GITS Q&A, Part 2: Mary Coleman (Pixar)

February 28th, 2012 by

Today we continue with a week long exclusive interview with Mary Coleman, senior development executive at Pixar Animation Studios. In Part 2, Mary pulls back the curtain to reveal the painstaking story-crafting process they go through on every film project:

SM: If you wouldn’t mind, could you take us through the Pixar story-crafting process step-by-step?

MC: Sure. John [Lasseter] chooses someone he feels is ready to direct—in most cases an artist who has been part of the family for many years. Most have come up as animators or story artists. They are asked to come up with three original, totally different ideas — different worlds, different characters, different genres. John hears those and chooses the one he feels has the most promise for Pixar.

Once an idea is picked, we spend the first year researching that world and digging into the types of characters found there. We lay a strong foundation through research, whether that means meeting with entomologists for Bug’s Life, scuba diving for Nemo, or apprenticing in the kitchens of great restaurants for Ratatouille.

But the most important work of that first year is finding the core of the story, what it is the director wants to communicate to the world.

That starts with very rough outlines. You pitch those to the Brain Trust — a group of the other Pixar directors. One of the most unique aspects of our studio is that you get feedback from their peers. And peers who are very committed to your success, as much as you are to theirs. You get this incredible input before there’s even a first draft. You can call on individuals or the whole Trust at any point to get the feedback you need. In that first year you’re pitching twenty minute overviews of the story, getting feedback, and rethinking it. We often spend a whole year in outlining before going to a first draft. A lot of time laying that foundation.

Sometimes there’s a table read—either with pro actors or more often just tapping the Pixar community for people who like to act. Then while the writer is incorporating the Brain Trust notes into a second draft, a team of story artists begin drawing out the movie, like the comic book. Then the comic book becomes like a flip book when the drawings are scanned in and edited together to make our “reels”. It’s a visual rough draft of the whole thing, so if your movie’s an hour and a half long your reels are too.  The Brain Trust watches these reels and gives very frank—sometimes painfully frank!—feedback. But with no other agenda than helping you make the best movie you can. You spend the next 2-3 years in the process of putting up reels, getting feedback, and going back to the drawing board before going into full production for the final 1-2 years of this year process.

SM: When does the screenwriter get involved in the process?

MC: Historically they’ve been brought on at many different points, but my strong preference is to bring them on as soon as the idea is chosen. Not only for all the outlining, but also to join in the in-depth research and become part of the team. Dan Fogelman got to know the Cars team on a road trip across route 66.

Mike Arndt, I’m really happy to say, was with us from the start of Toy Story 3. Having one writer through the whole process, there from the ground up, really shows in the final movie.

One of many reasons that the writer being part of the creative team is so important is that while writing that second draft they’re working side by side with the eight or so story artists who are drawing the movie. There’s a lot of back and forth. It’s really a unique experience for a screenwriter because they’re not only collaborating with the director, but also with this very talented group of visual storytellers. The drawings feed the written word just as much as the written word feeds the story boards. The writers who have lasted here love that process. And then there are the ones who ran out of here screaming “too many chefs!!”

So the second draft of the screenplay is also the first reel screening. And it’s always bad. It’s just bad. That’s okay. Andrew [Stanton] likes to say “Be wrong fast.” On the one hand, we’ll take a whole year to get to a first draft. But once we have that, we put it up on reels an average of eight times and that’s eight visual rough drafts of the movie. That translates to many more than eight drafts of the script. At a certain point the back and forth is so fluid you lose count.

SM: So there are voiceovers for each of those reels?

MC: We don’t use professional actors until the last few reels. For most of it, we use ‘scratch,’ voices from in-house. For example, Pete [Docter] does Woody. Bob Petersen is one of our most versatile. In fact, he’s hard to replace once he’s done scratch so he’s ended up being the actual Roz in Monsters Inc and Doug the dog in Up. We involve pro actors before the story is locked, but much further along in the process.

It’s funny to say “locked” because we keep improving the story well into production, which is painful in animation. Making changes is expensive and laborious. But we’ll keep at it if the story’s not right yet.  And we’ve never once gone into full production with it “locked.”

SM: What is your part in this process?

MC: I wear several hats. One of them is scouting writers to pair up with our directors. Writers are brought on to help the directors realize their vision on the page. I play matchmaker. When I do my job well, the marriage lasts.

Once the writer is here, I’m their liaison, making sure the creative process is working for everybody.

Another hat I wear is brainstorming with the creative team while they’re in development.  This team starts as a trio: director, writer and “head of story.” That’s the veteran story artist in charge of the story artists. While that trio meets daily hammering out the story they call me in as needed to brainstorm or to get them ready for pitches to the Brain Trust. I also have two outstanding Development colleagues who do the same. It’s a matter of chemistry which of the three of us works with a given director.

A favorite hat of mine is overseeing our Short Films program. Since our features take around 5 years, it’s incredibly satisfying to work on things that take under a year from conception to birth. And those films are so pure expressions of their creators.

SM: As an aside, I’m sure what you do can be challenging, but it sounds like an unbelievably great gig.

MC: I love my job. I feel very lucky to be here. I’ve been here twelve years and have no plans to leave. There’s very little turnover at Pixar. Most of our development department has been here a good decade. In other studios, development is often a stepping stone to production. Here people are just passionate about helping lay that groundwork for story. This is our endgame.

Once again a ton of takeaway in terms of screenwriting. Let me just focus on three items:

* Eight drafts: That’s the average for a Pixar project. So the next time you complain about having to write a third draft, a fourth draft… you know what? You’re just a piker compared to Pixar! When they go into the story, they… Go. Into. The. Story!

* “We’ve never once gone into full production with it ‘locked’… We’ll keep at it if the story’s not right yet”: This is the very physicalization of the adage, “Writing is rewriting.”

* “Here people are just passionate about helping lay that groundwork for story”: Passion. There’s that word again. I heard it when I interviewed Dustin Lance Black (Milk). I heard it when I interviewed David Seidler (The King’s Speech). And I heard it when I interviewed Mary Coleman about Pixar. As a screenwriter, you have to have passion for each story, you have to have passion for the craft, you have to have passion for story itself. It’s at the root of everything, from getting you to deposit your butt on chair to write to the words on the page springing up and into the imagination of the reader. Find out what your passion is for movies and stories and if you hone in on that in terms of what you choose to write, you increase the chances exponentially you will nail that script.

Tomorrow in Part 3, I bring up the first of several narrative dynamics I see at work in Pixar movies and get Mary’s reaction to it: the idea of strange sojourners.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

5 thoughts on “GITS Q&A, Part 2: Mary Coleman (Pixar)

  1. 03867902517498343161 says:

    Great interview, Scott! Thanks! Look forward to reading more, and hope you’re doing well.

  2. [...] the full interview covering the story development process click here, and for a more visual behind-the-scenes look check out Koo’s previous post about John [...]

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