Monsters Inc up inside out and saw all four of these movies, critically acclaimed box office smashes are the brainchild of Pete Docter, fresh out of college, who took a job as an animator at a small, struggling firm that built computer hardware and made TV commercials. 30 years later, that same firm, Pixar, is one of the most successful film studios on the planet. And Pete Docter is its chief creative officer. Welcome to people I mostly admire with Steve Levitt.
Pete Docter already has two Academy Awards, and he's nominated for another this year for directing the movie. So how does a mild mannered Minnesota boy rise to the pinnacle of the film industry?
I have no idea.
I'm also a mild mannered Minnesota boy, almost the exact same age as Pete Docter.
And it's really hard for me to imagine how he pulled it off. And I have to say, I'm a little bit jealous. Pete Docter, it is an absolute joy to get to talk with you today. I've got six kids and I suspect I've spent more time watching your movies than just about anyone else. Thanks for being here. It's a pleasure to be here.
Man, I'm sorry.
Six kids is a lot of kids. I started over, which is a really unique situation where I've got four teenagers and two toddlers. So I'm one of those rare people who gets the second chance to do better than I did the first time. There's a different the second time you feel like I'm a different parent.
You know, I really expected to feel very different. And I thought that I would be so much better. But the reality is I was so sleep deprived the first time through. I can't remember any of the lessons I was supposed to have learned. I think I'm just repeating almost all the same mistakes. And fortunately, that's the thing.
I would think I'd be maybe more relaxed or go like, oh, yeah, they're not dead or on fire, so it's OK. So I was pretty relaxed the first time around.
OK, maybe that's not a good idea then.
But I will say the thing that's different is I did worry about what they learn, how to read and write and do math. And this time around I realized every kid learns how to read and write and do math. The two things I don't think every kid learns how to do is, number one, be happy and content and the other one is to have ideas and be creative. So that's really been my focus is how to create a really loving environment for that safety allows them to explore on their own.
I guess that might be the difference in how I did it. So you had two kids and they've grown up. Would you do anything differently if you started over? Well, yeah.
I mean, the irony is in the making films for kids and families, I barely get to spend any time with my own. So I would probably try to shake myself free more often to go to the Halloween parades and stuff like that than I was able to the first time around. But that's why you have grandkids, right? Yeah.
We all know Pixar today, it's one of the most successful film studios in the world and a huge box office revenues over 14 billion. But when you showed up at 21 years old on the first day of work at Pixar in 1990, I think it was I suspect it would have been hard to imagine, even for someone as creative as you, what the future will hold for Pixar. Could you just paint a picture of what Pixar was when you got there?
Yeah. So I went to this school called the California Institute of the Arts. It actually was started by Walt Disney in the late 60s before he died. They actually had an animation program, one of the very few at the time, friends of mine. They were getting jobs at Disney and Warner Brothers. And they're like, why are you starting in this small warehouse in Northern California? What is this? It was a computer company.
They made an image computer that was pretty revolutionary. And so that was used, I think, by medical imaging and military stuff like that as a studio. It was pretty unknown the first time I saw Steve Jobs. I think it was like two months in and he came to fire half the company. So it was a very all over the place company.
It was. A cool community feeling within the animation group because they were only like 10 of us, and so you went to Cal Arts hoping to learn more about animation.
Obviously, like most kids, I loved the Disney films and Warner Brothers and stuff like that. And I wanted to learn how to do that. I just loved making animated films.
I figured that out in high school and made a lot of short be cartoons that I really wanted, the sort of classic Hollywood cartoon knowledge.
Going back to Steve Jobs for a second, there's such a cult of personality around him. Did you glean any life or business lessons from him?
Yeah, and I really have to credit my wife for this. She said, do you think anybody calls Steve Jobs and asks them to go to lunch? I was like, I don't know, maybe I'll try. I went to lunch with them maybe a half dozen times and we just sit and pick his brain and just talked about life and business and film. And I remember he said, you know, I hope I come back in my next life as a Pixar director because I really am jealous of what you guys do in the storytelling.
And at the same time, I admire him, of course, for many reasons. But he left us alone. He didn't try to come in and take over. He was like, you guys are the experts, you know what you're doing. And then he'd proceed to give us a bunch of brilliant notes that would make our films better.
Was he a nice guy or kind of a jerk? I'd always heard he was a jerk, but he was totally nice to me with one possible exception, not like angry or mean.
