Pixar Story Telling Secrets

Why does Pixar consistently put out quality movies while other studios churn out movies in a hit or miss affair? The answer lies in Pixar’s story telling secrets.

Pixar has an incredible track record of successful stories. Their movies are consistently entertaining and interesting, while their competitor’s films are often uneven and haphazard. One universal guideline that Pixar follows is to make the story organic. In other words, no jokes that require outside information that isn’t supplied by the film itself.

For example, in “Up,” the old man is already established as kind of cranky but not necessarily mean. So when Russell the Wilderness Scout, clings to his porch for dear life while the house is flying in the air, Russell asks the old man if he can come in and the old man curtly replies, “No,” and slams the door shut.

Now contrast that with Dreamworks’ Madascar film where the lion is trying to build a signal that accidentally burns to the ground, and he’s left pounding his paw in the sand in imitation of Charleton Heston in the original “Planet of the Apes.”

What’s that? You never saw the original “Planet of the Apes”? Well then that joke means nothing and won’t advance or clarify the story one bit. Even if you had seen “Planet of the Apes,” that joke still isn’t that funny and still does nothing to advance the story or clarify the plot.

So while Dreamworks often wastes their time with outside joke references that serve no purpose other than to lamely reach for a laugh, Pixar keeps all of the humor derived from the story and the characters themselves. “Keep the story organic,” is how one Pixar executive said it.

By making a story clearly understandable to everyone, Pixar increases the chance that they’ll get a laugh and further the plot. By reaching for outside references, Drreamworks often fails to create a compelling story and create a lame reference that many people will probably miss.

Some other Pixar guidelines are as follows:

  • Empathize with your main character, even if you don’t like all of his/her motivations or qualities. (For example, Woody in “Toy Story” initially masked his selfish desires as being selfless.)
  • Unity of opposites. Each character must have clear goals that oppose each other.
  • You should have something to say. Not a message, per se, but some perspective, some experiential truth.
  • Have a key image, almost like a visual logline, to encapsulate the essence of the story; that represents the emotional core on which everything hangs. (For example, Marlin in “Finding Nemo”, looking over the last remaining fish egg in the nest.)
  • Cast actors with an appealing voice, and whom the microphone loves. Test their voice performance with animation to see if it fits.
  • Know your world and the rules of it. (Such as in “Monsters, Inc.”)
  • The crux of the story should be on inner, not outer, conflicts.
  • Developing the story is like an archeological dig. Pick a site where you think the story is buried, and keep digging to find it.
  • Animation should be interpretive, not realistic.
  • “Just say no” to flashbacks. Only tell what’s vital, and tell it linearly.
  • Consider music as a character to anchor the film. Music is a keeper of the emotional truth.

Flashbacks don’t work because they yank an audience out of one story and plop them in the middle of another one. A better use is to tell a story sequentially so the audience grows and learns along with the character, such as in the life story of the old man in “Up.”

Another key idea is to imprint an iconic image of your story in the audience’s mind. In “Finding Nemo,” that image is when Marlin is protecting the last egg, which emphasizes how Marlin is trying to protect his son throughout the entire story.

In bad movies, you’ll often hear characters tell each other something in dialogue to emphasize what the movie is about, but listening is inferior to seeing in movies, so create a visual image that lets the audience reach the conclusion for themselves.

One final Pixar guideline is that audiences enjoy working and reaching conclusions on their own. Watching “The Incredibles,” we can see how each character evolves without anyone telling us. Think of watching a movie with the volume turned all the way down and see if your story would make sense visually. If not, find a way to make it more visual. Dialogue alone can’t compensate for visual images, but don’t mistake special effects for story telling either.

In “Transformers,” the whole movie revolves around the special effects, which is like people watching the first movies just for the novelty of watching a train on a movie screen. Special effects are always a complement to your story, never a substitute. “Transformers” makes us just sit there and watch a spectacle unfold without any active involvement on our part. We’re just spectators.

Special effects are meant to enhance a story. We want to be active participants in creating a story, not just mindless spectators watching one visual effect after another. There’s nothing substantial about watching a fireworks display, but it can be fun anyway. When people get done watching your movie, do you want them to forget about it as quickly as a fireworks display, or do you want them to come away with a deeper sense of meaning and emotional satisfaction? The choice is yours.

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