found the book has connected with a lot of business people. This doesn’t surprise me, because what the founders of Pixar went through in the early years was pretty much the standard small-business drill with lots of fits and starts, good and bad decisions, lucky and unlucky breaks.

There are also people working in technology who are drawn to the story. The biggest audience I’ve had for a book talk was at Microsoft Research.

O’Shea: How many interviews did you conduct for the book, and were there some interviews that were much more challenging to gain than others?

Price: I think I interviewed 30 or 35 people for the book. There were some I interviewed once or twice, and others I was in touch with many times by phone and e-mail.

Some people were harder to find than others. Pixar’s former CEO was hard for me to find. Other than that, I don’t consider any interview “challenging” to get. I’m not of the school that says you pester people or charm people into talking with you. Basically, my m.o. is that I write somebody one time to explain who I am, what I’m doing, and why I want an interview. If they say yes, great. If they have questions, I try to answer them. If they say no, I wish them well and move on.

Fortunately, most people I approached said yes. Love and Hate in Jamestown gave me credibility with some people. Some just liked the idea of an independent history of the company.

O’Shea: How did you go about getting access to personnel files (such as employment agreements) or was that information you gained from the SEC?

Price: Ed Catmull’s and John Lasseter’s employment agreements from the Toy Story era were part of the file I got from the SEC.

O’Shea: In terms of pacing of the book, did you trim out a great deal of the pre-Toy Story/formation of Pixar history, in order to get to Pixar’s mainstream success days, or did you think people would be as interested in the early history as much as the popular days, so pacing was not a concern?

Price: I enjoyed writing about the years leading up to Toy Story as much as I enjoyed writing the stories behind the feature films.

Probably more so, in fact, because there was this great sense of constant temporizing. They couldn’t make a go of it as part of Lucasfilm–George Lucas sold them off. Then they couldn’t make it as a computer company. When that didn’t work, they tried software and couldn’t make it as a software company. They tried making commercials. They were doing great work at all of these things, but there was never enough cash coming in. Steve Jobs was in a constant state of angst over the red ink. Ed Catmull stepped down as CEO for a while because the stress of dealing with Steve was starting to affect his health. At the same time, Pixar’s employees had the feeling of being on an artistic and technological frontier, which they loved.

O’Shea: As you examined the history of Pixar, I’m sure you encountered many of the same names that have always been associated with its success–but is there a person (or people) who you think was/were pivotal to the success who may not receive as much credit as they deserve?

Price: John Lasseter and Ed Catmull and some of the other early people at Pixar really do deserve tremendous credit for pursuing their vision with the persistence that they did. They could have walked away any day of the week and gotten more money and security–or at least the feeling of more security.

As for under-recognized people, I’d say one of them is Joss Whedon. Most people don’t know he was one of the writers of Toy Story. The point when that film really started to come together was when Joss started working on it. Obviously, there were other very talented people on the story team at different times, also.

The other person, and I’m going to get in huge trouble for saying this, is Jeffrey Katzenberg. When he was running the Disney studio, he pursued the Toy Story deal with Pixar at a time when every major studio in Hollywood was shutting its doors in Pixar’s face. Pixar approached Paramount, Columbia, one studio after another, and got turned down. He saw what computer animation could be, and what John could do with it, at a time when other people in the industry couldn’t.

O’Shea: Do you expect to hear from Jobs about your take–I would imagine if he read it, some of it (for example, the struggle over his Woodside residence) might be awkward for him to read.

Price: I am absolutely certain I will never hear from Steve about the book. You’re right, parts it are awkward from his point of view.

O’Shea: In researching the book, it seemed you did not leave many stones unturned. How intimidating or stressful was it to conduct the interview with Mike Hoover the only survivor of the 1994 helicopter crash in which his wife and Frank Wells, among others, died. Why was it important for you to interview him rather than use the archival information that is readily available?

Price: There isn’t much out there on the helicopter crash other than the NTSB accident report. I sent a letter to Mike asking for an interview and I didn’t hear back. Then a year later, out of the blue, I got an e-mail from him saying, “Sorry, I’m sure you’re finished with the book, but if there’s any info that you think I may have, call me anytime.” Naturally I called him that day.

I did feel apprehensive because he’d lost his wife in the accident. Until then, I actually didn’t have any experience at all interviewing somebody who’d lost a loved one. Mike was gracious and made it easy.

The crash turned out to be important to the book in a different way than I expected. I started out wanting to include it because the death of Frank Wells set in motion Jeffrey Katzenberg’s departure from Disney and the founding of DreamWorks Animation. But talking with Mike, I learned how Frank had put other people first–there was another helicopter that got out ahead of the storm.

At that point, I was unhappy with the pattern that seemed to be emerging in my story–that if you want to be successful in business, you have to be self-centered and difficult like Steve Jobs or Michael Eisner. Frank Wells was a good guy on a personal level, which came across in his actions that day. So I was glad to have him as a counterpoint.

O’Shea: Was it hard for you to enjoy Pixar films as much when you began writing about and doing research on the company on a 24/7 basis?

Price: The films I liked, I liked more as I was writing the book because I could better appreciate the artistry and technical genius behind them.