It was just more kind of brutally blunt. This is the first film that I was working on, Monsters Inc and all the films we've ever done have gone through these periods where you're like, who thought of this idea?
This is awful. This is just not going to work. That's kind of where Monsters was. And it was also heading towards these deadlines. So I had just had a screening and it was like the third or fourth in a row that just was not looking very good. And I was so worn out. So I went to Hawaii and the producer said, wait, you got to cancel your plans because I just found out Steve Jobs is going to be at the same place you're going.
And I went to talk to my wife and she said, no, I want to see what Steve like on vacation. So we end up at the same place. And I'm sitting on the beach every day and I see Steve walk by. And of course, my heart goes up a little bit. And then one day he comes up and he goes, Hey, Pete, do you have a minute? Let's go for a walk. So he asks me, how's monsters going?
And I proceeded to tell him, I know it's been bumpy, but I have good feeling about stuff and I explain what we're going to change and how it's all going to turn around. And he says, you know, the jury's still out with you as to whether this directing thing is going to work. And he proceeded to kind of undress a bunch of stuff that was going wrong, and he said, you just don't seem to have the right demeanor and enough testosterone.
And then he said, So I suggest this be your last vacation for a while. Oh, and of course, I didn't sleep the rest of the trip. I had so much stress as a result of that vacation. And when I got back, I told that story to the president, Ed Catmull, who'd worked with Steve quite a bit. And he said, oh, yeah, that's Steve's idea of a pep talk.
So Pixar had been around for over a decade by the time he started and as you said, it still wasn't well known as an animation studio, but that all changed pretty quickly once you partnered with Disney. How did that come about?
John Lasseter, who is the chief creative officer. He had been courted by Disney for quite a while. They basically said instead of hiring John, why don't you just hire the whole studio and we'll make a film here? They said, great, let's do a film. And then we all looked at each other and said, what should we do? It was the total opposite of what most people go through, which is writing a script and shopping it all over town.
We got a deal first and then we had to make up a film to make up story.
So you just told me there were 10 animators and you signed a deal with Disney to do a feature length movie. I know Toy Story cost thirty million dollars to make. So I don't really see how 10 people could have made it 30 million.
I mean, you know, we had to scale up. We had to expand to I think we were guessing around 70 and ended up being like one hundred and seventy people.
That made Toy Story, which sounds like a lot until you hear the numbers that we need to make these films today. The studio now is at thirteen hundred people. The grand thing about it all was how little anyone knew.
None of us save for Joe Ranft, who is our head of story. He had worked at Disney before, but no, the rest of us had ever done anything this scale.
Certainly nothing with computer generated imagery for a feature film. So it was a complete unknown.
And this was the first fully CGI movie, is that correct? Right.
That's what I've read. So was it a surprise how successful Toy Story was both at the box office and with the critics?
Yeah, totally. We purposely chose toys because whether we intended it or not, a lot of the early imagery tended to look like everything was made out of plastic.
So we're like, let's just embrace that. It's a limitation we have at this point. The subject matter was really chosen out of limitations of the technology. But all that said, I think once we got into it, to me it just felt like a bunch of guys making this in their garage or like an extension of school.
It was the first project I had ever been a part of that had such a wide distribution. And so driving down the freeway. Holy cow.
Look, there's a billboard for Toy Story. You're hired at Pixar to be an animator. But on Toy Story, you're also credited as a writer. Why did anybody think you'd be any good at that?
Good question. No, I think it was basically just because it was such a small studio, everybody had to do everything. And that's a real advantage even now for people who ask me what I really want to work at Pixar and I want to make films, I'm like find a smaller place where you can contribute more because that's a big place.
You end up being a specialist, but at a small place by necessity, somebody has got to design the characters. Somebody has got to write the script and figure out how they move and all that stuff. So, hey, you come here. That's kind of how it happened.
So things usually don't go very smoothly the first time around. And you must have crashed into all sorts of barriers trying to make Toy Story. Do any particular struggles bring to mind?
There's a bunch we initially thought, well, we want to write it ourselves. But Disney said, no, no, no, no, you guys have never written before. So they signed us on with two other writers who were very they just didn't have the same vision for the film that we wanted.
And so that was a struggle. And then we would go to Disney, we'd show them stuff and they would give us advice. And we took it very literally sometimes. And all of this drove us to a place where they basically said, this film is not working. We're going to shut it down. I think it was Ralph Guggenheim who's the producer who said, give us a couple of months, give us a last Hail Mary to figure this out.
