This last week, I had the opportunity to see a special 20th anniversary screening of Toy Story that included a presentation with Pixar’s leading innovators: John Lasseter, Ed Catmull, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Doctor. Throughout the presentation, the group discussed the company’s early history and how they revolutionized the digital animation industry. Yet, as the group talked, they revealed more and more that the main goals of the company were not to accomplish technological feats, but to be master storytellers. As someone that indulges in the story of a film above all else, I was intrigued that such a technologically advanced company prided themselves more on their creativity than on their visuals. It is a real shame that the event was not recorded for public viewing, because the insight that was given by this group of gentleman is something that every filmmaker (and film lover) should have the opportunity to hear. With that being said, in this week’s article, I am going to summarize the group’s two hour presentation by discussing three important ideas the company learned while making Toy Story, which they have continued to use to drive the success of the company for the last 20 years. These three ideas about story are 1) don’t worry that your technology will look dated in a few years (if the story is good, people will not care), 2) main characters are boring if they do not have flaws, and 3) do not pander to a certain demographic; if the story is good, the right audience will find it.
One of the biggest themes of the group’s presentation was to not put constraints on your ideas when you are making your story. Often in the animation world, the story tends to cater around the technological status of the time, and because of this, certain ideas might not make it past the drawing board (pun intended). This is because it may be unclear how to make an idea happen, and worries about if the technology backing the idea will look dated in a few years time. Very early on, the group at Pixar thought about this concept and dealt with it in a way that is very supportive of creativity. Instead of worrying about the technology behind an idea, the writers of the film determined that no matter how much they tailored the story of the film to fit the technology present at the time, the film would one day look archaic no matter what. Because of this thought process, the group came up with the idea that as long as they made a story that people loved, people would still appreciate the film, regardless of how it would look compared to the future’s standards. If more filmmakers went into their project thinking about the story before the effects, the film industry would have much more compelling films. Presently, there are too many big budget blockbusters that are just eye candy the viewer forgets about as soon as they see the next blockbuster. The fact that Toy Story has been able to stand the test of time and still be admired 20 years after its release proves that Pixar’s idea of “story before visuals” is the correct model to use when making a film. Interestingly, this concept that Lasseter and his team lived by was not their own idea, or that of any other filmmaker. Apple Inc. founder Steve Jobs, who actually owned Pixar from 1986-2006, created this idea. Lasseter explained that Jobs once told him that the lifespan of the average computer was, at best, 3 years. The group applied this idea to film, and realized that if you make a film that is special, it can last forever.
When Toy Story was in development in the 90’s, animation was going through a renaissance, thanks in part to the musical animations Disney was making, including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Pocahontas. While all of these films were profitable and culturally successful, their stories were far from extraordinary. The biggest draw of these films was the elaborate musical numbers, which allowed for great marketing to younger audiences who would ask to see it over and over just to hear their favorite song. In shorter terms, these films were not attempting to create a great story, but aimed to be entertaining enough, until the next Disney film could come out. Pixar saw these films as extremely boring because the main characters of the films were not the most interesting ones in the story; instead, they were always the “good guy” who, at the end of the film, finally found the strength to beat the “bad guy.” The real entertainment in these films came from the side characters, which were often morally questionable at times, but by far more relatable. In order to challenge this status quo and make more interesting main characters, Pixar set out to create characters that did not always have the best intentions, but were likeable because the audience could understand what drove them to do what they do. This idea is clearly observable in Toy Story, when Woody attempts to knock Buzz behind the bed so Andy would play with Woody instead. While clearly Woody is wrong in this situation, the audience sympathizes with him, as everyone understands the pain of feeling abandoned. When the audience is given characters that deal with the same struggles they do, it is extremely easy for the audience to form deep emotional bonds with the characters, which contributes to a much more engaging story that audiences will come back to.
The last point that the group talked about was actually something that they learned through failure. They learned that when developing your story, you should not attempt to tailor the story to one particular group that you think might be interested in the story, because the story will not feel organic. Instead, make the story you want, and if it is good enough, the right audience will find it. Pixar actually experienced this problem first hand during the production of Toy Story. When Disney first saw the script for the film, they wanted Pixar to rewrite parts of it so it would be “edgy” enough to appeal to both young kids and teenagers. Since Pixar was reliant on Disney to distribute the film, they had no choice but to oblige, and give Disney what they wanted. The result of these decisions formed a horrendous version of Toy Story where Woody was an absolutely unlikeable character that spent most of the film berating the other toys with insults. Once Disney saw what had happened to the story as a result of their recommendations, they allowed the team at Pixar to make their vision of the film, instead of forcing it to appeal to a predetermined audience. This decision allowed Toy Story to become the classic that audiences fell in love with.
All in all, it is pretty safe to say that the team over at Pixar definitely knows what they are talking about in terms of story writing. The three ideas that they discussed at their presentation allowed the company to make over a dozen highly successful films in the span of just 20 years. If more production companies operated the same way that Pixar does, the story element of film would become dynamic, and quality films would flourish. If you have not yet done so, check out the entire library of films Pixar has made. While some are better than others, you will not be disappointed with any that you spend the time to watch.
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