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.


“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.


“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?

Pixar reveals plot details to its next movie “Inside Out”

May 27th, 2014 by

Via Pixar’s official website, this announcement yesterday:

From the tepuis of South America to a monster-filled metropolis, Academy Award®-winning director Pete Docter has taken audiences to unique and imaginative places. In 2015, he will take us to the most extraordinary location of all – inside the mind of an 11-year-old named Riley.

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 (Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). 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.

Director: Pete Docter
Co-Director: Ronnie del Carmen
Producer: Jonas Riveras

This seems like a really fun idea, a variation on the Angel and Devil trope:

Only in this case, these are physicalizations of human emotions, not supernatural figures, which should make the Protagonist’s experience more relatable to both kids and adults.

Also speaking as a parent, this seems like an excellent way to generate conversations with children about how to acknowledge and accept one’s feelings, but also learn how to control them as well.

Here’s a visual of the five emotion characters:

It seems like the story is putting the idea of psychology right out there on the table in plain view for audiences. Plus no shortage of conflict with five dynamics vying for control. Finally, it slots right into the way I teach screenwriting: How the screenplay universe is comprised of an External World and Internal World; how characters each wear ‘masks’, switching from one mode of being (archetype) to another; how Protagonists almost always start off in a state of Disunity and go through a metamorphosis-journey leading toward Unity.

In other words, I like this idea a lot, especially with Docter at the helm as he’s directed two of my very favorite Pixar films: Monsters, Inc. and Up.

Release date: June 19, 2015.

How about you? What are you thoughts about Inside Out?

“Creativity, Inc.”: New book on Pixar

April 23rd, 2014 by

I find Pixar fascinating. Not only because they have produced some of my favorite movies including Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Wall-E and Up, but because of how they do it, their utter and absolute commitment to story, and as I discovered in my interview with Mary Coleman, head of their story department, their affection for great characters.

So when I saw that Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios, had co-written a book called “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration” (published April 8th), I immediately zeroed in on it.

As a taste of what the book offers, here are some tidbits I’ve aggregated for you. First, there is a first-person piece by Catmull in Fast Company: Inside the Pixar Braintrust:

A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Our decision making is better when we draw on the collective knowledge and unvarnished opinions of the group. Candor is the key to collaborating effectively. Lack of candor leads to dysfunctional environments. So how can a manager ensure that his or her working group, department, or company embraces candor? By putting mechanisms in place that explicitly say it is valuable. One of Pixar’s key mechanisms is the Braintrust, which we rely on to push us toward excellence and to root out mediocrity. It is our primary delivery system for straight talk. The Braintrust meets every few months or so to assess each movie we’re making. Its premise is simple: Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid. The Braintrust is not foolproof, but when we get it right, the results are phenomenal.

While I attend and participate in almost all Braintrust meetings, I see my primary role as making sure that the compact upon which the meetings are based is protected and upheld. This part of our job is never done because you can’t totally eliminate the blocks to candor. The fear of saying something stupid and looking bad, of offending someone or being intimidated, of retaliating or being retaliated against–they all have a way of reasserting themselves. And when they do, you must address them squarely.


Candor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck. That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions really are. I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so–to go, as I say, “from suck to not-suck.”

Think about how easy it would be for a movie about talking toys to feel derivative, sappy, or overtly merchandise driven. Think about how off-putting a movie about rats preparing food could be, or how risky it must’ve seemed to start WALL-E with 39 dialogue-free minutes. We dare to attempt these stories, but we don’t get them right on the first pass. This is as it should be. Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process–reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its through line or a hollow character finds its soul.


You may be thinking, How is the Braintrust different from any other feedback mechanism?

There are two key differences, as I see it. The first is that the Braintrust is made up of people with a deep understanding of storytelling, who usually have been through the process themselves. While the directors welcome critiques from many sources, they particularly prize feedback from fellow storytellers. The second difference is that the Braintrust has no authority. The director does not have to follow any of the specific suggestions. After a Braintrust meeting, it is up to him or her to figure out how to address the feedback. Giving the Braintrust no power to mandate solutions affects the dynamics of the group in ways I believe are essential.

It’s interesting to read about this because over the years, I’ve stumbled into a similar approach I use with the writing workshops and classes I teach. I frame each session with my take on constructive critiques which summed up briefly is this:

* Critique the story elements, not the writer.

* Provide an honest assessment of the story elements.

* But also generate suggestions to improve the story.

Moreover when we workshop stories and I inevitably plunge into brainstorming, tossing out lots of ideas, I always say this: Any of my ideas, you are free to use or lose. Use them if they help your story. Lose them if they don’t. I have no ego. All I care about is the quality of your story. Ultimately it is up to the writer to decide.

A second article from Fast Company: Pixar’s Ed Catmull on How to Balance Art and Commerce:

With certain ideas, you can predict commercial success. So with a Toy Story 3 or a Cars 2, you know the idea is more likely to have financial success. But if you go down that path too far, you become creatively bankrupt, because you’re just trying to repeat yourself.

