Back in the Fall of 2012, I was lucky enough to attend a Pixar Masterclass on Story and Animation in Vancouver, Canada. I learned a lot from Pixar Artists Matthew Luhn and Andrew Gordon and I thought I would be fun to share some of the Pixar wisdom from that day with you, dear readers. As a screenwriter, I focused more on the story part so that’s what I’m going to share with you guys.
The Masterclass lasted two days, with the first one focusing on story. Matthew Luhn, who has worked for Pixar since 1992 (first as an animator, then as part of the Story Department) taught this day. Prior to joining Pixar, he worked as an animator on The Simpsons and at Industrial Light & Magic. He was very nice and a great storyteller. He told us about his childhood, and how he spent time in the toy shops where his family worked. He was very entertaining and engaging. I guess if you’re part of Pixar’s Story Department, that’s a must.
He started by pointing out that we all need stories in our lives. We need them to cope with life, to find significance and to be entertained by living vicariously through someone else. The most popular activity in the world is to escape reality. We’re always watching TV, films or reading books. But the stories that stick with us are the ones that help us understand a little more about ourselves and about the world. So great storytellers try to let audiences escape reality, while at the same time trying to make sense of the world. All stories should have a hero who represents the human psyche. A relatable character that will go through the events of the movie and eventually learn something that will hopefully make the audience think.
Take Toy Story, for example. We meet Woody, who is a leader. He’s smart and loyal so we like him, but he’s also a little bossy and arrogant. This makes him real and complex. Woody loves being Andy’s favorite toy and even though all the other toys are afraid of being replaced, Woody is not because he thinks he’s safe.
A basic formula for a movie starts with a character that wants something. Woody wants to be loved and to continue being Andy’s favorite toy. The next step is to take this away from our character. So Buzz Lightyear enters the scene and relegates Woody to a secondary place. This turns Woody’s world upside down. So he tries to get things back into place by getting rid of Buzz, but this causes more and more complications until eventually Woody has to choose between his flaw (his jealousy of Buzz) or the completion of his arc (to stop being selfish). Woody tells Buzz to escape while he can and leave him behind. By accepting this, Woody and Buzz become friends and, working together, manage to get back to Andy’s after a series of complications that make your heart race.
“A fear or deeply rooted passion should be what drives the character choices in the story”.
Woody is terrified of being abandoned so he decides to get rid of Buzz, thus causing all the major events that follow. Everything he does is based on a deep want to return to Andy’s side and be loved. We can all relate to Woody. It’s the same in Toy Story 2 where Woody has the chance of being loved forever if he chooses to go the museum. Or Toy Story 3 where he still thinks his place is next to Andy and not with his friends. He hasn’t let go. These are all thing we can relate to and that’s why we enjoy these movies so much.
Pixar was also very smart with the Toy Story trilogy. The first one is a movie that can be enjoyed by everyone but is made with little kids in mind. These kids might be have new little sisters or brothers and they might be jealous, like Woody. Then, 15 years later the same kids have grown up and are either about to leave for college or already there. And Toy Story 3 shows them that Woody’s view on love (love = staying) is not the right one. When Andy and his mom share that moment in his empty room, Woody realizes that you can let go of someone and still love them, still be there for them.
The amount of thought that goes into every choice Pixar makes always results in great stories. And they know that if they don’t know their characters, they can’t tell a good story. Be it Marlin’s overprotectiveness, Woody’s jealousy or Wall-E’s loneliness, Pixar characters always have a flaw they must overcome for their worlds to make sense. And as they learn their lesson, so do we. We escape reality with these movies but we come back to it with a better understanding of our worlds.
Pablo Ruiz is a Colombian filmmaker. Movies like Toy Story, The Lion King and Aladdin made him fall in love with the art form and now he hopes to dedicate his life to telling stories, hopefully for Pixar (if they go back to doing original films).
Some of his ambitions are making a movie as emotionally impacting as Toy Story 3, meeting JK Rowling, and petting a million dogs. Follow him on Twitter (@PabloRV7).