“Effective Feedback: The Little Known Secret To Pixar’s Creative Success”

July 2nd, 2015 by

Ed Catmull, one of Pixar’s founders, came out with a book last year called “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration”. I’ve got it and have it in my To Read stack. In the meantime, here is an overview via Digital Tonto of one section of the book focusing on feedback. Catmull makes four points on the subject:

Every Idea Starts Out As An Ugly Baby

People tend to think that great works are born out of sublime inspiration.  There may be some truth to that, but it’s only a small part of the story.  Catmull calls Pixar’s initial ideas “ugly babies,” because they start out, “awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete.” Not everyone can see what those ugly babies can grow into.

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Feedback Requires Candor, Trust And Empathy

While rushing to judgment can stop the creative process in its tracks, excessive positivity can be just as bad.  The only way an ugly baby idea can get better is through honest feedback. You have to identify problems before you can solve them and the sooner that happens, the better.  Every creator has to face hard truths.

However, that requires trust.  An idea is never just an idea, but also a part of the person who puts it forward.

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Keeping The Cooks Out Of The Kitchen

One of the key principles of creativity is that you want to take ideas from everywhere.  Truly original ideas never come from any one place, but from synthesizing disparate domains and applying them to a new context.  However, while casting a wide net is great for generating ideas, it’s often fatal for developing them

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At Pixar, there is a group called the “braintrust,” made up of a small group of the company’s top directors and producers that is charged with giving feedback to films in development. Importantly, everyone on the braintrust is a filmmaker and is capable of putting themselves in a director’s shoes.

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The Purpose Of Feedback Is To Move The Project Forward

One of the most interesting things that Catmull had to say was that, although he had met an extraordinary amount of creative geniuses—and I would assume he included Steve Jobs in that group—he had never met “a single one who could articulate what it was that they were striving for when they started.”

Not a single one.

Often, feedback sessions are seen as a chance for people to give their input.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The purpose of creative feedback is to move the project forward. Anything that does not fulfill that purpose—not matter who it comes from—has no place in a feedback session.

Every single one of these points is directly relevant to the story-crafting process of a screenwriter, TV writer, novelist, any storyteller.

* We have to accept the fact that our stories are imperfect, sometimes significantly so. We ought not look at this as a reason to quit the story, rather we should call it what it is: A starting point.

* We have to be willing and able to receive honest feedback, no matter how tough it is to hear. That said, we have to trust the creative instincts of the people providing the critique.

* Feedback from too many sources can be ruinous as disparate takes on the material can lead to nothing but confusion, so we should seek out reactions from a small group of readers we trust or a respected evaluator of scripted content.

* We need to suss out the intention of the people critiquing our stories because believe it or not, there are a lot of a-holes out there who get their kicks by deriding scripts and degrading writers. Seek out people who will be honest, who we can trust, and who we know are offering feedback in the spirit of advancing our project toward a better draft.

One approach: Become part of a writers group. Not your friends, family, or inexperienced writers, but people who know Story, and qualify per Catmull’s advice.

If you can’t source a writers group, I can recommend the workshops and classes at Screenwriting Master Class. Our philosophy of constructive critique exemplifies the four points noted above. Moreover you not only get peer feedback, but also comprehensive comments from Tom Benedek or myself.

Then the bonus: Many of our workshop writers go on to create writers groups. It’s something Tom and I actively encourage. There are writers who took online classes with me over a decade ago who still have ongoing writers groups.

Writing is rewriting and feedback is one of the crucial aspects of that process. Ed Catmull has articulated the spirit of the Pixar approach and it’s one we, as writers, ought to try to emulate as part of our own feedback system.

For the rest of the Digital Tonto post, go here.

HT to Deborah Salter Kawaguchi for a link to the article.