So we also want to do things that are unlikely, that are harder to solve. WALL-E, Ratatouille, and Up would all fail an elevator pitch. A rat that wants to cook does not sound like a commercial idea; you’re not going to generate toys out of that. A man nearing the end of his life goes off with a young Scout in this balloon. Where does that lead? Are you going to sell toy walkers? With such ideas, you start out knowing there’s a top to what you can get. So we try to strike a balance.

There’s a quote attributed to Charlton Heston: “The problem with movies as art is they are commerce.” Catmull’s observations echo that tension. What’s interesting to note is Pixar has an awareness of what they are doing with each of their stories. Some tilt more toward commerce like Cars 2. Others tilt more toward art like Up.

This is another perspective I’ve discovered on my own, reflected in this post: Write what they’re buying or sell them your dreams.

So I’m picking up “Creativity, Inc.” to see what else I can learn about Pixar… and maybe more about how my process is intuitively aligned with theirs!

More about “Creativity Inc.” here.

Michael Arndt: “Beginnings: Setting a Story Into Motion” (Part 2)

April 8th, 2014 by

I have been a big fan of screenwriter Michael Arndt ever since I read his script Little Miss Sunshine, then saw the movie. And, of course, there’s Toy Story 3 which Arndt penned. My admiration goes beyond his writing, it extends to how Arndt thinks about writing as clearly he has done a great deal of reflection about the craft. Fortunately for us, he has gone public with at least some of those thoughts. I have featured his ruminations multiple times through years including here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. So I was interested to see this recent blog post by John August referencing this video:

In his post, John wrote this:

When I saw this video, I immediately wondered what it was from. It’s clearly professionally made, so why is it on some random guy’s YouTube account?

I emailed Michael Arndt, who wrote back that it was originally a bonus feature on the Blu-ray for Toy Story 3. He gave me his blessing to link to it.

I’m aware the model I set up here applies imperfectly to TS3 itself. (It applies much more cleanly [for example] to TOOTSIE, which I consider one of the best comedy first acts of all time.) The broader point is that the emotional fuel for your first act break is largely set up in your inciting incident — and that is something that does apply to TS3.

Disney and/or Pixar own the copyright on the video, so they could pull it down. But I hope they won’t. This kind of lesson celebrates what’s made their films so successful, and deserves wider exposure.

Knowing the whims of the Internet gods, I forwarded the link to the video to my stalwart development assistant Wendy Cohen and she was kind enough to produce a transcript, so we would at least have Arndt’s words down in print in case the video got yanked.

While I encourage you to watch the video – which is great – I want to dig deeper into the content of what Arndt says. So I will divide his observations into two parts. The first part I posted here yesterday. Here is a transcript of the second half of the video:

So, you start with your main character, you have what they’re defined by, you have a hidden flaw, you establish storm clouds on the horizon, and then BA-BOOM! Something comes in and totally blows apart your hero’s life and turns it upside down. So in the case of “Toy Story,” Buzz arrives and Woody gets displaced. And in “Finding Nemo,” the barracuda shows up and Marlin’s family gets killed except this one last little egg. In “The Incredibles” Mr. Incredible saves this guy, but then he gets sued and superheroes get banned. And in each of these cases, if you go back and look at what their grand passion was: Woody being Andy’s favorite toy, Marlin and his family, Mr. Incredible being a superhero, that’s the thing that gets taken away from them. It totally changes your character’s sense of what his or her future’s gonna be. But that bolt from the blue isn’t enough on its own. It’s not enough just to ruin your character’s life and take away their grand passion and change their whole sense of what the future’s gonna be. You gotta add insult to injury. You gotta add something that’s gonna make the world seem a little bit unfair. So not only does Woody get replaced, but he gets replaced by this total doofus, this imbecile who doesn’t even know that he’s a toy and they get in this whole argument about whether Buzz can fly or not. And Buzz jumps and bounces and flies around the room, and all the other toys go “Oh my God, he really can fly.” And the key thing here is that everyone is impressed for the wrong reason. In the case of “Finding Nemo,” you don’t need to really add insult to injury. We already understand that the world Marlin lives in is unfair. But on the other hand, with “The Incredibles,” the reason superheroes get banned is because Mr. Incredible was trying to do the right thing.

So now, your main character’s life has changed, her grand passion has been taken away, the world has revealed itself to be unfair, and she comes to a fork in the road, and she’s gonna have to make a choice on how to deal with her new reality. There’s a high road to take: a healthy, responsible choice, or a low road to take and make an unhealthy irresponsible choice. And remember, if your character chooses to do the right thing, you really don’t have a story.