So that gave us the freedom to say, all right, this is our last chance. If we're going down, let's go down doing something that we believe in. And we put together this very rough set of reels, an extension of the script basically that showed what we wanted to do more fully.
And it worked well enough for people to say, all right, keep going. But that was a real lesson in trusting our gut, not ignoring notes from people, but not slavishly following things and suggestions. I think when people suggest stuff generally, creatively, they just want it to be better. It's more an effort to improve what they're seeing and make me care more. That's been something we've been trying to follow ever since, is that when any of us gives notes, it's not mandatory, it's not a dictum, it's just a suggestion to push things forward.
And then you try to unpack it and go, OK, why is this suggestion being put forward?
How is that going to make me care, make the audience care?
So I'm curious about. Feedback along the way, because it feels like the typical director has a vision and doesn't want to be swayed by anything. Are there good feedback mechanisms built in so, you know, if it's working or not and can adjust on the fly?
OK, this is not an easy thing. So as you say, directors oftentimes and you would hope for this, right? If you're paying somebody to come up with this vision of a story in a film, you hope they have something in mind. Otherwise, what are you doing?
On the other hand, I think it's really important for those of us in this business to remember these movies are not for us. Therapy is cheaper. If that's what you're in it for, it's for the other people. It's for the audience. We have these it's almost like product testing.
What we do is we draw the whole thing almost like a comic book. And then we do our own performances of dialog. We grab music from other movies and we put sound effects together. And then basically we try to convince ourselves, OK, this is the movie.
We even cut, you know, at the beginning where there's the Disney Castle in Bahrain and er and er and then the Luxo lamp pops out. We put all those at the front so that it feels like a real movie starting. And then we watch these comic books, these drawings, and it gives you a very good sense of my board and my excited. Am I confused. All right.
This person was confused. They didn't like my main character. Let me have the story back. I'm going to retool it now and try that whole thing again. And then we show it a second time and a third time. We usually do like between seven to nine versions, but it basically gives us a sense of the movie we're making before we shoot anything, before we animate anything, before we spend the millions of dollars that it's going to take.
Do you have an estimate of how many person years go into creating a Pixar film?
Let's see. Early on was fewer and then it's grown and shrunk, but it's somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty thousand person weeks to put together. Does that make sense? That's only 400 person years, I guess, to as much more than that. So you're not spending all that much on labor then?
Well, what happens is early on, you have very few people and then it stays low for a while and then later it grows to these giant crews. But that's only for a short amount of time. Like Monsters was a five year project. So the first I'd say three years, it was under twenty people ish. And then only in the last nine months did it grow to I don't remember what our peak was. Three hundred and twenty five or something like that.
Here's something I just don't understand. Almost always when a firm is producing something, the first unit is really expensive to make because they haven't figured out all the tricks to producing it. Then the second unit, they make a little more cheaply and quickly and after a while production gets optimized. And of course, the not so formal economic term for this is learning by doing.
But the strange thing about Pixar is that every movie you made for, I don't know, the first eight was more expensive, the one before it. And now you're kind of at the top of the cost structure of any of the movies you ever made, which is really surprising to an economist.
I would have thought the opposite pattern would hold. I will say this if I could look now and see what the last film I did was soul, if I could look at it now and know exactly what shots are and I could probably make it for half the cost.
But the problem is every one of these movies is a completely different thing. And it's not like you're making Toy Story again. You're trying to do something different to surprise people, to surprise ourselves. And what happens is every movie we make, our appetite grows. We want things to look better. We want more complexity and more diversity. And so all that stuff costs money. Only in the last maybe 10 years, I guess we realized if we stayed on the trajectory we were on, we would have priced ourselves out of any profit.
So we've really had to put that into the equation as well as like let's really try to keep a lid on things.
So when you look back at Toy Story, do you look and say, oh, God, that's a 30 million dollar movie disparagingly? Oh, yeah.
It looks totally clunky, totally awful. So it's funny. So I don't see the difference at all. And I think your competitors, DreamWorks and Illumination, both spend much less on their movies. I think they've made just a different corporate choice about how to do that. Do you look at their movies and think they don't look quite as good as yours generally?
As a director? I look at films based on storytelling, and you're right, there are films that are very beautifully designed and use limitations in clever ways that you don't notice.
