Pixar in a Box

July 10th, 2016 by

For those of you inclined toward the technical aspects of animation, this educational opportunity recently went live online:

The series, a collaboration of Pixar Animation Studios and Khan Academy, sponsored by Disney, covers Effects, Patterns, Rigging, Animation, Environment Modeling, Character Modeling, Crowds, Sets & Staging, and Rendering.

To check it out, go here.

“Why must you tell this story?”

May 13th, 2016 by

Sweet video hit online recently, especially for us Pixar fans. Check it out:

Video focuses on one of 22 ‘rules’ Pixar has for their story-crafting process: Why must you tell this story? Interestingly Andrew Stanton, one of Pixar’s directors who has been involved writing Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, Wall-E, and the upcoming Finding Dory, was traveling yesterday and answered a bunch of questions lobbed his way on Twitter. Among the queries was precisely on this point:

There you go. Why did this story need to be told? Because of a “deep emotional wound leftover from the first story that needed to be healed.” A rationale from within the story universe arising from some of the characters.

This question is also relevant outside any given story universe and that is this: What is your personal connection to the story which compels you to write it? Not just a reason arising from within the story universe itself, but your own emotional resonance with the material.

When you write on assignment, you have to damn well discover a connection to the story or else you will not do the project justice. But if you’re writing a spec script, there is absolutely no reason to pursue it unless you can provide strong answers to both levels of this question – a need arising from within the story universe and a need arising from within you.

By the way, I object to the migration of language in relation to the 22 Pixar ‘rules’. Emma Coats (@lawnrocket), who worked at Pixar before moving on, is responsible for sending these 22 items out into the online universe via her Twitter account back in 2011. And she referred to them as “story basics”. Not rules. Basics. Somehow that got transmogrified into rules and I hate that word. There. Are. No. Rules.

So please, when you consider these 22 items, don’t think of them as rules, think of them as touchstones for storytelling, considerations to bear in mind to help steer your process and engender your creativity.

Not. Rules.

I posted on Emma’s list back in January 2012, breaking them down and analyzing them. You may see my posts here, here, here, here, and here.

“The Most Valuable Thing I Learned at Pixar: How to Fail”

May 10th, 2016 by

Time once again to dip into my obsession with Pixar Animation Studios. Several years ago, I interviewed Mary Coleman, Senior Development Executive at Pixar. The conversation offers a terrific insight into the story-crafting process at arguably the most successful movie studio in existence today: 16 out of 17 movies which debuted at #1 in box office revenues. Their movies have garnered 26 Academy Awards, 7 Golden Globes, and 3 Grammy Awards, and 7 of their movies are in the IMDb Top 250 Movies as voted by movie fans.

If I had to guess, I figure over the years I’ve written perhaps 50-60 posts on Pixar. So when I noticed someone had posted a comment in my interview post with Mary Coleman… and the individual in question said he had worked at Pixar for 8 years… and he had written a blog post of his own about one key to the Pixar story process, I reached out to the writer — Mike Sundy — to see if I could feature some excerpts from his post and he agreed.

The piece is titled “The Most Valuable Thing I Learned at Pixar: How to Fail”. The whole post is worth reading, but here is a taste:

At Pixar, we constantly attempted to identify failure, correct weak spots, and not get too complacent.  This started from day one.  On my orientation several years ago, they walked me (an IT guy) and the other employees starting that day (barista, software engineer, etc.) into the beautiful Main Theater and sat us in row six, where the directors sit.  They told us “you’re all filmmakers now.”  And they meant it.  We, along with the other thousand or so folks who work there, were charged with identifying failures in the films (and in the company) and then “plussing” them.  Plussing = making it a little bit better.  The entire company had a voice and we were encouraged to e-mail our notes directly to the producer.  Pixar doesn’t make films better than anyone else.  They just make them over and over until they get them right.  We averaged roughly 8-9 low-res visual drafts of the films (in storyboard form called “story reels”) over the course of the several years it takes to make each film.  And the early versions of most of the films are frankly terrible.  This includes Woody being a jerk (see video below) in the early reels of Toy Story.  The films improve dramatically over those 8-9 rounds of screenings.  By the time we got to the final iteration after years of effort, it was usually working well.