For Woody, the healthy choice is to say, “Look, I had my day in the sun. I was Andy’s favorite toy for a long time, and I have to cede the spotlight at a certain point.” But what happens is that Woody makes the unhealthy choice. Woody tries to push Buzz behind the desk. And the key thing here is that we’re rooting for Woody to do the unhealthy, irresponsible thing because we feel his pain at getting replaced. So your character’s unhealthy choice, Woody’s unhealthy choice, creates a crisis, Buzz getting pushed out the window, which leads to all the other toys confronting Woody and saying, “You can’t stay in Andy’s room until you go find Buzz and bring him back here safe and sound.” And that’s your first act break. You see a similar thing in “Finding Nemo” when Marlin finds Nemo at the edge of the open ocean. Marlin’s unhealthy choice, his overprotectiveness, comes out of his grand passion, his love for his son. And his unhealthy choice provokes a crisis: Nemo saying “I hate you,” swimming out to the boat to prove his independence, and then getting caught by the diver. And now Marlin has a goal that’s gonna take him all the way through the rest of the story. With “The Incredibles,” the responsible choice is for Bob to do what his wife tells him to do, “save the world one policy at a time,” but that would be boring, and you’d have no story. So, the irresponsible choice for Bob is to lie to his wife Helen and go moonlighting with his buddy Frozone. And we’re totally rooting for Bob to make the irresponsible choice, because we saw how much he loved being a superhero, we saw how good he was at it, and we saw how unfairly it was taken away from him. And that unhealthy choice — sneaking around — leads to a crisis — Mirage tracking him down — which leads to Symdrome bringing Bob on retirement and you’re off into your second act.

So, your story is coming out of your character’s deepest desires and their darkest fears. The thing they love gets taken away from them and the world is revealed to be unfair. To put things right, they have to make the journey that is the rest of the film. And by the end of the journey, hopefully they’ll not only get back what they lost, but they’ll be forced to fix that little flaw they had when we first met them. So, that’s what I learned at Pixar, and I’m not saying that all stories have to start this way, but if you’re writing a script and you’re having a hard time getting started, I hope these ideas are helpful.

This is an interesting insight. And it occurred to me you could apply this take to The Wizard of Oz. What’s Dorothy’s grand passion? Daydreaming about a better life ‘somewhere over the rainbow’. An orphan, she doesn’t feel like her home in Kansas is her home. When Miss Gulch takes away Toto, but the little dog scampers back home, Dorothy could take the high road: Do what is legal and return Toto to Miss Gulch. But, of course, she can’t do that, we all sympathize with her as she takes the low road: running away from home.

Once in Oz, her experiences there are in effect her grand passion — daydreaming about a better place — on steroids with several obstacles and tests along the way. By story’s end, she has overcome her “little flaw” by realizing: “There’s no place like home.”

I’m sure there are plenty of other movies where this approach works. However there are many movies where the setup is considerably different. Here’s how Joseph Campbell describes the beginning of The Hero’s Journey from the wonderful interview series he did with Bill Moyers, “The Power of Myth”:

The Hero is found in the ordinary world…
In ancient myths it used to be the cottage or village…
In films, it is usually the suburbs or common urban environment.

The Hero is making do, but feels something missing, a sense of discomfort or tension.
The Hero needs to change, even if they are unaware of that need.

Oftentimes in a story’s beginning, the Protagonist is not doing what they love most. Indeed, Campbell asserts the whole point of the Hero’s Journey is about transformation and that change is generally about the Protagonist finding their Authentic Self. As Ovid says, “The seeds of change lie within.” The Protagonist may begin the story just “making do,” so they need to change, “even if they are unaware of that need.”

Consider this Protagonist:

Young Luke Skywalker, stuck on the edge of the galaxy, working on a moisture farm. At the beginning of the story, he is doing anything but engaged in his grand passion. But the seeds of change lie within: He has Jedi blood coursing through his veins. And by story’s end, he finds his grand passion as he becomes in effect a Jedi, aligning himself with The Force to destroy the Death Star.

The lesson Arndt gives is a fantastic one, not only in the substance of the content, but in demonstrating how a professional writer thinks about crafting a story, engaged in looking at structure and characters within that structure. But as Arndt himself observes, “I’m not saying that all stories have to start this way.” It’s a reminder that the best stories feel organic, they have a soul and a heart, a spontaneity and surprise to them.

As Arndt points out, we have certain things we need to accomplish in a script’s first 25 pages or so, it’s hard to break away from those requirements, and there are certain patterns and paradigms we see in this or that type of story. But as the three examples Arndt refers to from Pixar demonstrate, it’s not just about an approach to structure, it’s about creating characters who make sense, who have multiple layers to their psyches, who have feelings we can understand and identify with, and who we care about enough to join them on their adventure, whether they are participating in their grand passion at the beginning, disconnected from their True Self and due for a change, or anywhere in between.

Let’s carry this conversation to comments (click on Reply). What do you think of this approach to a story’s beginning?

Michael Arndt’s IMDB page here.

Follow John August’s blog here.

Follow John and Craig Mazin’s podcast Scriptnotes here.