Why Pixar Makes Such Damn Good Films
Pixar films make us laugh, weep (we’re looking at you, Up), and cheer. They trigger our emotions in sudden and surprising ways. But the only reason they have such control over us - the only reason they are the puppeteers of our emotions - is because they make us care. It sounds like a simple task, but it’s the glue that holds their films together. Why else would we feel for a cranky curmudgeon? A jealous and forgotten toy? How can finding one little fish inspire us so deeply?
Well, the team at Pixar are experts of empathy. They know how to put us in someone else’s shoes.
So how do they do it? What is their process?
I recently had the opportunity to see Pixar writer and director Andrew Stanton speak in Toronto. He’s written everything from Toy Story to Monsters Inc., and has gone on to direct WALL·E and Finding Dory.
During his talk, Stanton outlined the storytelling process that was used on Finding Dory.
What’s most surprising is that you might already be in the middle of some of these steps yourself. Give these a try and you may open the door to a new and exciting means of exploring your next film.
1. THE ITCH
This is where it starts - the need to make something great. The compulsion to create. It’s the idea that won’t go away. An itch that needs scratching. You're probably thinking about it right now. This is the idea you'll bring to life.
2. THE BAKE
You’re knee deep in development, scratching away. You’ve gotten to the core of your idea. Now it’s time to stop and think - really think. Do you really want to get up day after day, month after month, year after year to work on this? There will inevitably be good days and bad days. You're going to feel empowered, and you're going to feel shitty. So figure this out before you go through with it. Test your idea against other successful ideas. How do you think it holds up? All good? Then it's time to make...
3. THE PITCH
Stanton had Pixar execs and team members to share his pitch for Finding Dory - a "Braintrust," as the Pixar team would say. If you don't have a Braintrust of your own, go your friends, your family, and collaborators. Even if they aren’t creators, they know what they like, what interests them, and what compels them to keep watching. Capitalize on that. Tell them the idea as if you've just seen it at the movie theatre. At a party? Try to keep your listeners in suspense. See what grabs them. Gathering feedback from others will be an important part of testing your new idea. If you’re not getting the response you hoped for, go back and strengthen it.
4. THE TREATMENT
For Stanton, his roughly 30-page treatment for Finding Dory explored the emotional journey of its main character and the changes she went through. It was broken down to scenes and beats, the key moments within the screenplay. Most treatments are just the scenes and actions that take place and the writers avoid heavy dialogue unless a certain and memorable line comes to mind. As an example, you can read James Cameron’s original treatment for The Terminator, here.
It took Stanton two months to create a treatment he was happy with. Some writers love treatments and outlines, others don’t. Explore what works for you.
5. THE SCRIPT
After an intensive three months of back-and-forth, constant questioning and tweaks, and an ocean’s worth of doubt, the Pixar team finished the first draft. Stanton noted that the script is “never enjoyable until you reach the destination”. There’s nowhere to hide when writing the script. If there are holes in your treatment or outline - something you originally missed or tried to run away from - you will be forced to confront them when you write the script. Stanton loves co-writing so that he has someone to bounce the story off of. Like many successful individuals, he believes you should surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.
6. TABLE READ
The Pixar team would sit down with the first draft script and discuss its strengths and weaknesses. Usually they would find something fundamentally wrong with the story and have to return to the original outline. Even the masters have difficulties.
It’s worth knowing that Stanton wasn’t the only one to do this in his creative process. In the early days of Star Wars, George Lucas would often sit down with his friends and read through the script together, which would offer a slew of notes that would help him improve it. And that’s just one of the many steps behind his own storytelling process.
Some writers like to have a theme in mind when approaching their stories, Stanton typically doesn’t. He prefers discovering it in the script as more drafts unfold and as he gets a deeper understanding of the characters and what the story is truly about.
In my own process, I find trying to force a theme bogs the process down - then my motivation suffers. I’ve come to accept that the first draft of anything is often rough, no matter how much you outline. Creating the first draft makes me more familiar with the characters, their personalities, and what they hope to achieve - both internally and externally. By the time I’ve gone through a draft or two, these elements come alive, and the theme often exposes itself, allowing me to strengthen it in future drafts.
So, six months in, Stanton and his team have created three drafts of Finding Dory. Five more months pass and they hit what he calls…
8. THE WALL
Every story hits this point. Something just isn’t working, but you’re not sure what it is. Stanton claims that this happens for each and every story he writes, no matter the stage of development.
By the time Pixar's team completed their 7th draft, they hit another wall. Not only that, they had three month to break through before the scheduled production began. By this point, it'd been three years since the original Finding Dory idea. You might be thinking, "Jeez, three years is a long time to be stuck in development." And you're right - it is.
Pixar has a very intentional process when figuring out their next big project. In short, they place great importance on a slow-burning, but meaningful pre-production stage. That's because sitting down, writing, and figuring out your story's flaws have lower costs than haphazardly moving into production. Essentially, you better be sure the story's going to be a success before moving into production, because going back to your crew and saying "oh wait, this actually needs to go a different direction" means losing a lot of money.
Similarly, there's no real rush during the dev stage in filmmaking. Get that story perfect, get the concept art ready, and get your storyboards to where you want them to be. Because past that, things are either permanent or expensive.
What helped the Pixar team move past the wall was finally recognizing that Dory’s handicap - her short term memory loss - was actually her superpower. Originally the writers employed it as a flaw, a problem that constantly plagued her, but it later became a tool for developing her character. Seeing through her eyes would make us sympathize. It would make us care. And throughout the film, Dory would be "finding herself" - hence the title.
They Made Us Care, the Pixar Way - now it's your turn
Think about it - through a practiced combination of words, almost like a math equation, Stanton and the writers figured out the equation to make us care. It didn't always add up, it wasn't always the sum of its parts, but they kept adding and subtracting until it did. Imagine how they felt when they nailed it, remember how it made you feel when you saw it, imagine how you can make others feel. All it takes is your words, and all they need is the proper order and guiding vision.
This is one storytelling process out of millions. Maybe yours is similar. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s a jigsaw puzzle of pieces you’ve picked up along the way. We're hoping some of these pieces will help you build something memorable. Something that will evoke wonder. Something that'll make us laugh, weep, and cheer. Something that will make us care.
Oh - and if you’re feeling like you need a bit more of Stanton’s storytelling wisdom, here’s a TED Talk that he did a few years back that include some more great tips.