The failure starts from the very birth of the film.  The simplified version of how a film starts is that a director or story artist comes up with three personal ideas and pitches them to John Lasseter.  John picks one of the three and tells them to develop that.  Right off the bat, there are two failed ideas.  After that, there are hundreds of “failures” as ideas about the story are pitched and discarded.  Then the story artists draw tens of thousands of temporary boards for the reels – that’s tens of thousands of “failures.”  The Braintrust (a group of peer directors and writers) weighs in with their opinions and blows up the reels again.  The beleaguered director and his/her team are constantly being confronted with the fact that the film’s not good enough yet.  They collate the useful feedback, make some decisions, and then make it better.  And that’s just the story side of it.  There are daily/weekly reviews of animation and other production elements where small teams analyze, find weak spots, and plus them.  It’s a grind toward greatness.

Sometimes a film will even make it to production and then get canned.  That’s an expensive failure.  But it’s more important than putting out a subpar film.

In a sense, Pixar displays and celebrates their failures.  Their art galleries are full of concept art, character design, environment design, and gags that didn’t directly make it into the movie.  But there’s a beauty in the process of discarding, and out of those lovely “failures” the final film emerges.

When Mike says Pixar “celebrates their failures,” consider this: What other movie studio would make public the famous Black Friday test clip of the first bad iteration of Toy Story in which Woody comes across as a real jerk:

Mike, who is a writer himself, goes on to talk about how he figures failure into his own creative process. As I say, the entire post is well worth reading which you can do here.

There are a lot of factors which can derail creative effort let alone productivity and fear of failure is one of the most common and powerful dynamics. So when a company like Pixar embraces failure, we should take a lesson from that.

We are going to fail. What matters is what we do with our failures.

What do you think? How do you deal with writing failures? Do you find fear of failure to stymie your creative output? And you Pixar fans, what do you think about their “celebration” of failure? I invite you to hit Reply and join me in comments to continue the discussion.

Blog: http://mikesundy.blogspot.com
Twitter: @mike_sundy
Books: http://legbug.com

Daily Dialogue theme for next week: Pixar

April 16th, 2016 by

The Daily Dialogue theme for next week: Pixar!

As longtime GITS readers will know, I am pretty obsessed with Pixar. After all, it is the most successful movie studio in the history of the business in this regard: 16 of their 17 releases have opened at #1 at the box office. This reflects the fact they are master storytellers which is what really fuels my interest in them.

Therefore this week, we honor the men, women, and characters who make their creative home up in Emeryville, California. Let’s pick out 7 choice moments of memorable dialogue from Pixar movies.

The usual drill:

* Copy/paste dialogue from IMDb Quotes or some other transcript source.

* Copy/paste the URL of an accompanying video from YouTube or some other video source.

I’d also ask you to think about why the dialogue is notable. Is there anything about the dialogue which provides some takeaway related to the craft of writing? If so, feel free to lay that wisdom on us.

Consecutive days of Daily Dialogue posts: 2,893.

Be a part of the proud Daily Dialogue tradition, make a suggestion, and have your name emblazoned on a blog post which will forever hold a hallowed spot in the Go Into The Story archives!

Upcoming schedule of themes:

April 26-May 1: War
May 2-May 8: Brothers
May 9-May 15: Vixen
May 16-May 22: Celebration
May 23-May 29: Coen Brothers
May 30-June 5: Teacher
June 6-June 12: Dog
June 13-June 19: Stoned
June 20-June 26: First Date
June 27-July 3: Rant
July 4-July 10: Apology

Be sure to post your ideas for this week’s theme: Pixar.

Thanks to all you loyal Daily Dialoguers! You rock!

