Monday, September 22, 2008

The "Science" of Story Making

This is a type of article that makes me crazy:

With an unbroken string of hits stretching from 1995's "Toy Story" to this summer's "Wall-E," you'd think Pixar had story development down to a science.

Not even close ...

What is Variety talking about?

Story has never been a stroll in the park. Story has always been difficult, like trying to bottle lightning ... or thread fifty needles at a dead run. And sure, writer David Cohen is setting up a rhetorical straw man here, but that doesn't make the straw man any less silly.

There are six different plots; all else is embroidery.

It's the quality of the needlework that matters, and in animated films, the sewing and stitching mostly goes on until three weeks prior to release. But this isn't anything exclusive to Pixar, or anything new. It goes on at every studio, all the time, all the way back to Snow White, The Three Little Pigs and Steamboat Willie.

Even the films that turn out bad are tough to concoct.

If there was some kind of science to it, movies would be made in germ-free laboratories by guys with microscopes and Bunsen burners.

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

Getting real tired of Pixar's "the director is king" bullsh!t. Tell that to Pinkava and Sanders.

Anonymous said...

Well.....it isnt really BS when you consider the point is that no one has final say who's wearing a suit and is doing marketing research to find a formula for funny (like they do at other studios)

At Pixar, if the director likes it, and the marketing team doesnt, tough. Thats how it's going to play out.

Im no Pixar fanboy, but I've worked at enough studios to know how it works at other places. Let's just say musical endings and pop culture jokes arent usually the result of a directors decision, but usually of him being overruled.

Anonymous said...

"If there was some kind of science to it, movies would be made in germ-free laboratories by guys with microscopes and Bunsen burners."

Right you are, but that doesn't stop some people from continuing to try to boil it all down to formulas.

We've joked among ourselves for years about how even the term "computer animation" tends to give the false impression to the general public that the computer does the animation: they think that you just push the Make Character Walk Funny button and the computer does it . Or push the Sad button and the Happy button or the Sly Glance at the Camera button when the character needs to emote. The computer does all that stuff , right ?

And yet there are people (who should know better) in the movie industry who think that way too, who would like nothing better than to reduce film making down to that sort of push-button methodology , both in terms of story and animation. That type of person won't be happy until they've taken the artist out of the pipeline entirely , or reduced any real contribution from the artist, and then someday when they've finally achieved this wonderful technocracy they'll be left scratching their heads about why people don't want to pay to see their "animated" zombies flickering across the screen (even it it's shown in "Super Modern-Now-3D-Tradigitalmation ) . "But , but ...you can see every nose hair and pore on the character's face ... did you see those highlights on the eyes, did you see the texture mapping on the cloth elements? It's better than real " they'll protest, as the audience's eyes glaze over in boredom.

Someone always wants to reduce the process down to the easy , push-button , formulaic method.

Anonymous said...

BUT even if you don't want to use the formula you do need to understand it...

Anonymous said...

There are six plots, four hero types, ten endings, sixteen conflicts, and three Greek philosophies of wine. Sounds like a formula to me. It's fine to cling to the warm blanky of tradition when it's time for night-night, but if I see one more Joseph Campbell movie, my head is going to explode and spray chunks of gray into the projector booth.

The inability of a society to create a new narrative reflects its impotence toward affecting change. The stories that do reverberate only serve to amplify this stagnant self image. I would call the beginning of American stagnation the release of Top Gun and the first Gulf War.

Oooooh! I can't wait for Shrek IV! Nighty-night, mummy! There aren't any monsters, right?

RIGHT?!?

Anonymous said...

"The inability of a society to create a new narrative reflects its impotence toward affecting change. The stories that do reverberate only serve to amplify this stagnant self image. I would call the beginning of American stagnation the release of Top Gun and the first Gulf War."

So long as they connect with AUDIENCES (we're in the business of entertainment/communication), I'm cool with THAT!

There are more than 6 plots, anyway.