The Good Dinosaur and the power of ‘what if’ thinking

June 4th, 2015 by

We may have missed out on a Pixar movie in 2014, but we are fortunate to have two of them being released this year: Inside Out which opens Friday, June 19 and The Good Dinosaur which rolls out November 25. This week, Pixar released a teaser trailer for The Good Dinosaur. Here it is:

Here is a transcript of the trailer’s text: “MILLIONS OF YEARS AGO… AN ASTEROID 6 MILES WIDE… DESTROYED EVERY DINOSAUR ON EARTH. BUT WHAT IF…”

…the asteroid missed? Then the dinosaurs would have survived and enable this story premise to emerge for Pixar’s 16th movie: “After a traumatic event unsettles a lively Apatosaurus named Arlo, he sets out on a remarkable journey, gaining an unlikely companion along the way – a human boy.”

I have blogged about this subject before: How those two little words — what if — are perhaps the single best way to kick-start the story-generating story process.

How screenwriter James V. Hart’s young son one day asked, “What if Peter Pan grew up?” That led to the movie Hook.

How screenwriter Bob Gale, when looking at his father’s high school yearbooks, asked, “What if I had gone to school with my father. Would we have been friends?” That was the kernel of an idea that led to Back to the Future.

And now this: What if the asteroid had missed and dinosaurs survived? Which has resulted in this:

The power of ‘what if’ thinking. Take those two words and a spark of creative juju:

Creativity 3

Now go out there and come up with a brilliant story idea!

Pixar’s “Inside Out”: Animated Emotions

May 21st, 2015 by

Every article I read about the upcoming Pixar movie Inside Out makes me want to see the movie NOW! This yearning goes beyond my obsession with Pixar arguably the most successful movie studio of all time. I mean look at this release slate!

Year                 Title                      Worldwide Gross        Rotten Tomatoes        IMDB

1995                Toy Story                     $361M                        92              8.2

1998                A Bug’s Life                  $363M                        91              7.3

1999                Toy Story 2                   $485M                        100             8.0

2001                Monsters, Inc.                $585M                        95              8.0

2003                Finding Nemo                  $868M                        98              8.2

2004                The Incredibles               $631M                        97              8.1

2006                Cars                          $461M                        74              7.4

2007                Ratatouille                   $621M                        98              8.1

2008                Wall-E                        $521M                        96              8.5

2009                Up                            $731M                        98              8.3

2010                Toy Story 3                   $1,063B                      99              8.6

2011                Cars 2                        $550M                        37              6.5

2012                Brave                         $535M                        82              7.7

2013                Monsters University           $743M                        83              7.5

Add it all up and you get a total worldwide box office gross of $8.5B with an average of $608M per film by far the highest of any studio in the history of Hollywood.

More numbers: Pixar films have garnered 26 Academy Awards, 7 Golden Globes, and 3 Grammy Awards.

Still more numbers: 7 of Pixar’s 14 films are in the IMDB Top 250 Movies of all time.

Behind all the numbers is the real reason for my obsession with Pixar. It’s their obsession with Story. They are all about Story.

Yet that is not the entirety of why I am so pumped to see Inside Out. What really has me going is the story concept. Here is a description written by the good folks at Pixar:

Growing up can be a bumpy road, and it’s no exception for Riley, who is uprooted from her Midwest life when her father starts a new job in San Francisco. Like all of us, Riley is guided by her emotions – Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness. The emotions live in Headquarters, the control center inside Riley’s mind, where they help advise her through everyday life. As Riley and her emotions struggle to adjust to a new life in San Francisco, turmoil ensues in Headquarters. Although Joy, Riley’s main and most important emotion, tries to keep things positive, the emotions conflict on how best to navigate a new city, house and school.

I’m thinking Inside Out may be the perfect movie for my take on Story because it is literally bouncing back and forth between the External World of the physical journey and the Internal World of the psychological journey. When I talk about characters starting off in a state of Disunity, about the plot servicing their transformation process whereby they get in touch will key aspects of their psyche as they move toward Unity, character archetypes, all of that stuff I blab about on the blog and in my classes, apparently that is what Inside Out traffics in — left, right, front, and center. Check out the trailer:

So I was particularly interested in an article I read yesterday from The Atlantic called “Pixar’s Mood Master,” a feature on one of their directors and members of the Braintrust, Pete Docter, co-writer and director of Inside Out. An excerpt from the article:

In 1943, Disney released an eight-minute film titled Reason and Emotion. The film personified the ability to think and the ability to feel as, respectively, a bespectacled, suit-wearing prig and an impulsive, lascivious caveman. “Within the mind of each of us,” intoned the narrator, “these two wage a ceaseless battle” for control of the (in the film, quite literal) mental steering wheel.