There's a film called The Red Turtle and it was very low budget. But it is beautiful. It's exquisite. I think there's no dialog in the whole thing. I don't know that I would look at a film like that and say, boy, if they just poured another hundred million on that, it would have been a better film. I think what people have come to expect from Pixar is that this is going to be visually something I've never seen before that has a richness that knocks my socks off.
That's what we're shooting for anyway. If we stayed with the technology that we had on Toy Story, you'd be missing a major component of what goes into our films.
You're listening, the people I mostly admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with Pixar film maker Pete Docter, after this short break, they'll return to talk about developing story ideas and the movie moment that changed Steve's life. I still don't understand how they managed to spend hundreds of millions of dollars making an animated movie, but I'll leave the answer to that question for another day. I'm obsessed with storytelling, and movie directors are arguably some of the best storytellers on the planet.
So I'm eager to see what I can learn from Pete Docter on that subject. And it's a little bit embarrassing. But believe it or not, I had a kind of spiritual awakening watching one of his movies, and I'm curious what his reaction will be when I share that with him. So we've talked a little bit about the process.
I'm also really interested in the initial idea. Let's take months as INC, which was the first movie that you directed. What was the idea in your head when it started?
I think I basically said, what if monsters really do exist and they scare kids for a living?
That's their job. They clock in the clock out. The doughnut's this fantasy and the scariness of monsters coupled with factory work seemed really fun and funny. I didn't really even have a good sense of who the characters were or what specifically was going to happen. But then I did think, OK, kids are really integral to this whole equation. So somehow this monster and a kid and maybe a little kid that gets stuck there by accident. Actually, early on we looked at are you familiar with Peter Bogdanovich film Paper Moon?
I'm not actually.
That's worth watching. It's a great movie and it really inspired us a lot at the beginning of monsters, because there's this guy. He's a con man who comes in like he knows everything and he gets stuck with this kid, but she ends up being the expert. And so early on, we thought we would mirror that kind of relationship. But then things change and evolve. These stories, I always feel, are as much discovered by us, the storytellers, as they are by the audience.
I suspect a good ending is often the hardest part.
I don't know if I have to do a spoiler alert on a movie that's funny. Years old, but spoiler alert. When did you figure out this sort of punch line? That laughter is ten times more powerful than fear.
That was John Lasseter who came up with that. And I actually fought it for a while because I was like, look, you can't say that everywhere around the world now monsters are going in and making kids laugh at night. That's not happening. Kids are still scared by monsters. But he was right. It's emotionally what you want for the story. The thing I usually look at is less the very ending and more what I call the emotional punch line.
So in this case, for me, that was this monster who is scared of kids grows to love and care so much for this one kid and now realizes the best thing is to get her home. And so that's sort of goodbye scene where he has to put Boo back in a room and then close the door knowing he's never going to see her again and the door is shredded. That was something that we found halfway through the film and really aimed for and built the rest of the film around that.
So Matsutake felt like a kid's movie to me that adults happen to love also.
But it seems like all the movies you've done since then, I feel the opposite. I really feel like their movies for adults that happen to appeal to kids like up, it's much more serious, it's much darker. And it starts with this incredibly touching portrayal of a love story told with very few words in maybe 10 minutes. And once I think about the beginning of that movie all the time, to me it's the most compelling film love story I've ever seen, which probably says something about how sad like I am that I react better to animated figures than real people.
But it's obvious you're a master storyteller and most of us are really awful storytellers.
Do you have rules or tricks or tips for telling stories?
Well, nope. Just try it and see if it works. Obviously, the world is full of all these books, especially in regard to screenwriting.
Here's what you should do in the three act structure.
And when you step back and analyze films, they do have these undeniable things that always need to happen by a certain point. But I feel like if I'm conscious of that stuff when I'm starting out, I'm going to end up somewhere I already know. And that's not very fun. I'd rather get lost. I'd rather start walking into the forest and then lose my way and discover cool stuff along the way and use those tools then later to find my way back to some sort of road that my analogy is getting messy here.
But my point is just that I really feel like a crucial part of my process anyway is allowing for experimentation with no real clarity on how all this is going to fit together.
It's kind of like playing, I guess, and we take a lot of wrong turns. So it's not wasted effort. It's essential, I think. Are you basically a kid at heart yourself? I do think I have a kind of innocent outlook on life, which sometimes bites me in the butt, but other times is really enjoyable. I do have a sense of curiosity for things that allows me to lose myself, much to my wife's chagrin, sometimes slow pay attention.
