The Animated Workplace: Dreamworks' "Six Pack" Approach To Building A Culture Of Creativity

Small teams, extracurricular art, and an open approach to failure help Dreamworks get the best from its army of animators and tech wizards.

When you’re watching a Dreamworks Animation movie like How to Train Your Dragon, you’re probably getting pulled into the delightful, thrilling story line, not thinking about how many people it takes to, say, make the fire breath look realistic. But Dan Satterthwaite, the head of human resources for Dreamworks Animation, and his colleagues spend lots of time thinking about the best way for teams of creatives, physicists, and software engineers to work together to make the best damn dragons in the business.

That ability to foster both technological innovation and creativity simultaneously is why Dreamworks was recently named the 12th best company to work for in 2013. A gorgeous, verdant headquarters set up like a college campus in Southern California doesn’t hurt the package, but the company’s creative staff also benefits from a culture that emphasizes communication via small teams and encourages artistic exploration.

Though there are 1,600 employees at its Glendale headquarters, the key to keeping the company’s employees creative is to have them work small teams--no group of workers includes more than six or seven people. It takes 350 people over four years to make each film, Satterthwaite explains, and to really encourage the best visual output from each person, you need to feel comfortable with your colleagues in a way that only intimate groups can foster. “In our physical environment, all our space is built around these small groups,” says Satterthwaite. “We have pods of four and six people called four and six packs.”

Another part of the indoor office equation is the location of management--far enough away from the creatives so they don’t feel as though they’re hovering, but close enough that they can keep the 350-person machine well oiled.

But that’s just the work part--and these films do require intense work and long hours, replete with footage quotas for animators. So the standard creative company perks apply. There’s free breakfast, lunch, and snacks at various commissaries, and there are game rooms replete with typical tech company goodies like foosball and ping-pong. But the company also has 15 art galleries where employees can show their work, often work that has nothing to do with their day jobs. Dreamworks offers art classes that any of their staff can take. “Our head of internal audit took a photo class and has become an amazing photographer,” Satterthwaite says, and she’s now showing her work in employee exhibits.

The outdoor part of the office is the other half of the Dreamworks appeal. It’s a sort of manufactured idyll, with a man-made river that runs right through the Glendale campus. “Because of the work that we do, for the vast majority of our employees, it’s very intense and they need to be sitting by computers for 10 to 12 hours a day,” Satterthwaite explains. “There needs to be decompression.” In addition to sitting by the river, pondering life (or animated donkeys), lunchtime fitness and exercise classes are also available to employees.

Beyond the physical part of Dreamworks’ headquarters, Satterthwaite believes that the key to the company’s creative success is that it’s an environment where people aren’t afraid to fail. “We are as open with our successes as we are our failures, and we’re constantly doing postmortems,” Satterthwaite says, whether it’s about a movie that did not meet box office expectations or a new benefit program. “Nobody loses their job over it. It allows everybody to learn in a way more productive way.”

Satterthwaite gave the example of Kung Fu Panda 2, which was a box office disappointment in its first weekend. They realized it was a combination of factors, but the one that stood out was the competition. There was another movie they didn’t think would draw the same kind of family-oriented viewer, but did. “It got us to rethink the way we looked at release dates,” Satterthwaite says. To be sure, the ability to rebound from setbacks will always serve a company well.

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