Sixty-six years later, when the animator, screenwriter, and director Pete Docter started planning Inside Out, his own film personifying the workings of the human mind, Reason and Emotion was one of the first references he consulted. He’d seen it before, as a cartoon-besotted child, and he remembered admiring its comic boldness. Watching the film again in 2009, however, he saw its limitations.

“It’s actually a propaganda film,” Docter told me during my recent visit to his office at Pixar Animation Studios, in Emeryville, California, across the bay from San Francisco… “The basic message was”—here Docter put on a stern voice and furrowed his enormous brow (his colleagues like to sketch him as a sunnier version of Frankenstein’s monster)—“Don’t let Hitler control you with fear!”

Reason and Emotion portrayed humans as automatons, and denigrated feelings as primitive and threatening. Docter knew that he wanted his own exploration of the human mind to put emotions front and center, and to treat them with more nuance. “More nuance” may, in fact, be a radical understatement. Inside Out, Docter’s third Pixar feature and arguably the company’s most ambitious film to date, is as bright and colorful as a Day-Glo pinball machine. But it is also as high-concept, narratively ornate, and psychologically intricate as a Christopher Nolan film—Inception by way of Fantasia.

Here is the short animated movie Reason and Emotion:

This whole discussion got me thinking about big summer movies, particularly the franchise films and popcorn movies featuring special effects and CGI out the arse. Why do some of them work so well and others leave me flat? And it all boils down to the characters and their emotional lives. In movies like The Avengers or Mad Max: Fury Road, the filmmakers paid attention to the psychological dimension of the characters, a level of nuance amidst the spectacle. Others? Not so much. Inauthentic characters. Manufactured emotions.

That made me wonder if the filmmakers, who may be awesome at imagining, constructing, and shooting incredibly challenging action sequences, have some sort of fundamental fear of “feelings as primitive and threatening”.

Not Pixar. They are unafraid of emotion. They understand the power of storytelling that connects with audiences on that level.

Another member of the Pixar Braintrust is Andrew Stanton, whose movie credits include Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and WALL-E. He did a TED Talk about storytelling that is excellent and speaks to the importance of exploring the emotional nature of narratives. He began the presentation with a joke, then said this:

We all love stories. We’re born from them. Stories are who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. And nothing has a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories. It can cross the barriers of time – past, present and future – and allows us to experiences the similarities between ourselves and through others, real and imagined.

The children’s television host Mr. Rogers always carried in his wallet a quote from a social worker that said, “Frankly there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you know their story.” And the way I like to interpret that is probably the greatest story commandment, “Make me care.”

Please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically… make me care.

Setting aside my affection for Pixar, I care about Inside Out even before I’ve seen it because of the emotions it arouses in me. I was an Air Force brat. I moved around a lot as a child. I can relate to that sense of displacement Riley feels having been transplanted from the Midwest to California. I can remember my turbulent adolescent years. As a parent, I have experienced one son going through adolescence and have another one smack in the middle of that stage right now. And the five emotions as characters in the movie — Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness — I’ve got them all at work in my psychological life.

This is not arbitrary. Pixar knew going in with this project they were dealing with a story setup that touches on several universal points of emotional connection.

So what am I saying? Pixar is great. Inside Out looks like a movie I’ll not only enjoy to the fullest, I’ll probably use it as inspiration for my teaching. And this takeaway for all of us as writers:

Don’t shy away from the emotional lives of our characters. You want to make a reader care about your script? Perhaps the single most important thing you can do is delve into the psychological dynamics at work with your characters, identifying universal themes, and get curious to see how they play out over the course of your story.

For the rest of The Atlantic article, go here.

John Lasseter and 7 Storytelling Instincts

February 2nd, 2015 by

In my recent Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling class, one of the writers in the group – Bob – posted this link to a recent feature in The Telegraph on Pixar and Disney Animation head honcho John Lasseter. It’s a terrific read on how Lasseter and team have turned around the fortunes of Disney Animation. Spurred some thoughts which I am reprinting here.