But I spend a lot of time in my own head imagining things.
So you seem surprised when I suggested that upwards with a movie written for adults. But the issues you're discussing, they're talking about old age and senescence and dreams deferred and finally letting go of possessions to free oneself from the past. Those are the most adult themes I can think of. Basically. Yeah, I guess I'd say I'm not targeting kids in any of the films that we've done, including Toy Story or any other ones. It's just what appeals to me as an animator.
First of all, what would be intriguing? What do I want to move and see on the screen and what's going to be fun and funny.
But the longer I live with these things, the more I want to dig deeper and figure out, OK, what's something that I could say about my own life and my own struggles as a human being that would be reflected uniquely in the subjects that I've chosen.
So monsters, it's going to be something about fear. It's going to be about facing your fears. And in this particular case, my wife and I had our first kid as I started on Monsters, and I recognized pretty early on this movie is about my own struggle, trying to come to terms with how do I be a professional and a parent at the same time, which I don't know if you can tell that in the movie, but no, I wouldn't have guessed that at all, actually.
Yeah, and things like InsideOut was about my daughter. She actually was the voice of Young Lee. And there's a spunky kid with bad haircut who yells a lot at Carl. And she was a lot like that character. But then she turned 12 and 13 and she started getting very quiet and more sullen. And I was like, oh, I remember that in my own life. Why? What's that about? And so that's kind of became the heart of what insight that was about.
Soul has a kind of a similar story of just diving into my own life and recognizing I'm not going to be around forever here. How many more of these movies am I going to do and what's really bringing me joy on a daily basis? Somehow I was expecting more closure or fulfillment in the finishing of these projects.
Every one of them I get to the end. I'm like, wait, why isn't my life all figured out now, which I know is completely irrational. But, you know, the soul became really about that of what is life about in some way.
So a lot of people loved the value movies, but Up, for instance, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Film, which is, I think, on the second time that an animated film had been nominated.
Do you care what Hollywood thinks about you?
I would love to say no, I don't care. But of course you do. You want the affirmation and you want people to like you. You know, at least I do. I don't make the films for that. But once you get there and you're like, oh, nominations, oh, no, we're not on the list or whatever, I think it's just human nature.
And I imagine that even though your films consistently outearn almost everyone else, is that the snubs in Hollywood probably look down on what you do in some way animation.
It's in a strange position in Hollywood because I think so many people look at films as being about actors and the focus on people. And for us, we look at the film making as the craft of telling a story of taking imagery and putting it together with sound in some way that compellingly tells a story. And we're doing that just as validly with computer graphics as you could with a camera. But I do think there is a little bit of a prejudice towards thinking animation is it's not really filmmaking.
Some of it we've done to ourselves, because by association, you look at the other animated films that have been done. There's fart jokes and desperate humor and loud stuff. And you're like, all right, if that's what animation is, then you go sit over there.
I don't know what other people think about animation where it fits in the hierarchy, but I will say that the single most powerful experience I've ever felt watching a movie was watching your third film Inside Out. It's a story of a girl growing up told from inside her head. And this experience was so special. Don't have the words. But what's interesting is the special experience I had was the third time I watched it and I was not in a theater. I was watching it in my house and I had my four year old daughter sitting on my lap and I had three of my teenage daughters on the couch next to me.
And it was so powerful, the telling of the story and how you capture so amazingly the innocence of the four year old and the changes that happened. And somehow it was like this moment of truth for me, where I understood how fleeting life was and exactly what kind of father I needed to be. And it was weird. I haven't been able to shake it. It's fundamentally changed the way I'm raising my two young kids.
So anyway, wow, that's pretty cool. I had no idea who you were at them. And I said, whoever made that movie, I hope that someday I have the chance to talk to them so that I can tell them that they changed my life. I really wanted to have you on this podcast so I could tell you that. Wow, that's amazing. Steve, thank you. You get that kind of feedback very often. The weird thing is to think that I'm sitting here in Emeryville, California, probably in a dark room, because that's where most of the movies are made in these dark room, staring at monitors, having never met you before.
And yet, through this weird medium, I'm able to kind of speak to you in a way that you respond like that. That's crazy, isn't it?
Movies are so immersive. It's such an amazing medium for touching people. But almost always it's very ephemeral. That's my own experience in movies. I'm 100 percent in the movie and I walk out of the theater and I'm 100 percent out of the movie. And what was different about this experience is how persistent it was, which I found really interesting.
