In 1999, director Brad Bird’s film “The Iron Giant” hit the big screen.
It was a commercial failure, costing approximately $70 million to make and grossing only $23 million at the worldwide box office. The experience reportedly led Bird to question whether he was cut out to make it in the film industry. He had no idea anyone else had seen the film, and he thought he had enough creative promise to shake up a very prominent animation studio.
That person: Steve Jobs, who was CEO of Pixar Animation Studios at the time.
Fresh from the failure that threatened his career, Jobs and Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull hired Bird to write and direct a movie called “The Incredibles.” The film won several Oscars, but at the time nothing seemed like a guarantee.
“They actively picked a guy to come up who had just made a huge flop,” Bird said on the “WorkLife with Adam Grant” podcast in 2019. “They felt, ‘We’re in danger of falling into certain habits because we have the same group doing stuff…but we want to shake things up.’”
It was particularly unusual because Pixar was already successful. By 1999, the studio had already released “Toy Story” and “A Bug’s Life,” and “Toy Story 2” came out at the end of that year.
Jobs and Catmull told Bird they hired him because “The Iron Giant” showed a willingness to find new ways to tell stories, Bird recalled. And adding a new voice to the room can help keep the rest of the team from resting on their laurels.
Bird’s promise to make a better movie with half the time and money of other animated movies didn’t hurt either, he noted.
The problem: When Bird was hired, the studio said its expectations for “The Incredibles” were actually unrealistic. He was told the film would take nearly a decade and $500 million to produce, he and producer John Walker said on the podcast.
So Bird began looking for Pixar’s “black sheep”: employees whose risky ideas had been overlooked in the past. “I want people who are not happy because they have a better way of doing things and they are having trouble finding a way,” Bird said.
Then he united them against a common enemy: the status quo. “Nobody thinks we can pull this off,” Bird told the team.
Some experts call this method of motivation the “underdog effect.”
In 2017, researchers at Carolina Coast University found that people who are beginners or who are often overlooked have an advantage: Despite their lack of resources and control, they have a “strong motivation to acquire something.” instead of keeping something.
Instead of viewing their disadvantages “as a hindrance, the underdog’s attempts to increase this control may have positive effects on creativity” and problem solving, the study notes.
In the case of Pixar, Bird’s team avoided the hassles of hiring advanced animators or investing in expensive new technology by creating their own computer-generated animation trailers.
The Incredibles ended up costing $92 million to produce. It earned more than $631 billion at the worldwide box office after its release in 2004. Bird created several films with Pixar, including another Oscar-winning film, “Ratatouille.”
Having an underdog mindset is beneficial, Bird said, and a good source of motivation.
“Doing really good work is hard. If you do it right, you’re an underdog,” Bird said. “You should aim at something that is out of your range.”
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