When Toy Story opened in the US at the end of 1995, it was met with enthusiasm and great critical acclaim. The film would go on to be the highest-grossing film of the year. There was tremendous buzz (ahem) about the film before it arrived here in Japan a few months later. Much of the talk focused on the stunning 3-D animation and the remarkable technical achievements by Pixar to pull this movie off. I remember sitting in a movie theatre in the spring of 1996 in Osaka, Japan watching the film. I was a bit of a technology geek in those days so what propelled me to actually go see the film initially was the fact that it was the first truly digital animation feature film. And yet the thing that impressed me about the movie was that I soon forgot all about how the animation was created and just remembered being engaged by the story. I wanted to see the film again (and again). I thought it was perfect. Fast forward to today and I have seen every Pixar film ever made dozens of times. I have two small children who adore all the Pixar films and I don't mind watching along with them. If there was a degree given out for watching Pixar films, then I'd by working on my PhD by now.
I watch the films repeatedly because my kids ask to see them, and since our DVDs are in English the movies are more than mere entertainment. But truth be told, I love watching the Pixar films because I have learned so much about story structure, story elements, character, etc. simply by seeing them so many times and paying close attention. These films are designed for adults and kids to enjoy and you may not think there is much to learn from these animated features, but you'd be wrong. Lasseter has said that the first 18 months of working on Toy Story was spent laboring just on the script, that is, the story. The animation is awesome, but it's the story that hooks you, holds you, and rewards you at the end. And it is really, really hard to craft a good one.
There are many lessons from Pixar's prowess at storytelling that we can take and apply to other forms of storytelling, including the 21st-century short-form presentation format. At the end of this documentary on the making of Toy Story, filmed before the film was released, there is a great line by Pixar's now legendary John Lasseter:
"Everyone's going to talk about the fact that this is the very first computer animated feature film, but the computers are just tools [the computers] didn't create this picture, it's the people who created the picture." — John Lasseter
In spite of Pixar's amazing technology, there has always been a focus on the people creating the picture, the people in the audience, and above all, the commitment to the story and the story process.
Steve Jobs on Pixar, Hollywood, and Story
This is a great, short clip of Steve talking with Wall Street Journal columnists Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg back in 2007. In the clip Jobs tells how the typical live action film will shoot between 10- to one 100-times more footage than will actually appear in the film. After shooting, the film is assembled in editing, which leaves most of what was shot on the cutting room floor. But animation is much too expensive to create a film in this way. Because animation is so expensive you have to edit the film before you actually make it, Jobs explains. This is where storyboarding comes in. The story team has sketches of each scene which follow the progression of the script. A film could have thousands of these.
"Basically we build our movie before we make it out of these story sketches, and we video them, put scratch music and scratch voices so that we can watch our movie. And invariably what you think is going to work crashes and burns when you see it in the reels." The key says Jobs is improving on what you see in the reels. "You iterate on these reels thousands of times, and only when it works in the reels do you then go animate it and actually produce [the movie]."
"In Hollywood one of the most popular sayings is 'The story is King' — but it turns out it really isn't. Because when push comes to shove and the movie is in production and there is a lot of mouths to feed and they're waiting for stuff to make and the story is not working, almost everybody says 'well, we just have to make the movie.'' — Steve Jobs
Jobs talks about how Pixar had avoided having to go ahead and finish a movie that was not working. Pixar has a story crisis on every movie they make, says Jobs. When the story is not working, Jobs says, "we stop, we stop and we fix the story. Because John Lasseter really instilled a culture of story, story, story. Even though Pixar is the most technologically advanced studio in the world, John has a saying which has really stuck: No amount of technology will turn a bad story into a good story. That's one of the reasons why we have been so fortunate is that we get to look at our stories before we really make them and perfect them in reels, and then go make them."
Putting the story first is one of those things, Jobs said, that's easy to say but hard to do. "Everybody has to make their choice. You find out what people really care about when you are in a tough situation and the meter's running.Then you find out how important they think the story is."
In this short clip from 2009, John Lasseter talks about the importance of storyboarding and creating story reels to see if the story is working or not before starting production on a scene. "We will never let a sequence of a movie go into production until the story reel is working fantastically." If a story reel is working well then Lasseter says it gets a hundred times better once it's animated. "But if a story reel is not working, if the sequence is not working, it will never be improved by all this animation." This is a lesson for all storytellers. It is not about your visuals, and certainly not about the software tools you used to make those visuals. Visuals matter. Visuals are important. But no amount of stunning visualization is going to save a story with a bad design or a presentation that is poorly thought out.