A lot of people have talked about movies is like dreams and I think even cuts and the way that sort of logic of movies, it is a lot like a dream. And some dream is to go away as soon as you wake up. But then other ones will stick with you for a day or two. And I don't know, there are some equivalent there that I wonder if that's been studied.
Probably not. My experience with academics is they all studied the same things and they usually not the interesting ones that take real creativity.
How do you research your movies, because you build these alternate reality, so you're inside of Riley's head and inside out or in, so you create this life and afterlife, do you just make that up or do you research in some way?
In the end, it's all, of course, made up. But any bit of research or any thing we can grab hold of is usually helpful. We spoke with a couple of different behavioral psychologists and other scientists for Inside Out. When I pitched it, the only emotions I was really cognizant of were like anger and fear and happiness.
And so the rest of them like disgust and figuring out what emotions are and what they do and why we have them and all that stuff, all of that went into the film, even how memories work. Of course, we totally fudged. The way science tells us memory works is very different than the way that we needed it in that film.
But and so we started by talking with religious experts and reading as much as we could about different traditions in the way that people have historically looked at or feel. They understand the soul like what is a soul. And most of them talk about it being ephemeral and ethereal, nonphysical, shapeless, formless and like. All right, that's interesting. Not very directly helpful, but we did try to make the souls look like they hinted at that. They're foggy, they're translucent.
And all that research, I think, ends up really affecting the storytelling in big ways.
Are you either religious or spiritual yourself?
Yeah, I am. And I've gone up and down and how much in my belief systems through my life, which I think is probably common for most people, but working on this film was really a gift because it allowed me for every day for like four years think about that stuff. And of course, a lot of it we tried to avoid directly in the film. We don't want to do something that will inadvertently offend half of the population of the world.
But I think it really expand in my head in terms of what's possible and how people see. I think a lot of it comes down to like, OK, when you talk about what happens after we die, what's really important is how is that affecting the way I live right now? How is that changing the way I'm spending my time and my day?
And did you find any answers? I well, I'm a Christian, I've hesitated to call myself that in the past because I'm not all sure that I believe in all the right things. And of course, I think one of the things that we discovered in researching this film was there is a brand of everything.
There are Jewish people who believe in reincarnation, even though that's not like mainstream Judaism. And whether I found what I believe in and I'm now going to hammer that, nail it to the wall like Martin Luther, anything? I don't think so. I think it's constantly growing and changing and my brain is constantly being expanded.
So you've turned out to be incredibly good at what you do.
Did you always know you had special talent or when did you start to realize that?
No, no. In high school or even in elementary school, there was always that kid who could draw dragons and a horse and you'd be like, wow, I wish I could draw like that. That was not me.
I wanted to be that guy. I was super frustrated by my draftsmanship. Am I drawing abilities and painting and so on. I worked hard to get better at it and I think I have. But in a way, maybe that frustration or limitation, my perception of it being a limitation, brought me to where I was having to lean on other things. Like, in other words, because I couldn't draw super well, I had to have the subject matter more impactful, you know what I mean?
In a perfect world, what you do is and so much of this is luck, but you find a situation where your particular passion and abilities plug in to what's exactly needed. And that's, of course, I think happened for me. And I can't really take credit for that. I was in the right place at the right time and. Wow, I'm thankful. What kind of life advice would you give the 20 year old doctor, knowing what you know now?
One thing I still struggle with and I tried to exercise this demon in the last film soul, which is this sense that I need to be good enough and accomplish these things. Otherwise I am a failure. And maybe part of that is driving me. And I think a lot of people are driven by certain things that maybe are not always healthy, but that you can focus and direct in a certain way to produce good stuff. So it's hard to tell.
I don't know if that's something you could convince a 20 year old of just by talking to him. I'd probably tell myself drama or just get outside draw because you're draftsmanship skills are always handy. But more importantly, I think drawing for me really connect me to stuff. It forces me to see things.
I can walk past a house every day, but then if I stop and draw, I suddenly notice details and things about it that I had never paid attention to before. So I feel like drawing is a way to slow me down and really connect me to the world that I'm inhabiting that I'm not always fully paying attention to.
That's not at all what I expected. So interesting. How are you? What would you tell your 20 year old self? The thing I happen to love more than just about anything is getting my hands on a big pile of data and finding insights. And when I started in academics, it was just pure joy, because that's what I did all day long. And then I got a big budget to hire a bunch of people. And I did. And it turns out the only thing I could really delegate was data work because I couldn't delegate writing or managing coauthors or committee meetings.