So long as the stories being told aren't like most of those crappy Japanese films. that can't TELL a story.

Anonymous said...

Stupid audiences? I'm not fine with that. I hate stupid people. There are a lot of them out there, and stupid movies make more of them. Stupid movies validate their existence and they go home and breed. It is Invasion of the Stupid People.

But give them what Wall Street analysts say stupid people want, correct? Give them credit swap defaults! Give them CDO's! Give them adjustable rate time bombs! They love it! We're all making money!

Oh, wait a minute. Stupid audiences can't afford to see movies anymore. We just killed our own audience. We just killed our own industry.

Anonymous said...

it isnt really BS when you consider the point is that no one has final say who's wearing a suit and is doing marketing research to find a formula for funny (like they do at other studios)

Okay ... Pixar might give directors more sway, but saying "the director has total control" isn't true, based on directors being replaced when upper management isn't happy.

Hard to get around inconvenient facts.

Justin said...

The whole point of a director led studio is that the director is in charge of the team. He (or she) is responsible for leading the team and giving direction. If the director is unable to lead the team and give clear direction then it isn't going to work.

It is clear when things are working and when they aren't, and that is when the director gets replaced.

Anonymous said...

Well, upper management in both cases you're referring to (Pinkava and Sanders) is John Lasseter, who, after all, is a director.

:)

Anonymous said...

"Getting real tired of Pixar's "the director is king" bullsh!t. Tell that to Pinkava and Sanders."

...Except that Pixar never said "the director is king."

It is a "director-driven" studio, as anon #2 points out. Marketers are not going to be able to do product placements and fart-jokes if the director thinks it's crap.

But their mantra is "Story is king." Took this to mean that if the director just wasn't getting the story right, he's out.

Get your beefs straight.

Anonymous said...

...unless of course you're making the argument that a director should be left at the helm of a film that is clearly going off the rails or meandering with no clear direction.

Anonymous said...

...Which WAS the case with American Dog (for those of who actually experienced it, even though the internet elite seem to know something us Disney employees dont)

QT said...

>>...Except that Pixar never
>> said "the director is king."
>> Get your beefs straight.

JL and EC have both spouted platitudes about the unassailable primacy of the director from their very own mouths. And did you even *read* the article? (excerpt below).

Catmull's line about "clipping off three levels of approval above the director" is complete nonsense, unless he is simply referring to the previous three levels (including Stainton and Eisner). Directors still have to answer to Lasseter, who in turn answers to Iger, and heaven help the director who exercises his "absolute authority". They stand to have something "clipped off" themselves. Just ask Jan and Chris.

You think it makes a difference that someone is wearing a Hawaiian shirt vs. a suit?

---

(quote)
On a Pixar film, the director is king. Nobody has approval over the director. Only a selected "brain trust" of other Pixar filmmakers gives notes, and the director has absolute authority on how to address them -- or whether to address them at all.

Pixar has been trying to instill that mindset at Walt Disney Animation Studios as well. When they took over at Disney, Catmull says, "There were three levels of approval over the directors. So we had to clip that off."

Kevin Geiger said...

> Only a selected "brain trust" of
> other Pixar filmmakers gives notes,
> and the director has absolute
> authority on how to address them --
> or whether to address them at all.
>
> Pixar has been trying to instill
> that mindset at Walt Disney
> Animation Studios as well.

And what better way to instill that mindset than by summarily firing directors? ;-)

Anonymous said...

"You think it makes a difference that someone is wearing a Hawaiian shirt vs. a suit? "

I just peed. Very funny.

Control the money AND the picture and you begin to have a director-driven film. Walt had his brother, it is as simple as that.

Everyone always forgets the guy over on the side of the set sweating bullets. Bear witness to THAT kind of filmmaking and there you find true Hollywood stories.

All the rest is victim to the unavoidable hand of corporate vertical integration.

Anonymous said...