Video: “John Lasseter Looks Back on 30 Years of Pixar”

February 7th, 2016 by

Last week to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the founding of Pixar, the company put out this short video featuring John Lasseter, Walt Disney Animation and Pixar Studios Chief Creative Officer, and his reflections on why the studio has become so successful as a movie company:

An excerpt of Lasseter’s comments:

What makes a Pixar movie a Pixar movie. First its roots are based in the work of Walt Disney. Story is king. Story is the most important thing. You want it to really resonate with the audience… You want the movies to touch people. And that really is kind of a hallmark of Walt, make them funny, make them beautiful, make them scary, but in the end you want that heart of the movie to be so strong.

Story. Resonate. Touch people. Heart. It’s interesting. I have conversations with people who work in the movie and TV business all the time. They all want scripts with a strong story concept. Solid structure. Memorable scenes. And all the rest. However at the end of the day, perhaps the most important thing they’re looking for is this: They want to feel something.

So perhaps that’s a big reason why Pixar has been so successful. Guided by their own philosophy, they make movies with resonate with people and connect with them on an emotional level.

Something for writers to remember.

Video via the Walt Disney Company.

Video: “Pixar’s Tribute to Cinema”

January 10th, 2016 by

Arguably the most successful movie studio of all time, Pixar finds its storytelling inspiration from many sources… including cinema itself.

Via Jorge Luengo Ruiz.

That reminds me my popular 1 week Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling class returns starting Monday, January 25! Learn key storytelling themes and dynamics common to Pixar movies, and how we can use those to elevate our writing. I’m updating my lectures to include Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur. Lots and lots of new background articles and videos, along with my exclusive interview with Mary Coleman, head of the Pixar story department.

So if you’re a Pixar fan or just want to get better as a writer, you should check out my class. To find out more, go here.

“What makes every Pixar movie tick, in one chart”

November 26th, 2015 by

As loyal GITS readers know, I have an obsession with all things Pixar as they have proven themselves to be master storytellers. So I thought this infographic put together by some folks at Vox was worth highlighting:

PIXAR THEMES GRID

There are some insights to be gleaned here, but it’s a pretty surface level take on what Pixar does. Given the fact that every single Pixar movie has opened at #1, an unparalleled achievement, I’ve always contended writers should really study their approach to storytelling.

What would be ideal is if there were an 1-week online course which analyzed every single Pixar movie, digging into themes, characters, and story structures.

A class which featured interviews with members of the Pixar ‘braintrust’ and an exclusive Q&A with the head of the studio’s story department.

Lectures coming at the subject matter specifically from a writer’s perspective, identifying dynamics common to Pixar movies, as well as storytelling tips.

A class with a title like… Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling.

Hey, wait. I already created that class! And it’s proved to be hugely popular! What’s more, I will be offering it again in January 2016, updated to include this year’s Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur.

So yes, the chart above is helpful. But if you really want to immerse yourself in the Pixar mindset, join me in January for the next session of Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling.

For the Vox article, go here.

Andrew Stanton, Part 10: “The Clues to a Great Story” (TED Talk)

September 11th, 2015 by

Last week, I brought up the Andrew Stanton TED Talk from 2012 in the context of a discussion about storytelling. It reminded of how great his presentation was. So great, when I went into the archives to check the series I ran at the time, I had actually taken the time to transcribe the entire 19-minute talk. So for the next two weeks, I will reprise that series from one of the principal figures in the phenomenon which is Pixar Animation Studios.

A few weeks back our featured video interview was a TED Talk given by Andrew Stanton, one of the key members of Pixar’s ‘brain trust’ whose screenwriting credits include Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Wall-E and the current live action movie John Carter which he also directed [along with A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo and Wall-E].

The subject of the TED Talk: “The Clues to a Great Story.” Given the success of Pixar and Stanton’s participation in it, I decided to produce a transcription of the entire 19-minute presentation. I will be posting it segment by segment for the next week or so because Stanton packed a lot of big ideas into his short talk.

Today: Part 10.