Great, Bob, thanks. That is an excellent article and speaks so much to some of the key reasons for Pixar’s success and Disney Animation’s ‘resurrection’. Specifically 7 storytelling instincts present in their work and approach to their business.

1. Passion: Lasster and crew love making movies, telling stories and animation in all forms. It’s not just a job, it’s not just about hitting quarterly earnings requirements. There is a genuine zeal for what they do.

2. Creativity: They value it, they embrace it, they do everything they can engender it. Notice how they completely restructured the way Disney story development operates. I know all too well about Disney and their propensity for giving notes, a top-down approach to the story-crafting process. In the article, you’ll note when Lasseter came onto the scene at Disney animation, the setup of the actual administration building reflected this model. No more. Creatives have a place of authority and respect.

3. Wonder: As opposed to cynicism. This line from Lasseter: “They thought the world had grown too cynical for traditional fairy tales, but I was sitting at Pixar thinking, ‘No! Hollywood’s grown too cynical for them! The rest of the world loves them!'” Whether the lifestyle of a Hollywood studio executive attracts edgy, negative personalities or the job itself relentlessly grinds a person into a cynic, while there is room for dark movies, that’s not what a majority of the world’s population wants. Or perhaps even more importantly… needs. I’m not talking pablum stories. Neither is Lasseter. As we’ve seen in this course, Pixar deals with some really serious themes: death, loss, self-identity. But they tells stories with those serious themes from a place of wonder, that amidst all of the potentially destructive dangers of this life, there is also beauty, courage, friendship and love.

4. Curiosity: Note how the article emphasizes the research Disney (and Pixar) do for each project. Go out into the world! See what’s out there! Immerse yourself in the unique story subculture! Open your eyes! Hollywood denizens are too often informed by their insular experience of the 405-101-10-110 bubble. There’s a reason they refer to the broad stretch of the United States between LA and NYC as “flyover country”. As writers, we benefit by living life and burrowing deep into interesting corners of it.

5. Openness: No longer stories where female characters sit around waiting to be saved. Disney animation now goes where culture goes, reflecting the experience of actual contemporary human beings, rather than slavishly following the dictates of tradition.

6. Respect: And yet, they don’t trample all over what has come before. Disney had decided to dump 2D animation. Lasseter put an end to that. He loves and respects the artistry of ‘old’ Disney movies. I believe some of that has to do with the tactile experience of working with pen or pencil and paper. 3D is great, of course, but it’s not the same as hand scratching images on a sketchboard. There is a kind of direct vitality and inspiration that can emerge from that witness Pixar’s famous lunch where Wall-E and the house from Up emerged. There is much to be learned from the history of movies and storytelling.

7. Fun: Their primary audience is children. And children like to have fun. Adults do, too, even if they get so caught up in work and responsibilities, they sometimes forget that. So with everything else that goes on in the story-crafting process, Lasseter is always innately cued into the potential for fun. I mean, the dude owns over 1,000 Hawaiian shirts! That’s his work apparel!

Look at that list. Know what? That’s a great list of attributes for any screenwriter to have. We should embrace and engender the spirit of those seven qualities in our own lives and writing lifestyles.

Again thanks for the article, Bob. Definitely worth a read!

I don’t care what genre or type of stories you write, these 7 storytelling instincts are good ones to engender. And honestly, if Hollywood development execs and producers would embrace these, I think the film and TV business would be better off.

To read The Telegraph article, go  here.

Documentary: “Pixar: 25 Magic Moments”

December 28th, 2014 by

A 2011 BBC documentary: Pixar: 25 Magic Moments:

Through 25 key moments, this programme takes a look at the highs and lows of the multi award-winning animation studio Pixar as it celebrates its 25th birthday, and discovers the secrets of how to make a Pixar movie. With unique access to Pixar HQ and the creative team, it features memorable moments from hits such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc, as well as exclusive interviews with Billy Crystal, Tim Allen, Holly Hunter, Kelsey Grammer, Michael Keaton, George Lucas and others.

