The name Pixar is now synonymous with incredible storytelling and beautiful computer animation, but how did this little studio revolutionize animation and become the giant it is today?
John Lasseter always had a dream to push the limits of animation. He studied animation at Cal Arts, learning from Disney’s legendary 9 Old Men. Early into his career, Lasseter wanted to create a computer generated film. He was seen as a mad man, eventually losing his job at the Walt Disney Animation Studio.
Lasseter eventually met Ed Catmull, who wanted to build a computer that could make complex 3D images. Catmull had always wanted to work in animation, but felt he wasn’t a skilled artist. However he was a genius with computers. The two men were the foundation of Pixar.
In this origin story from Morr Merroz at Bloop Animation, you will see how Lasseter and Catmull would eventually join forces with Steve Jobs. The three of them struggled to get Pixar off the ground, but they did build the core of their animation rules. They wanted to make films that were different from the established animation style of Disney.
Pixar would push their stories to rely on the characters. There would be no singing, no happy villages, and no evil villain. How can you tell a story without a villain? Pixar explained their villain’s views, where the audience could relate and understand why they make the decisions they do. There are no characters that are evil just to be evil.
To find these stories, they take a deep look at the main character. Not only do they establish the character’s personality, but the search for his fears and challenges. What type of obstacles can they throw at a character, and how would they respond? Bloop Animation actually made an entire series about Pixar storytelling. Here we will see how the studio finds an idea and pushes it.
A former Pixar story artist, Emma Coats, tweeted out a series of things she had learned while at Pixar. One of which was this tweet regarding the characters.
Story basics #5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
— Emma Coats (@lawnrocket) March 26, 2011
Once there was an idea, Pixar created a cast of characters that perfectly complemented the story. Each character had a tremendous amount of depth. The same rule of no evil villains actually extends to all characters, good or bad. There are no characters that are just purely good. Every character has to experience all emotions, just like any person would. The audience needs to know a character’s values.
When it comes to the story itself, Emma Coats mentions a traditional improv technique.
This technique is called The Story Spine. It was created by improv actor and author Kenn Adams. Improv classes are actually offered on the Pixar campus, and are used to expose employees to this creative exercise. It also allows them to push forward with a story, even if they have no idea where it is going. Here is a look at the application of improv to the story structure of A Bug’s Life.
The next three points are what truly made Pixar stand out above other animated films, in fact it’s what made them great films in general. Now that there is an idea for a character and story, what happens when you poke holes in our story. How does the character handle challenges?
Story basics #6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
— Emma Coats (@lawnrocket) March 27, 2011
Story basics #21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way? #storybasics
— Emma Coats (@lawnrocket) May 1, 2011
Story basics #19: coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating. #storybasics
— Emma Coats (@lawnrocket) April 26, 2011
By challenging the character, you are also challenging yourself as a storyteller. In doing so, you are making both your film and skill better. Constantly refining your skill is what will make you a great filmmaker.
These are only some of the great Pixar videos from Morr Merroz at Bloop Animation. Be sure to check out their site and YouTube for more great animation resources. You can also see all of Emma Coat‘s tweets listed here.
Are you ready to throw challenges at your characters? Interested in more about Pixar? Let us know in the comments below.