Toy Story 4 is coming out today, and the reviews are already great, which isn’t surprising. That’s odd, though, isn’t it? The fourth movie in a series, and all four have been solid films? Most of the time that isn’t the case. Especially when it comes to children’s films, these movies are engaging to adults just as much as they are to children. Thinking about the entirity of Pixar films, I can only name one that I dislike and wouldn’t rewatch today, Cars 2. How does Pixar continuously make great movies? They have a system.
22 Rules of Storytelling
Pixar rules, a science, when it comes to the art of storytelling. As they are working on a script, they are required to keep these in mind, because if they don’t, they will be told to do so when they hand the script into their boss. It covers everything from protagonist, to story structure, to identifying what’s important to the author. All of these things are important to have a strong grasp of your story.
#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
My favorites are probably #4, #9, and #19, because they are all calling you out on your laziness, but them helping you get through it. As a creative storyteller, I find myself falling for the lazy options occasionally, but the audience can tell every time.
1979, Lucasfilm had a subdivision to focus of the more CGI aspects of films, including the “Genesis Effect” from Star Trek: Wrath of Khan. They invented many computer animation techniques still in use today. As a side project, they also created their first short film, The Adventures of André and Wally B.
After Return of the Jedi, Lucasfilms income began to reduce, to the worry that they might sell their computer animation department. So these folks decided that they would all leave on their own terms, and create their own company, Pixar.
Without the funding that they were granted at Lucasfilm, they decided they should stick to short films for a while, until they were confident they could make a decent feature film. It took about 9 years between their inception and Toy Story, and even then they went with a story who’s main characters were made of plastic, because they couldn’t achieve a level of life-likeness yet. Fun fact, as I mentioned, they didn’t have that Lucasfilm funding, so it was actually 31 year old Steve Jobs that bankrolled their start.
They attempted to become a hardware company while they got their animation up and running, but it didn’t really work for them.
As Pixar was a movie making company, and not very confident at movie selling, they agreed to let Disney be their distributor for three films, Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Toy Story 2. Even though Toy Story was hugely profitable for both parties, Pixar and Disney quickly began fighting each other, as Disney CEO Michael Eisner was a profit-minded business man, and Pixar was a story-minded company. In fact, had it not been for Eisner’s departure from his role at Disney, to be replaced by Bob Iger, Pixar and Disney would have departed ways.
With Iger though, they agreed to extend their deal for another five films, from Monster’s Inc to Ratatouille, which would have been their final collaboration, with Pixar becoming their own company and distribute their own films.
Instead, in 2006 Pixar was bought by Disney for $7.4 Billion, which brought Steve Jobs’ 49.6% ownership of Pixar to 7% of Disney, making him their largest shareholder.
Now, we can’t talk about how great Pixar is, without acknowledging their largest failure, in terms of quality. Cars 2. Pixar had created 10 short films feature Mater from Cars, and released them mainly during Disney TV commercial breaks. They were all cute fun, Mater telling stories about his adventures before Radiator Springs, and how Lightning McQueen was also involved, even though they didn’t know each other at the time. Disney loved it so much, they ordered an entire film based on Lightning McQueen racing in the World Grand Prix, but Mater gets mixed up in international espionage. Cars is one of their most popular films in terms of merchandise, with over $10 Billion (even though the film only grossed $462 Million in the box office), and this was nothing more than an excuse to sell more Cars toys.
Quite the opposite from that story, is the story of the release of The Good Dinosaur. While the film was originally slated to be released Thanksgiving 2013, the film got pushed back by over two years, meaning they essentially started over on the film. After voice actors were recorded, and parts of the film had begun animation, they realized that “the story was not working, period, full stop, it just was not where it needed to be.” So they began to work on the film again, rewriting huge portions, changing directors, rerecording lines, etc. The point here is that Pixar was willing to lose a lot of money, because they didn’t want to release a film that was below their standards.
The film was released in 2015, and suffered some pretty serious financial losses, mainly because it was in the shadow of the largely successful Inside Out that was released earlier that year. It was a critical success, which proved to be their priority.
The next film to be released, Onward, has been announced to be a “Suburban Fantasy” film, focusing on two elf brothers trying to find magic in the world. While we don’t know much more than that, I know that I’m excited to see it in theaters, and be blown away once again by the craftsmanship that Pixar displays again and again.