A nice way for any Pixar fan to spend an hour, especially writers as some of the interviews involve Brad Bird, Ed Catmull, Pete Docter, John Lasseter, Bob Peterson, Andrew Stanton, and Lee Unkrich, members of the company’s Brain Trust, as well as Steve Jobs, who if you didn’t know co-founded the animation company.

If you love Pixar movies or simply want to learn some of the key narrative principles behind their success as storytellers, I encourage you to take my popular 1-week online class Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling. It starts January 19th and I only offer it once a year. Check it out here.

Screenwriting as problem-solving

October 13th, 2014 by

This popped up on Twitter the other day:

This reminds me of two things. First, the idea that screenwriters are fundamentally problem-solvers. Some insight into this from Hollywood Movie Producer Extraordinaire Max Millimeter:

Kid, you just don’t get it. You think they think like you think, that you’re a writer. That’s not what they think. What a studio executive sees when they look at a screenwriter is this: problem-solver.

See, each of them is responsible for a boatload of scripts. 10, 12, 14, whatever. Now a normal person would look at a script that a studio has dropped coins for and say, ‘Hey, look! It’s a movie!’ Beautiful thing, right? Not an exec. They look at that script and all they can see is one royally screwed-up story. And that’s not only a problem, it’s their problem.

Which is where you come in. You walk in for a meeting, you schmooze a little. Hey, such and such movie really bombed this weekend, hate to be tiptoeing around that studio, eh? You hear about so-and-so, got busted for making out with a St. Bernard at that wedding reception, can you believe it? You know, lighten things up. Then you get to the story. And here nothing matters what you say… nothing… except one thing: Are you gonna solve their problem by fixing their script? They don’t give two titties about your theories, your craft, your art, okay? That script you’re meeting about is a busted toilet filled with yesterday’s beef brisket and you, my fine young friend, are the plumber.

This is why it is absolutely crucial for you to develop your critical analytical skills, to be able to read a script, identify the issues, then come up with possible solutions.

The second thing is a quote I picked up somewhere along the line about rewriting: Make the problem the solution. As enigmatic as that sounds, more often than not, I’ve found it to be true. Take the Brad Bird anecdote. Everyone was acting with the assumption that the problem was the dialogue, it made Bob seem like a bully, people didn’t like him. But when Bird dug back into the scene, he discovered the dialogue wasn’t the problem. “No, that is what he [Bob] would say, that is how she [Helen] would respond.” In other words, he confirmed what the characters were saying was true to who they were. In embracing that, the problem became the solution: Don’t change the dialogue, but the way the dialogue is delivered visually: Draw Helen’s body size to match Bob, so they are equals in stature.

In writing a script, we confront hundreds, maybe even thousands of problems. It’s a natural and inevitable part of the process, which means at a basic level, screenwriting is about problem-solving. We need to embrace that reality. One way to do that is to spin our perception from negative to positive: Make the problem the solution.

UPDATE: Writer-director Jessica Bendiger (Bring It On, Stick It) tweeted this:

True. They don’t call it ‘development hell’ for nothing! For background on the Pixar Brain Trust and their creative process, you can check out my 2012 interview with Mary Coleman, head of the Pixar’s story department. They really have a unique things going on up in Emeryville, CA.

Christopher Nolan: Films of the Future Will Still Draw People to Theaters

July 9th, 2014 by

Christopher Nolan wrote a Wall Street Journal column published this week, focusing on the impact of technological changes, specifically the shift from film to digital:

Hungry for savings, studios are ditching film prints (under $600 each), while already bridling at the mere $80 per screen for digital drives. They want satellite distribution up and running within 10 years. Quentin Tarantino’s recent observation that digital projection is the “death of cinema” identifies this fork in the road: For a century, movies have been defined by the physical medium (even Dogme 95 insisted on 35mm film as the presentation format).

Savings will be trivial. The real prize the corporations see is the flexibility of a nonphysical medium.

As streams of data, movies would be thrown in with other endeavors under the reductive term “content,” jargon that pretends to elevate the creative, but actually trivializes differences of form that have been important to creators and audiences alike. “Content” can be ported across phones, watches, gas-station pumps or any other screen, and the idea would be that movie theaters should acknowledge their place as just another of these “platforms,” albeit with bigger screens and cupholders.