And so in the end, I gave up the thing that I loved. I ended up basically stopping doing data work.
And and I will save the joy of academics, lead the way pretty quickly. That's what I'd say to myself, hey, sure, you can get a big budget and you can write 50 papers and maybe have more career success. But don't think of the love. I always make sure you're doing the thing that brings you joy, not the thing that you success.
Yeah, that's a common theme in it. I mean, I'm kind of in that situation now. I got into this because I was shy and I felt awkward and weird talking to people.
So I started drawing and I love making films. And now I find myself in this position where I am supervising the creative efforts of the studio.
And what I'm paid to do is shifted from making things myself to helping to enable other people to make stuff. And that's a completely different muscle, I think.
Have you ever thought about a different venue for what you do in creating. Curriculum or content that would make kids want to go to school the same way they want to go to movies. That's a tricky thing because it could be a trap.
I've been on the hairy edge of this a couple of times and films like Inside Out were like, I feel like I'm being lectured at. I feel like somebody is trying to teach me something. And I think for most people, your brain either rebels or turns off at that moment. But let's play around from it. What I'm always interested in and what I'm convinced personally is at the heart of every story is a relationship. And even if it's a film about an action adventure, a burning building, a boat race, whatever, it's always comes down to some people that I care about and that are affecting each other and causing change in some way.
So I'm curious for you, like as you fell in love with data and analysis, what was it that caused you to fall in love?
I fell in love with data because I was losing so much money as a college kid betting at the racetrack.
The Daily Racing Form had all this data in it and it just seemed like there should be patterns. I just became obsessed with trying to program in a way that I could eventually make money. And actually for half a summer I did make money. And that gave me the great idea that I should start a little hedge fund and raise money for my friends and family to fund my betting at the racetrack, because it would be a lot more fun if I could get lots of money than a little bit of money.
And that did not have a happy ending. But that was really when I started to fall in love with data because for me, data science data. Now, very interestingly, there's a question or you don't even know the question, and it's hidden in so much of what I've tried to work on. An academic work is, for instance, looking for cheating and corruption, where the people involved are actively trying to cover their trail. And so it's really a mystery of how do you look for the contrails that are left behind as people try to do these illegal behaviors.
In the end, there's no storytelling component to it as well, although very different kind of storytelling.
So that sounds almost like a mystery. Or a detective novel or something where you're trying to uncover truth so much of my time now is spent thinking about how can I change K through 12 education to engage kids? In a way they'll be excited. I think that Pixar is perhaps the single best advertisement for stem the math and the science underlying the animation techniques.
Could you talk about that a little bit? And that was what made Pixar so exciting to me when I started, was I looked over at these computer scientists and I didn't understand what they were doing, but I could play with what they were doing and probably surprised them with stuff that I always bring into it. So it was this real merging of science and art. The other thing that I guess has been a journey for me, I got into this because I loved creating something that looked like it was alive, that was moving right.
Anything that was moving, it was animated. I was in you come into this a lot of times from a very mechanically minded technological like a love for that. And then as you get into it, you realize none of that really matters unless you're saying something, if you're using it to communicate in some way, that's impactful for other people. That's what this is all about. And it's fun because I've had a chance to talk to musicians like Yo-Yo Ma, for example.
He himself talks about this as being an incredible technician early in his life. He could play things that no one else could and hear a piece once, and it would be committed to his mind and only later in his life recognizing, wait a minute, this is about expression. This is about me talking to you through this music.
And that's where the joy is. That's where the emphasis is for me as well. And making these movies.
Reflecting more deeply on the advice I said I would give my 20 year old self, I like that advice, but I think there's something I left out there is even more important. I tell my younger self to always be on the lookout for new experiences and to give lots of things to try.
I'm terrified of new things. I often have to get dragged kicking and screaming into them, but more often than I expect, I end up enjoying that new thing.
Sometimes it's even life changing. So actually the best advice I could give my younger self is simple. Don't be such a scaredy cat.
Actually, that would be pretty good advice from my old herself too. And I'm pretty sure my older self is just as unlikely to follow that advice as my younger self would have been.
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Thanks for listening. I know I wanted to be a baseball player for a while because I had pajamas that looked like a baseball uniform, but I was not very good at baseball.
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