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The Secret of Pixar Storytelling

Pixar directors, writers and artists shared their storytelling experience and expertise during a series of keynote talks and panel discussions as part of Screenwriting Expo 5, sponsored by Creative Screenwriting Magazine. In this brief overview of the all-day seminar, Greg Singer reports how Pixar manages to capture lightning in a bottle.

Finding Nemo (2003). Finding the right story in an ocean of possibilities takes time. Success comes through persistence; in never giving up. © Disney · Pixar Animation Studios.

Finding Nemo (2003). Finding the right story in an ocean of possibilities takes time. Success comes through persistence; in never giving up. © Disney · Pixar Animation Studios.

It's been said that the secret to Pixar Animation Studios' success is story. That's the mantra. Story, story, story. And, of course -- story.

But this is not quite precise. You can have the same story, and three directors will give you three different movies. Really, the magic lies in storytelling. It's in the telling of a tale that the emotional appeal takes hold. As with a good joke, the essence of its humor will always elicit a chuckle, but in telling it masterfully, the audience can't help but guffaw. In the right hands, even a lackluster story can be told with such charm and verve that everyone in earshot will give it their attention. The ability to captivate and entertain has less to do with the words on a page, or the beats of a story, as with the performance itself.

Perhaps in being so far removed from the hallowed halls of Hollywood, Pixar has been able to think more clearly than most in the commitment to its craft. Pixar has been described as the perfect storm of art, science and studio savvy. The studio has some 20 Academy Awards to its name, and its seven animated features -- Toy Story (1995), A Bug's Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004) and Cars (2006) -- have grossed more than $3.4 billion at the worldwide box office. With its next release, Ratatouille (2007), the studio's films just seem to be getting better and better. Whatever they're doing up in Emeryville, California, they must be doing something right.

As the saying goes, if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. Last October, as the centerpiece of Screenwriting Expo 5 in Los Angeles, there was an all-day seminar devoted to Pixar Storytelling. Aspiring filmmakers and studio heads came from far and wide, even overseas, to share in the keynote talks and panel discussions. Writer/director Andrew Stanton spoke on "Understanding Story: or My Journey of Pain." Michael Arndt, who recently won an Academy Award for Little Miss Sunshine, gave a talk on "Endings: The Good, The Bad and the Insanely Great." The director/writer relationship was discussed by the teams of Lee Unkrich/Arndt, Brenda Chapman/Irene Mecchi, and Gary Rydstrom/Kiel Murray. "Trust the Process: A Conversation with Pixar Story Artists" was hosted by Mark Andrews, Jim Capobianco, Ronnie Del Carmen and Jason Katz. And, rounding out the event, Brad Bird and Andrews bantered about creating The Incredibles.

Cest ne pas Andrew Stanton. After years of working at Pixar, his hair has grown long and his ways trespassed upon.

Cest ne pas Andrew Stanton. After years of working at Pixar, his hair has grown long and his ways trespassed upon.

The Writing Process

Like telling a good joke, storytelling requires that you know where you're going with a tale. You must know the punchline, the end result, the goal. Then, in arriving there, it's not so much what you say, but how you say it.

Screenwriting is cinematic dictation. It is an intermediary form between the writer's imagination and what ultimately appears on screen. When developing Pixar's first feature, Toy Story, writer/director Stanton reminisces that they were too dumb or naïve to know that they couldn't do it. They were innocent to the obstacles and challenges that lay ahead, and so blithely proceeded to write the story they wanted to tell.

The process of writing a story is messy. It's something you have to play with and explore. The first draft is a kickoff and, more often than not, always bad. You have to feel safe and be willing to make mistakes -- then take the time to fix them. Good writing is rewriting. As Stanton says, "Be wrong as fast as you can." Get your ideas onto the page. The real gold is mined later. This advice is similar to that of Chuck Jones on drawing -- make your mistakes early and fast, so you can get them out of the way. Refine your efforts until you get to the good stuff. "Genius" looks effortless only because there are 100,000 bad drawings (so-called failures) already behind you.

Toy Story itself took about 36 months to write and hone. Toy Story 2, where the characters were known (except for the Roundup Gang), took about 3 months to write. Writing is all about character. When creating characters, you are giving birth to the illusion of this full person with complexities. Mr. Rogers once said, "There isn't anyone you couldn't love if you heard their story." Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty, and good stories have the audience caring and worrying about the characters. So, as a writer or artist, it's imperative to get out and meet all different kinds of people. As Brad Bird remarked in a recent interview, "You can't create the illusion of life if you haven't lived one."