Depressing, right? But Nolan sees a larger, brighter picture:

This bleak future is the direction the industry is pointed in, but even if it arrives it will not last. Once movies can no longer be defined by technology, you unmask powerful fundamentals—the timelessness, the otherworldliness, the shared experience of these narratives. We moan about intrusive moviegoers, but most of us feel a pang of disappointment when we find ourselves in an empty theater.

The audience experience is distinct from home entertainment, but not so much that people seek it out for its own sake. The experience must distinguish itself in other ways. And it will. The public will lay down their money to those studios, theaters and filmmakers who value the theatrical experience and create a new distinction from home entertainment that will enthrall—just as movies fought back with widescreen and multitrack sound when television first nipped at its heels.

You should read the whole article because Nolan goes on about the future of cinema depending “not just on grander presentation, but on the emergence of filmmakers inventive enough to command the focused attention of a crowd for hours.” Thus ultimately the presumed rise of the theatrical movie experience will emerge from the synthesis of technology and creativity.

Interestingly, Nolan never once mentions the word “story,” however he does talk about “powerful fundamentals—the timelessness, the otherworldliness, the shared experience of these narratives.”

Which leads to a fundamental question about technological ‘progress': Will storytelling itself change? Or will the longstanding practices of storytellers, narrative principles and instincts seemingly rooted in the universal human experience, continue pretty much as they have throughout the centuries? Should storytelling change? If so, how?

Right now, one could say with safety that at the studio level, Story is largely in service to Technology, particularly when expensive blockbusters filled with eye-candy and “quasi-experimental” narratives which are more “like writing a Cirque du Soleil show” generate record revenues. But there are filmmakers, Nolan among them, who do bring an affection for and interest in what one may call ‘traditional storytelling’ to big budget projects replete with technological requirements.

This is one reason why I find the Pixar phenomenon so fascinating because the technological advances they themselves have helped to usher in on the 3D animation side of things have almost always been in service to Story, and that has proved to be one major key to their success: Every single one of their movies has debuted at #1 and gone on to make money while most garner tremendous critical praise. Why? In large part, good stories.

As I sit here pondering these thoughts, I know this: Sitting in a dark movie theater accompanied by a group of strangers, the collective experience of a Story unfolding on screen, as I have done literally thousands of times in my life, is akin to a religious experience. Scoff if you will, but some of the most powerful moments in my life have occurred losing myself in a movie, its characters, its story universe. I can only hope Nolan is right and that what we will see in the future is an opportunity for deeper, richer emotional and intellectual immersions in the most unique form of storytelling I know: Cinema.

Final thought: As writers, we can’t control technology. We can’t control studios and their business decisions. But we can control what we write… and equally important, what we choose to write. That’s how we can participate in the emergence of what movies will become.

For the rest of the WSJ article, go here.

What are your thoughts about Nolan’s column? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of movies? How important are movies to you?

Kinds of Scenes — Instinctive Choices

June 25th, 2014 by

A guest post from my colleague Tom Benedek:

Sometimes I sit down and just can’t bring myself to write a scene I have clearly drawn right in front of me in my story outline. I know what is supposed to happen. Yet it doesn’t feel right. I don’t know where to start, who should say what. There may be a logic to why the scene is where it is in my outline — and yet none of it feels right. Nooooo! Should I force it? Maybe. Hmmm.

I stop, reconsider the elements — what happened before, what goes next. Obviously(though not to me in that moment) I can’t write the scene because it isn’t meant to be a dramatic scene. Perhaps it should be a piece of expository —  a quick and direct description in dialogue or voice over. Or it should be no more than a deep exhale before or after a big scene. I change my approach, adjust the outline, move forward with the script pages — finally. Those big scenes have to be there. But every beat in a story outline can’t be one of them.

Dramatic conflict, the big scenes, may matter most. But what comes in between, the small scenes, how we present elements of plot and character, is often nuanced through different kinds of scenes. Scenes of preparation, plant, payoff, aftermath, expository — the best scripts contain many different kinds of scenes – modulated and mixed into the standard scenes of dramatic conflict. Great meals are not just main course offerings. They are made up of different kinds of food, presented in different sizes, in multiple courses. Well told film stories operate in some ways like great meals, as well.