When I was 4 years old, I have a vivid memory of finding two pinpoint scars on my ankle and asking my dad what they were, and I had a matching pair on my head, but I couldn’t see them because of my hair. He explained when I was born, I was born premature, that I came out much too early, and I wasn’t fully baked. I was very, very sick. And when the doctor took a look at this yellow kid with black teeth, he looked straight at my mom and said, “He’s not gonna live.”

I was in the hospital for months. And many blood transfusions later, I lived. And that made me special.

I don’t know if I really believe that. I don’t know if my parents really believe that. But I didn’t want to prove them wrong.

Whatever I ended up being good at, I would strive to be worthy of the second chance I was given.

[Scene from Finding Nemo where the shark has eaten Marlin’s wife and all the eggs… but he discovers one: “I promise I will never let anything happen to you… Nemo.”]

That’s the first story lesson I ever learned. Use what you know. Draw from it. Doesn’t always mean plot or fact. It means capturing a truth from your experience, expressing values you personally feel deep down in your core.

And that’s what ultimately led me to speaking you here at TED talk today.

One thing:

* “That’s the first story lesson I ever learned. Use what you know. Draw from it. Doesn’t always mean plot or fact. It means capturing a truth from your experience, expressing values you personally feel deep down in your core”: Per Stanton’s own life-story, how as a child he barely survived, the power of that experience infused the basic premise and overall plot of Finding Nemo. Above and beyond how tremendous the movie’s plot and characters are, perhaps no dynamic helps to elevate the story in the hearts of viewers than this point of emotional resonance: We want to protect those whom we love. But life is uncertain. Overprotectiveness does not facilitate living, it suffocates opportunities. We need to embrace the possibilities life brings, both positive and negative. For we can only find our true humanity [and fishhood] through confronting risks.

I love TED Talks. Sometimes, however, I discover that after watching a video, I can barely remember anything of substance. That’s why I took the time to transcribe Stanton’s words, to give us all a chance to reflect on the many big ideas Stanton laid out in his talk.

For Part 1 of Stanton’s TED Talk, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

For Part 3, go here.

For Part 4, go here.

For Part 5, go here.

For Part 6, go here.

For Part 7, go here.

For Part 8, go here.

For Part 9, go here.

I hope you have enjoyed this series.

Andrew Stanton, Part 9: “The Clues to a Great Story” (TED Talk)

September 10th, 2015 by

Last week, I brought up the Andrew Stanton TED Talk from 2012 in the context of a discussion about storytelling. It reminded of how great his presentation was. So great, when I went into the archives to check the series I ran at the time, I had actually taken the time to transcribe the entire 19-minute talk. So for the next two weeks, I will reprise that series from one of the principal figures in the phenomenon which is Pixar Animation Studios.

A few weeks back our featured video interview was a TED Talk given by Andrew Stanton, one of the key members of Pixar’s ‘brain trust’ whose screenwriting credits include Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Wall-E and the current live action movie John Carter which he also directed [along with A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo and Wall-E].

The subject of the TED Talk: “The Clues to a Great Story.” Given the success of Pixar and Stanton’s participation in it, I decided to produce a transcription of the entire 19-minute presentation. I will be posting it segment by segment for the next week or so because Stanton packed a lot of big ideas into his short talk.

Today: Part 9.

When I was 5, I was introduced to possibly the most major ingredient that I feel a story should have, but is rarely invoked. This is what my mother took me to when I was 5:

[Scene from Bambi where she and Thumper are on the ice for Bambi’s first time]

I walked out of there wide-eyed with wonder. That’s what I think the magic ingredient is, the secret sauce: Can you invoke wonder? Wonder is honest, it’s completely innocent, it can’t be artificially evoked. For me, there’s no greater ability than the gift of another human being giving you that feeling. To hold them still for a brief moment in their day and have them surrender to wonder.

When it’s tapped, the affirmation of being alive almost reaches you to a cellular level. And when an artist does that to another artist, it’s like you’re compelled to pass that on. It’s like a dormant command that’s suddenly activated in you like a call to Devils’ Tower, do unto others what’s been done to you.