In other studio environments, there can be an uneasiness attending development, a kind of mix-and-match approach that benefits no one. A writer is hired to work on a script, a director is chosen to helm the film, and everyone tries to invest him- or herself in this awkward situation. Executives loom over the whole process and never forget to remind the filmmakers, "If you can't make it work, we have three or four other writers or directors we can call in."

Development at Pixar, by contrast, is a very comfortable and nurturing process. They understand that, if everyone is being exhorted to think outside the box, maybe it's the box that needs fixing. As a director-driven studio that bases its movies on in-house, original ideas, Pixar is often regarded as a kind of fairytale workplace. Knowing that movies are never finished, just released, fear is a real motivating factor in doing good work. It's not the typical industry fear of losing one's position, but rather the worry of not living up to one's potential and doing one's utmost best.

Gary Rydstrom, director of Pixars short film, Lifted (2006). Hes funny. In a good way.

Gary Rydstrom, director of Pixars short film, Lifted (2006). Hes funny. In a good way.

When you gather Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, John Lasseter, Brad Bird and other Pixar writers in the room together, it's like watching the Harlem Globetrotters play, says Arndt. It's very fun, like a jam session, with everyone riffing off one another. Director Chapman adds that people leave their egos outside the door. It's a feeding frenzy, where everyone tackles ideas together, picks up the ball and tosses it back and forth. They are not defeated or discouraged as they misstep along the way. They figure it out as they go -- like climbing a mountain blindfolded, slowly picking their way to the top. (Talk about mixed metaphors!)

Rydstrom, who recently directed Pixar's Academy Award-nominated short film, Lifted (2006), has been working in sound design for the last 20 or so years. He describes the process of writing like "getting on a bike again, and instantly being hit by a truck." Rydstrom appreciates the collaborative nature of the Pixar story development process. The "positive feedback machine" of the other writers and directors helps to improve the story.

During development, it's also important to keep certain trusted people away from the story, so they can review it objectively at some point later in the process. This "brain trust" can see the story with fresh eyes and offer their honest perspective to spark further refinement. There is no back-stabbing, no political wrangling or jockeying. No one is worried about losing their job or spoiling their relationships. It's liberating and refreshing to get constructive feedback in such a mutually supportive environment. Everyone's focus is on helping to make the best movie possible.

Here, then, are some of Pixar leaders' foundational tenets:

  • They make movies that they would like to see. They are moviegoers first and filmmakers second. They like being able to take their whole family to the same show.

  • They shy away from story formulas. If one appears, they abandon it.

  • Animation is a medium, not a genre. Be original. Dare to be stupid. When discovering your story, you have to be in a creatively safe environment.

  • They do not pretend to be better than others in their ability. They band together to fix their mistakes. Their intent is to "just make good movies." In crafting their films, the regard is always what is best for the movie -- not the individual, not the studio.

  • They try to cultivate the cheerful reaction that Walt Disney inspired through his animated films, to appeal to the sense of wonder in people's minds, stimulated by imagination.
Story artists Jim Capobianco, Ronnie Del Carmen and Jason Katz (left to right) are paid to listen to the voices in their heads.

Story artists Jim Capobianco, Ronnie Del Carmen and Jason Katz (left to right) are paid to listen to the voices in their heads.

Writing With Pictures

Writers and directors work closely with the storyboard artists to visually interpret the script. The story artists are handed script pages and, over the course of a few months, their job is to tell the director's story back to him or her as they envision the storytelling in their heads.

When Bird was working on The Incredibles, he wanted to duplicate the Pixar mojo. However, there is no magic potion to imbibe, no blueprint to follow. When he realized, though, that he would have three times as long to work on development as he did for The Iron Giant, he thought, "Great! Let's do three times the boards!"

The story room is like a war room, a dysfunctional family. Bird passes story artist Andrews in the hall and quips, "Final battle -- see you later." One person has one idea for a scene; another person has a different idea. The team fearlessly throws around ideas as they work out the guts and mortar of the film. They are the front lines of the movie as they watch the screenplay in their mind's eye and write it out with pictures. The story artists draw like the wind, feeling out the story by instinct. Their visual language captures the texture and cadence, the emotional core, of the story. Even if their work is not immediately apparent on screen, it is the foundation on which the entire movie rests. This is why Pixar looks not just for story artists, but storytellers.

Bird knew what was best to explore visually when working with his script. But, there are so many ways to imagine the same scene; it is all up for grabs. The artists board the story and hash it out. Everyone watches the reels together, as they continue to rework and refine things. They take one step forward, and twenty backwards. The key is to trust the process. Have patience. Just as rewriting is essential, so is re-boarding. That's why they call it "sto-re-boarding." For example, the Yeti's Cave scene in Monsters, Inc. went through 20-25 different passes in story reels. Every movie has its "Yeti's Cave."