The components of a film script, the scenes arrive at different times, in carefully shaped forms and sizes. We may learn the most about one of our characters through one line, an idle remark, delivered before or after a huge emotional conflict. The best films are nuanced with different means, different kinds of scenes to present story. Knowing how to treat a scene, what kind of scene to write, may make or break the quality of a movie. The golden era Pixar scripts offer fantastic examples of all kinds of different scenes. By studying the kinds of scenes we can write, using these wonderful Pixar movies as role models, it is possible to build up writing style and add the best emphasis to the important things in scripts.

I have a one week class starting on Monday, June 30 which uses Pixar scripts to identify and break down all kinds of different scenes: Pixar Scene Writing Tool Kit.

It’s fun to consider how these scripts use diverse scene techniques to tell their stories. With Pixar scripts as case studies, we will be exploring the many “little things” which make these movies work so well Please do consider joining me for this fascinating class.

For more information on Tom’s upcoming class and all other Screenwriting Master Class courses and workshops, go here.

Pixar gets in touch with their inner shrink

June 12th, 2014 by

I love Pixar. Just Google the blog to see the dozens of posts I’ve done about the company over the years. Their commitment to Story, love for Characters, and taking the time to get it right is unparalleled among contemporary studios, hence the source of my admiration and affection.

But then all the sequels starting happening. Cars 2. Toy Story 3. Monsters University. Finding Dory. The Incredibles 2.

Okay, I’ll give some of them a pass because the originals were so damn good. Yet one couldn’t help but be concerned about what was going on creatively up there in Emeryville. Had they run out of original ideas?

Then along comes Inside Out. Via Variety:

Until last month, when Pixar finally released a synopsis for the toon studio’s 15th feature, precious little was known about “Inside Out,” which takes place entirely inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl. But after director Pete Docter’s stunning presentation at the Annecy Intl. Animation Film Festival in southern France yesterday, one thing is clear: “Inside Out” will forever change the way people think about the way people think.

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“It’s based on a strong emotional experience I had watching my daughter grow up,” says the “Up” director, who noticed that when his daughter Elie turned 12, much of her childhood joy disappeared, and she became more moody and withdrawn. “There is something that is lost when you grow up” — and the film became a way to explore that change on an emotional level.

Okay, let’s stop right there. “…strong emotional experience I had watching my daughter grow up… explore that change on an emotional level.” This is such an example of how the creatives at Pixar think, grounding their stories in deep human experiences. Who of us hasn’t gone through the turmoil of adolescence? Which parent among us has not gazed upon their tween or teenage sons and daughters, and not wondered, “What the hell is going on there?” It is innately emotional terrain.

Pixar not only targets universal themes, but powerful ones with an emotional resonance.

The film centers on a young girl named Riley Anderson, “one of those kids who seems like she was born happy,” Docter says. “In truth, Riley is not our main character; she is our setting.” To demonstrate what he meant, Docter screened the first five minutes of the movie, a good segment of which was still in a pencil-drawn storyboard state. (The finished film will open June 19, 2015.) Sure enough, “Inside Out” takes place in Riley’s subconscious, where a crew of anthropomorphized emotions manage how the girl feels at any given moment from a control panel that looks something like the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise.

In the team’s research, they found many different scientific theories on how the mind works, including one from expert Robert Plutchik that defined eight primary human emotions, which Docter narrowed down to five: Fear (Bill Hader), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Joy (Amy Poehler), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black) — “like our version of Walt Disney’s Seven Dwarfs,” he jokes.

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“There’s this whole system that’s basically designed to operate in your subconscious,” he says. “All of the impulses that control your decisions, actions, stuff like that is out of your control, which is not the way I like to think of myself at all.”

Again Pixar instincts at work. They not only look for a key dynamic with which moviegoers can relate emotionally, they also seek a clean conceptual hook. And with Inside Out, apparently they have gotten in touch with their inner shrink: anthropomorphizing psychological dynamics.