JL and EC have both spouted platitudes about the unassailable primacy of the director from their very own mouths. And did you even *read* the article? (excerpt below)...

You think it makes a difference that someone is wearing a Hawaiian shirt vs. a suit?


Yeah, I read the article. I didn't realize it was written by Pixar...

Oh, it wasn't? So Pixar's still never said "director is king?"

Show me an exact quote where Lasseter and Catmull have explicitly said they placed a director's vision over the story and I'll go back and hide my face in shame.

Everything I've read thus far has shown story to be the most important thing. Do you have info that makes you so positive that Sanders and Pinkava had a kickass story but the Nazi regime of Lasseter and Catmull took it away from them and forced the crap story of Ratatouille and soon Bolt upon us?

Anonymous said...

Well, if STORY IS KING it would be nice if they'd used that model when making their last few films. Other than TS1 and The Incredibles (and MAYBE TS2)story sure seemed not to reign supreme.

QT said...

> Do you have info that makes you
> so positive that Sanders and
> Pinkava had a kickass story but
> the Nazi regime of Lasseter and
> Catmull took it away from them
> and forced the crap story of
> Ratatouille and soon Bolt upon
> us?


Yes, I do.

Anonymous said...

Look people. Enough already. Its simple, Sanders was royally effing up A-dog (I was there, so I know), he was given ample opportunity to fix it, but instead he ran around in an indian headress and got himself fired.

If it werent for Lasseter, A-dog would have been made, and it would have tanked. There'd be no 2D animation at Disney, and the WDAS probably wouldnt be around for long.

Bolt is Disney's best chance for a new, better Disney. It isnt a perfect film, but by god it's a GOOD film. Im so sick of hearing all this crap from people who weren't there and DONT know, and cite internet rumors and blogs as evidence of Sander's unfair removal. (or dont cite evidence at all)

Personally, I like Chris, and I think with the right team around him, he can be brilliant, and I wish him all the luck in the world at Dreamworks. But Im really tired of all the martyrdom that surrounds him and Bolt/A-dog. Trust me, if any of you were Lasseter, and were given the charge to "fix" Disney, you'd have done the same thing.

Anonymous said...

PS) Yes, having the Hawaiian shirt-cladded Lasseter make the executive decisions is better than the suit-wearing previous regime, because at least he has experience being an animator AND a director. Id much rather have him in charge than someone like Stainton or Eisner.

Anonymous said...

Remember, sanders QUIT. He was NOT, I repeat, NOT fired.

That is just a simple fact.

Anonymous said...

Unlike Lasseter, who WAS fired from Disney. That's also a simple fact. Which might be part of the reason he's so eager to try a slash and burn policy at Disney now.

Anonymous said...

"You're fired"

"You cant fire me! I quit!"

Ghost of Christmas Past said...

If you think that Chris Sanders voluntarily "quit" a film that he was putting as much of his heart and soul into as "American Dog", then you're REALLY hitting the Kool Aid hard, my friend. ;-)

Anonymous said...

"Unlike Lasseter, who WAS fired from Disney. That's also a simple fact. Which might be part of the reason he's so eager to try a slash and burn policy at Disney now."

Seriously? You really believe that Lasseter is going to hold a grudge this long? After all the success he's had subsequent to his firing? And take it out on people who not only weren't there at the time, but in some cases not even born?

What color is the sky in your world?

Anonymous said...

I loved this from a previous anon:

"You're fired"

"You cant fire me! I quit!"

Anonymous said...

You're right. No one holds grudges that long in this industry. My bad.

Bob and Rob Professional American Writers said...

Yeah, yeah, yeah...don't you people realize..I LOST MY BLUETOOTH! Bob

ohm said...

I just love all this chatter from people who don't work there, and have absolutely no knowledge or understanding of what actually transpired. Even when people who WERE there weigh in with informed commentary, their comments are ignored or willfully misunderstood.

Keep chatting, plebes!

Site Meter