The right story can take a long time to come together and find its voice. While technology helps the process to get done quicker, the focus is on figuring out what works best. There are a lot of great ideas and moments, but they can't all stay in the film if they are not serving the story. It's the difference between "eye candy" and "eye protein" -- that is, something that looks good on paper or on screen, versus something that contributes to the meaning of a story and enhances its telling. A simple test is to turn down the sound when viewing the reels to see if you can still understand the flow of the story.

At the end of the day, of course, the buck stops with the director. Pixar's films are not made by committee or focus group, and the director must make all decisions in remaining true to his or her vision.

Brad Bird (left) and story artist Mark Andrews worked together on such no-name projects as The Iron Giant and The Incredibles.

Brad Bird (left) and story artist Mark Andrews worked together on such no-name projects as The Iron Giant and The Incredibles.

Summary of Philosophy

When writing and editing, it's helpful to keep in mind what Stanton refers to as "story physics." The awareness of cause and effect -- how the juxtaposition of elements elicits certain feelings, perceptions or reactions -- is the key to telling a story well. To emphasize, again, it's not just the story itself that matters, but how one tells it. When you say or present things in a particular way, what kind of response is engendered?

Test your story premise and presentation to its limits. See if it's working to convey the emotion and meaning you intend, without having to say so outright, and without letting the strings show. Tell your story obliquely, with subtle injection of details and ideas. Stories are more powerful when they are entwined with life as it is, and they work best when audiences are allowed to realize things for themselves. Audiences have an unconscious desire to participate in the storytelling and to work for their entertainment. As everyone knows, 2 + 2 = 22. Well, it may equal four, but you don't have to add it up for them.

Here is some broad advice from Stanton:

  • Empathize with your main character, even if you don't like all of his/her motivations or qualities. (For example, Woody in Toy Story initially masked his selfish desires as being selfless.)

  • Unity of opposites. Each character must have clear goals that oppose each other.

  • You should have something to say. Not a message, per se, but some perspective, some experiential truth.

  • Have a key image, almost like a visual logline, to encapsulate the essence of the story; that represents the emotional core on which everything hangs. (For example, Marlin in Finding Nemo, looking over the last remaining fish egg in the nest.)

  • Cast actors with an appealing voice, and whom the microphone loves. Test their voice performance with animation to see if it fits.

  • Know your world and the rules of it. (Such as in Monsters, Inc.)

  • The crux of the story should be on inner, not outer, conflicts.

  • Developing the story is like an archeological dig. Pick a site where you think the story is buried, and keep digging to find it.

  • Animation should be interpretive, not realistic.

  • "Just say no" to flashbacks. Only tell what's vital, and tell it linearly.

  • Consider music as a character to anchor the film. Music is a keeper of the emotional truth.
The Incredibles (2004). Pixar excels at finding the extraordinary in the ordinary; and the everyday in the fantastic. © Disney · Pixar Animation Studios.

The Incredibles (2004). Pixar excels at finding the extraordinary in the ordinary; and the everyday in the fantastic. © Disney · Pixar Animation Studios.

Take Home Message

People talk about the magic of animation -- the miracle of drawings brought to life. When you get the right people in the room together, with good creative instincts and the confidence to solve problems, that's when the magic happens.

Why is Pixar the only Pixar? It starts from the top down. Pixar is a high-tech version of an old-fashioned movie studio, and quality is their business plan. As the studio's president/computer scientist Ed Catmull says, firstly, "Hire people smarter than yourself." The folks at Pixar are there for the long haul. They have the peace of mind to make their career in one place, instead of not knowing where their next job will be. They can invest themselves in a culture of creativity that encourages each other to be better and stronger in their craft. Collaboration is one on one, without levels of management to complicate the flow of ideas. Rather than spinning their wheels, they are constantly tearing down ideas -- nothing becomes precious. All in all, Pixar is a group of rare, talented people who love what they do, and who are devoted to the success of their films.

Arndt, who is helping to pen Toy Story 3, alludes to the nature of success in his original screenplay, Little Miss Sunshine. We may live in a flawed world, but if we are willing to overturn its moral order, success can be measured more accurately in our own hearts -- not in terms of winning, but in having fun along the way. Life, and cinema, is surprising and meaningful by the sheer dynamic of our emotional connections. The only failure is in never trying, and success comes to those who simply refuse, or are too naïve, to give up.

And so there you have it. The secret is that there is no secret. Respect and trust keep the engine of Pixar humming along. Talent and skill carry them the rest of the way. As Geri, the restoration cleaner, admonishes in Toy Story 2, "You can't rush art."

This article is respectfully dedicated to the memory of Joe Ranft, one of the storytelling pioneers of Pixar.

Greg Singer is an animation welfare advocate, eating in Los Angeles.