Fear. Sadness. Joy. Disgust. Anger. Carl Jung would love this movie as each of these represents a different aspect of an individual’s psyche. Our task in life, what Jung called the individuation process, is to get in touch with, understand and embrace all aspects of who we are. That is the only way we can move toward a state of what he called ‘wholeness’.

I’m guessing this is pretty much the arc of Inside Out: Disunity to Unity.

It’s a great high concept, one to which we all can relate. I grew up in a religious family and went to Yale Divinity School, so I am steeped in Protestant theology. When I read this description of Inside Out, I was reminded of Romans 7:15 when Paul admits, “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.

If you strip away the religious trappings, this has always struck me as an insightful psychological observation. We all know this feeling, when parts of our psyche work at odds against each other. From a writing standpoint, that puts us smack dab into conflict which is key to crafting a story with compelling drama.

Moreover with these five dynamics at work, one against and sometimes with each other, that suggests a lot of entertainment, distinct personalities with their own wants and needs.

But perhaps most importantly – and this brings the whole discussion back to Docter’s original impetus for the project — this is the kind of story that can speak to children and their parents, providing a way for families to converse about feelings and impulses. It takes the notion of four quadrant movie and elevates it beyond mere entertainment, transforming it potentially into a learning opportunity.

In sum, I love this story concept, perhaps more than any other Pixar movie since Up which is one of my absolute favorite of their movies.

Inside Out sounds like Pixar is growing up (along with the creatives’ children?) and taking on stories with more complex dynamics. Can’t wait to see it. How about you?

For the rest of the Variety article, go here.

Takeaway: As writers, whenever we consider a potential story idea, be sure to ask: What about it can connect with an audience on an emotional level? What specific dynamics in this concept can I use to create an emotional resonance with script readers?

And then this: How do I connect emotionally to the story content? We are much more likely to craft a compelling story if it’s something for which we have a passion to write.

“The Truth About Andy’s Dad in Toy Story Will Make You Depressed”

June 5th, 2014 by

From Jon Negroni at the Huffington Post:

Fine, here’s what happened to Andy’s dad.

A few months ago, I argued the theory that Andy’s mother is actually Emily, the girl who originally owned Jesse in Toy Story 2. The post quickly went viral, as many people began debating whether or not this is true, intentional, etc.

Since then, literally hundreds (if not thousands) of people have been asking me about Andy’s dad, and I’ve never wanted to address the issue for a few key reasons:

  1. It’s depressing.
  2. It’s depressing.
  3. It’s depressing.

You see, I love talking about theories like Andy’s mom and how all of the Pixar movies are connected because that’s tons of fun to think about. Andy’s dad? That’s just… well, you get it.

But I can see that a lot of you want to know anyway, and it’s really not that complicated. In fact, this is one of the few theories about Toy Story that I can confidently say is totally intentional.

The original theory was first posited by Jess Nevins, an incredibly talented writer who published his take on “Mr. Davis” back in 2010. I’ll elaborate on his theory and build upon it with my own insights.

Nevins claimed that Andy’s parents are…

Eh, not gonna give it away, you’ll have to go here to find out Negroni’s theory. It’s a plausible backstory although it should be noted that in another article featuring an interview with Pixar’s Lee Unkrich, he said this about the Andy’s father:

“It’s an oft asked question, but there is no concrete answer,” Unkrich said. “We don’t mean to be mysterious about it; it’s just never been relevant to the story.”

It’s just always been that way, Unkrich said. “The decision was made really early on in ‘Toy Story’ to have Andy’s dad not be around,” he said. “We’ve never addressed it directly, nor have we given any explanation for where he is or why he’s absent.”

Frankly I find this surprising. I’ve had a number of conversations with Mary Coleman, who heads up Pixar’s story department, about why the company is so great at crafting their stories, and one thing is clear: They ground their stories in characters. One would think that knowing the exact details of Andy’s parental circumstance, both mother and father, would be a critical piece of information. In the case of the Toy Story franchise, evidently not.

Which brings us back to Negroni’s theory which I think works. Indeed, while the Pixar Brain Trust may not have nailed down the precise nature of Andy’s father’s absence, it may very well have been at work at a subconscious level given some of the visual clues Negroni picks up.

For the Huffington Post article, go here.

What do you think is the backstory with Andy’s father?