Sunday, October 22, 2006

Screenwriting Expo 5 -- Pixar Storytelling 1

Steve and I shared a pass to the Screenwriting Expo 5, and I used it Saturday to spend the day (and it was the entire day) listening to top Pixar creatives discussing their process of story collaboration and creation.

As you can see from the list of speakers and panelists (click the link above), there were a lot of uber-talented Pixarians talking and sharing insights. For me the hightlight was Andrew Stanton's keynote talk about his "Journey of Pain," in which he gave an well-organized talk about some of what he's learned as he's become a screenwriter. Here are some of the highlights of Andrew's talk . . .

First he stared with an vulgar and hilarious joke, which I won't repeat here, but which served to make his point that Storytelling is joke-telling. Or, as David Mamet wrote, storytelling is no different from gossip -- we want to know what happens. The joke or story, and the way it's told, are important . . . but we want to know what happens. And the payoff should be unexpected and satisfying. And, more importantly for the writer, one should know that punchline as one is writing.

Then he gave the keys for why he thinks Pixar creates such great stories:

-- No politics

-- No studio execs

-- It's a director-driven studio, with a stable "brain trust" for oversight

-- Only in-house original ideas are used, with a 1:1 ratio between developed ideas and films made

-- It's fairyland (this was the comment made by a live-action writer at a previous event at which Andrew was speaking, to contrast Pixar from the way every other studio works

In 1992, when he first got the chance to do a story from whole cloth, he was somewhat overwhelmed and intimidated by the task. Then he saw a particular scene in Ryan's Daughter, after which "the clouds parted" regarding movie storytelling. He then understood it's about audience participation -- that a good storyteller makes the viewer connect the dots and form a conclusion. This was a recurring theme, that the audience has an unconscious desire to work for their entertainment.

He then emphasized a point that I think most screenwriters ignore, that Screenwriting is not writing. A screenplay is an intermediary form, a kind of cinematic dictation. I think this is abundantly clear to those of us in animation, where so much of a film is built, piece by piece, by talented people in a number of disciplines.

He described the list of rules they started Toy Story with (you've probably seen this elsewhere -- no songs; no "I want" moment; no love story; no happy village; no villian), and how at an early story screening at Disney, a top lyricist who was then working with Disney gave a list of notes calling for every single element on that list. The message was to dare to be different, and to do things your own way, without relying on formulas.

A key to a great story is to like your main character. Initially Woody was a selfish, abrasive a-hole. He assumed that, since he was going to have a story-arc in which he would change, that this wasn't a problem. But the film didn't work (he proved the point with an early story reel, complete with Tom Hanks' dialogue, that was painful to watch) until he understood that "like" means "empathize" -- that even if Woody was a jerk and selfish, that the audience had to empathize with him.

This led to the idea of Unity of Opposites -- characters need clear goals that directly oppose each other. Woody's selfish goal, to get back in Andy's good graces, directly opposed Buzz's goal.

Writing is rewriting -- the story will emerge as one rewrites, and the first draft is always nothing more than a starting point. Therefore, "be wrong as fast as you can" -- blast out that first draft, then dig into the rewriting and do the real work.

Building a scene -- you need to have something to say, something that gives the scene purpose. This is not necessarily a message, but a truth (which you can debate in the story). The example here was the scene of Woody in the crate at Sid's house. He begins by giving a phoney pep talk to Buzz, but as the scene unfolds he reveals the truth that he is deeply insecure. This unfolding truth is what powers that sequence.

Story Physics-- this was a tag that sounded very specific (and the audience really wanted some genuine story formulas here), but what he referred to was more the underlying and seemingly contradictory truths which often thwart or drive character's behaviors, like "If you really love something you'll let it go," or "If you really want to sell someone something you have to not care if they'll buy it."

Key Image -- a key image should epitomize the core of the story (this is similar to what I've read from Stanley Kubrick). This image embodies key elements of theme and story and helps keep the storytelling on track. As examples, he showed the image of Woody being knocked off the bed for Buzz, of Sully holding Boo's hand in a doorway, of the last vulnerable egg in Finding Nemo. And he noted that A Bug's Life didn't have such an image, causing him to struggle with finding the heart and a core of the story.

Eventually, during a story screening of A Bug's Life he realized that the initial main character, "Red" (a red ant who owned the circus and was something of a con man), was unsympathetic, and his actions late in the film unbelievable. It became clear to him that Flik, a relatively minor character, needed to be the lead. And the rest was history.

Given that this is already a fairly long post, and I have more notes than time to transcribe them right, I'll post this first segment now and put up the second part tomorrow. I saw lots of animation pros in the audience, so anyone who was there feel free to chime in with your highlights in the comments section . . .


Rocco said...

I'd like to express my appreciation to you and Steve for this blog, and posts like these. It's great to have extra sets of eyes and ears out there in the industry to help me stay informed.

I also enjoy the entertaining historical posts, particularly the interviews with animation veterans.


Kevin Koch said...

It's always nice to get positive feedback, Rocco, so thanks for that.

Dan said...

Hey kevin

I too was at the lectures by Pixar guys, and will be putting together my own posts over the next few days. Hopefully, a few more people will do the same so that all everyone who missed it will have a chance to see what it was all about.

It's a real shame that recorders weren't allowed in, nor are that making an audio cd available for purchase. Between Andrew Stanton and Michael Arndt, there was a great amount of info between the two.

Anyways, looking forward to your next post.


Anonymous said...

I also attended and want to thank you for taking notes! I was a bit too
shortsighted to do so myself. I do however remember that Andrew made reference
to a few of his favorite resources such as The Spoon River Anthologies for
character design ideas. Did anyone make note of any of his other references?

