Pixar and Storytelling

posted in: Creation, Dave, JustPlainCool, Writing | 0

This was posted recently.  A lesson series on storytelling by Pixar, at the Kahn Academy.

Pixar is the gold standard of storytelling.  Anything they can share about their approach to storytelling has immense value to storytellers.

I found the intro for this lesson series very interesting.  And am looking forward to the whole thing.  But I wanted to talk a little about this one bit that I linked to.

The link goes to Peter Docter, talking about Monsters Inc.  I want to link to it because it specifically highlights something that comes up *all the time* in questions from would-be writers.

Docter talks about how he pitched Monsters Inc. as a story of a monster whose job is to scare kids, for a living.  Union dues, break time, and so on.  He goes on to talk about how, when they started to actually sketch this ‘story’ out more fully so they could look at it (i.e, 1st draft in writer speak, or even outlined in Zero draft form), they realized that while the idea was funny, there was no actual story in it.  That it was flat.  That it wasn’t working.

Then he mentions he found the heart, the *story*, when he figured out Monsters Inc. is actually about becoming a father.

Think about that, new and would-be writers.  Superficially, Monsters Inc. looks like it’s about what Docter’s initial pitch says it is.  But look closer, especially if you haven’t before.  The movie’s arc is carried by exactly what he says; it’s about Sulley and Mike (more Sulley than Mike IMO) becoming parental figures (of a sort) to Boo.

Sulley and Boo’s interactions are what make it a *story*.  What give it an arc, carry the funny idea of “monsters scare kids for a living.”  The idea is just *setting*.  Background.  Framing plot.  The story is what carries the movie, makes it watchable and timeless.  Make it something that people latch onto and love.

Find the core, find the story, and then you can write it.  Until you have that arc, that emotional arc your protagonist(s) are going through, everything else has no chance.

And remember, this example is Pixar we’re talking about.  Casual fans, those who never think about the craft of storytelling, usually might think a little about how “Pixar movies are sweet and touching” but more often people tend to think about Pixar’s technology.  How they keep pushing the bounds of animation.

Movies and filmmaking make a really easy example of the trap a lot of would-be writers fall into; thinking bling, flash, stylish idea, lots of excitement and drama, can cover up for a lack of story.  Hollywood commits this error constantly, since they’re in a position to keep throwing tens of millions of dollars into effects and sets and actors, into hiring new writers and producers and whoever to add gags and stunts and pithy dialogue, into marketing to create WOW-OH-WOW trailers to get people in the theater opening weekend.

Would-be writers don’t have tens of millions of dollars to throw at their books, but they commit the same error a lot, in the same ways.  Constantly.  More constantly in fact.  Without the story, the would-bes will keep looking for clever dialogue, turns of phrase.  They’ll struggle to block out and carve into their ‘story’ neat set piece scenes that they hope will read cool and exciting and dramatic and so on.  They pour pages, chapters, into world building thinking all this neat/cool/dramatic/whatever stuff they’ve built for the setting will amaze and delight.

None of it helps without the story.  Because story’s what audiences latch onto.  Story’s what makes a story, a story.  Without that arc, without the story, it’s just a book that few, if any, will read.

As an aside to Pixar’s technology though, as it relates to storytelling.  Apropos of nothing, Pixar’s actually always used their technology to assist their storytelling.

One of the reasons Toy Story’s about toys is they could count on 1993-94-95 CGI techniques to make CGI toys look like toys, but humans and other more real things would look odd.  Finding Nemo didn’t happen until they were confident they could do animals and underwater scenes well.  Brad Bird with The Incredibles more or less ordered (and it worked, because they found a way to do it) the animation teams to figure out how to do long flowing hair, because Violet’s long hair was actually a critical core element to the *story*.

Writers have infinite power on the page, but there’s still a parallel lesson from animation as it affects storytelling to writing as it affects storytelling.  Do what you can do, when you can do it.  Don’t set out to try for the gold standard holy grail of storytelling.  Which is another trap would-be writers fall into.  It’s okay to start “small”, to start “easy”, and build up.  Build up skills, build confidence, and grow into more complex and evolved forms of story.  Nothing says (not even you, so don’t listen to your ego when it lies to you) your first stories have to be timeless classics.  Work up to it.