The best stories infuse wonder.

One thing:

* “The best stories infuse wonder”: When I experience a truly great story, I am in wonder. Of the events in the story itself. Of the characters. But also of the mastery with which the writers and filmmakers did their job. Watching a great movie redefines the word ‘wonderful’: Our experience is full of wonder.

For Part 1 of Stanton’s TED Talk, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

For Part 3, go here.

For Part 4, go here.

For Part 5, go here.

For Part 6, go here.

For Part 7, go here.

For Part 8, go here.

Tomorrow the last excerpt, Part 10.

Andrew Stanton, Part 8: “The Clues to a Great Story” (TED Talk)

September 9th, 2015 by

Last week, I brought up the Andrew Stanton TED Talk from 2012 in the context of a discussion about storytelling. It reminded of how great his presentation was. So great, when I went into the archives to check the series I ran at the time, I had actually taken the time to transcribe the entire 19-minute talk. So for the next two weeks, I will reprise that series from one of the principal figures in the phenomenon which is Pixar Animation Studios.

A few weeks back our featured video interview was a TED Talk given by Andrew Stanton, one of the key members of Pixar’s ‘brain trust’ whose screenwriting credits include Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Wall-E and the current live action movie John Carter which he also directed [along with A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo and Wall-E].

The subject of the TED Talk: “The Clues to a Great Story.” Given the success of Pixar and Stanton’s participation in it, I decided to produce a transcription of the entire 19-minute presentation. I will be posting it segment by segment for the next week or so because Stanton packed a lot of big ideas into his short talk.

Today: Part 8.

Before I decided to make storytelling my career, I can now see key things that happened in my youth that opened my eyes to certain things about story.

In 1986 I truly understood the notion of story having a theme. That was the year they restored and re-released Lawrence of Arabia. I saw that thing seven times in one month. I couldn’t get enough of it. I could just tell there was a grand design under it – in every shot, every scene, ever line. Yet on the surface, it just seemed to be depicting his historical lineage of what went on. Yet there was something more being said, what exactly was it. It wasn’t until one of my later viewings when the veil was lifted. It was in a scene where he walked across the Sinai desert and he’s reached the Suez Canal, and I suddenly got it.

[Scene from Lawrence of Arabia where a driver from across the Suez Canal calls out to Lawrence twice: “Who are you?”]

That was the theme: “Who are you?” Here were all these seemingly disparate events and dialogue that were just chronologically telling the history of him, but underneath it was a constant, a guideline, a road map. Everything Lawrence did in that movie was an attempt to figure out his place in the world.

A strong theme is always running through a well-told story.

A few things:

* “I saw that thing seven times in one month”: You want to be a successful screenwriter? That is the kind of passion you need for the craft, to see a movie seven times in thirty days.

* “That was the theme: ‘Who are you?'”: Literally dozens of memorable scenes in Lawrence of Arabia and I don’t even remember this one. Yet Stanton is right: There’s the central question of the movie, tied to the Protagonist’s issue of self-identity, torn between two worlds. Two points here: (1) Keep your eyes peeled because you never know where you might find something of enormous meaning and potential value to you as a storyteller. (2) I think it’s fair to say that most movies have as a key dynamic the question of a major character’s identity, their attempt to discover who they are.

* “A strong theme is always running through a well-told story”: Absolutely. But then again… what does he mean by ‘theme’? What does anybody mean when they use that word? In my years of learning and practicing this craft, I have found that theme is perhaps the single most confused and confusing aspects of what we do. SHAMELESS PLUG: That’s why you should take my upcoming Core VII: Theme class which covers the subject in a way I’ve never seen before, actually makes sense, and provides you with a set of tools to discern and use themes to enhance your stories.

For Part 1 of Stanton’s TED Talk, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

For Part 3, go here.

For Part 4, go here.

For Part 5, go here.

For Part 6, go here.

For Part 7, go here.

Tomorrow: Part 9