Dan said...

He also referenced

the Art of Dramatic Writing by, I think, Lajos Egri.

David Mamet in general

Robert Mckee


Sandy Mackendrick

Anonymous said...

Great talk! Great notes! Thanks Kevin!

I heard that a DVD of the talks will be available in December.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Kevin! Stanton's opening joke made me laugh so hard, I forgot to take notes during the first 15 minutes. So I'm glad you did.

Another book reference he made was American Pastoral by Philip Roth.

Anonymous said...

With all due respect to the fine folks up at Pixar, there ain't no such thing as "No politics." :-)

Where there's people, there's politics.

Anonymous said...

This is a great summary so far of Stanton's talk. It was, for me, by far the most inspiring of the day. I'm glad to have such a great summary of it in order to help cement it in my head.

Anonymous said...

It'd be great to have a DVD of these panels, if for no other reason so that those of us who were in the overflow rooms can hear what the people with the barely-functioning mics during the second and third panels had to say. The venue managed to correct the problem for most of the second panel, but the third panel was a disaster. We could only hear half the panel.

Anonymous said...

It was awesome listening to Pixar kiss their own asses all day long.. They're good at making movies but come on Pixar show some humility... The only saving grace was "King Ego" of the "BrainClick" Andrew Stanton had some good info, as well Michael Arndt was very informative...

Anonymous said...

It's not unlike the hubris which pervaded Walt Disney Feature Animation right before their dramatic fall.

Then, as now, the principals involved had all the box office justification in the world for their self-congratulatory "can-do-no-wrong" perspective, and couldn't imagine the turn of events in store for them. :-)

Those who have never gone through a full cycle like to believe that they are immune to cycles, but what goes up inevitably comes down.

Anonymous said...

Sincere thanks for the entertaining and knowledge packed post!

Kevin Koch said...

Anon # 1, I had exactly the same thoughts, 'though Pixar does seem to have less of the noxious politics than most studios.

Anon #2, the problem with the microphones was that many of the panelists were too shy or polite to really grab 'em. Even when the microphones were pushed close to some speakers, they would still pull back till they could barely be heard. It did help to have a good seat in the room where they were speaking.

To everyone, when I get home tonight I'll put up the second half of Andrew Stanton's talk. Glad you're enjoying it so far.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the insight.

Anonymous said...

"Only in-house original ideas are used"

I clearly remember Brad Bird saying that the idea and characters for The Incredibles had been developed in the early to mid 90's and was even pitched to WB at one point. Yes, it was his own idea and it came to fruition at PIXAR, but it's life surely began outside of PIXAR.

Luca Tieri said...

Really interesting post, thanks for sharing stuff like this.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Pixar was tooting their own horns. They got asked to speak, so they told the truth. It might not have been what everyone wanted to hear, but that's all they know. And they're not stupid; they know when to keep their secrets sacred (e.g. when Stanton was talking about finding the right voice cast, I had a feeling he might go into what talent might not have worked so well, but he didn't). However, I did hear a recently retired Pixar worker (who was sitting next to me) laugh when Stanton mentioned there wasn't politics. And no, I didn't believe that, either, and I'm a pretty hard-core Pixar pusher.

PLEASE don't forget to mention 2+2!! I think that was one of the most important concepts Stanton talked about on Saturday.

And yes, I was in the room and I couldn't hear the panelists half the time. Some of them needed to move closer to the mic.

Brad said...

I felt that the Pixar team was just excited about how their studio works and seemed eager to spread the word so that maybe such structures could work in other kingdoms. During the talks they hinted at a number of times where story was a major obstacle.
In fact Stainton said that he really didn't know what he was doing. Lee Unrich suggested that writing has been a tough issue at the studio, and that was clearly why they hired Mike Arndt the screenwriter of "little Miss Sunshine" to analize future projects. Brad Bird also suggested something similar when he announced that he had completely rewritten the entire script for Ratatouille when he took over its direction.

Kevin Koch said...

Melissa, I mentioned "2+2" in my second post here. Check it out.

Brad, I had a very different reaction to Mike Arndt's lunchtime talk than I did to Andrew Stanton's morning session. I'm not sure I should post on it, since I disagreed with a lot of it (and because my notes are much less detailed). I might just leave things at the end of Andrew's talk, unless people want me to post about the rest of the day.

Andrew Chan said...

thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

The comment about making the audience work for their entertainment reminds me of a favorite quote from Truffaut, "Filmmaking is the art of leading the thoughts and connotations of the audience." In the Pixar sense, the film leads them but does not fully disclose the meaning, the viewer has to make the final leap to their own meaning.

Anonymous said...

Kevin, Anon #2 here.

The problem with the mics wasn't the shyness of the users; it was a bad audio mix that got progressively worse as it moved down the panel table. The audio folks clearly knew it was an issue when they brought in the wireless mics during the second panel. Suddenly, we could hear the speakers, yet their approach to the mics wasn't any different. In short, you're wrong.

And, with all due respect, if you had a seat in the main room, you have no clue what it was like trying to hear what was being said over the simulcast in the overflow rooms.

Anonymous said...

I wonder why folks who think Pixar spent the day "kissing their own asses" invested the time, money, and effort to attend the panels. The day was billed as Pixar describing their story process, which they did. Those who feel they were self-aggrandizing obviously had an agenda going in.

samacleod said...

Awesome notes! Really great reading. Jerm, over at has a bunch of drawings from the event, you should check out!

Can't wait for the rest of the notes ! ! !

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