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The Pixar Way -- Part I: "What We Didn't Know" or "My Journey of Pain"

The Pixar Way -- Part I: "What We Didn't Know" or "My Journey of Pain"

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I've seen all the hubbub and groans lately over John Lasseter's musical decisions and while not everyone may be happy with what goes down, you gotta know that Lasseter and the gang at Pixar are all about change. In fact they embrace change and do everything in their power to stay fresh.

How do I know this, you ask? I got to listen to them tell me this first-hand just a few weeks ago. As many of you know, the folks at Pixar are legend when it comes to the success they have had in telling great stories in the feature film arena. So they agreed to come down to Southern California for a weekend and teach a group of screenwriters at the annual Screenwriting Expo (sponsored by Creative Screenwriting magazine) the secret of their success.

We're not just talking about one token Pixar employee, but almost their entire creative staff including: Andrew Stanton ("Toy Story" 1 & 2, "A Bugs Life," "Monsters, Inc.," "Finding Nemo"), Dave Reynolds ("The Emperor's New Groove," "Finding Nemo"), Lee Unkrich ("Toy Story 2," "Monsters, Inc.," "Finding Nemo"), Mike Arndt ("Little Miss Sunshine"), Brenda Chapman ("The Little Mermaid," "The Lion King," "The Prince of Egypt"), Dan Gerson ("Monsters, Inc.," "Cars"), Gary Rydstrom (artist & sound designer extraordinaire - everything from "Jurassic Park" to "Toy Story 2" and beyond ), Irene Mecchi ( "The Lion King," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "Hercules") and Kiel Murray ("Finding Nemo," "The Incredibles," "Cars") [Note: Pete Docter was also scheduled but was unable to attend].

As you can see from their credits (and many I have not listed) these guys and gals are a wealth of riches that Pixar draws on every time they go out to make a movie. Forgive me for not announcing the event to everyone here on Jim Hill Media. But they had already sold out the event several times over and had to send video feeds of the presentations to additional rooms just to cover those who had already bought tickets.

The bad news for the press (i.e. me), was that Pixar would not allow any video or audio recording of any kind, nor any still photography during the presentations. So … I took notes as fast as my hand would allow and took photos of the banners in the room prior to the show.

Copyright 2001 Disney/Pixar

Fans from all walks of life were there including the folks from Aardman Animation who were in town for the premiere of their new film "Flushed Away." I actually got to talk to Nick Park and ask him about his upcoming projects. Alas, he was fairly tight-lipped about the future but a really nice guy all around.

First up was writer-director Andrew Stanton, who led off with an insightful presentation entitled "Understanding Story." He began by stating that storytelling is joke telling and very quickly laid out the "Pixar Rules."


1. No politics

I truly think they mean this. In all the interaction and panels I saw their team conduct, everyone seemed to a have a healthy sense of humor and not once did I detect an unhealthy ego lurking in the background.

2. No studio execs

By this, Andrew stated that Pixar is studio run by artists, in his words "film school without the teachers". There are no layers of middle managers, creative executives or corporate bureaucrats itching to put their thumbprint on every project that comes their way. Just artists striving to make the very best entertainment on planet earth.

I truly believe that most Hollywood misfires are a result of the multi-layered, ego-filled bureaucracy that is Hollywood. Just ask any credit administrator at a major studio and they'll tell you about all the bizarre things people do just to get their name in the credits of a movie … even if they had nothing to do with it. Ego often rules Hollywood, but not Pixar.

3. Director driven studio

Why does this matter? Someone needs to run the show and without studio execs and a host of producers or other actors to please, the director takes the reins. But these aren't just any director. Most of these people are WRITER - Directors. They are visual storytellers who work closely with another writer and/or director to develop and create their movies. Again, this is a team effort with the director(s) taking the lead. And it's amazing what a singular vision can create with a great supporting team.

4. In-house original ideas ONLY

Sorry folks. If you had some idea you wanted to submit to Pixar for their next film…you're out of luck. The only ideas the surface in Emeryville, CA come from the inside and not just from the writers or directors. Everyone, company-wide, is encouraged to submit ideas. And they are actually considered.

Of course upon hearing of these concepts, a film executive once asked Stanton, "What, do you live in fairyland?" to which Stanton proudly exclaimed, "Yes, I live in fairyland."

Stanton then went on to give a brief history of Pixar which he humorously entitled ...

"What We Didn't Know" or "My Journey of Pain"

When Pixar first began in the early '90s, they already knew that their success lay in audience participation. For them, a good story is an equation of 2 + 2 where the audience comes up with 4 (the answer). And they felt they could make a better movie. Note that Stanton did not say a better animated movie, but a better movie. As Brad Bird put it, "Animation is a medium, not a genre." Animation just happened to be the easiest way for Pixar to tell their stories.

The Oscar-winning short "Tin Toy" was actually the test launch for what would be "Toy Story." Of course in charting this course into feature film territory, Pixar came up with a few rules to differentiate themselves from other animated fare. In fact when Tom Hanks was approached to be part of the film, he probably summed it up nicely when he asked, "You don't want me to sing, do you?"

Of course Pixar calmed his fears early on since they had already determined that in their films there would be:

  • No songs
  • No happy village song
  • No love story
  • No villain
  • No "I want" moment / song

Interestingly enough, when the folks at Disney reviewed Pixar's "Toy Story" script, they were a bit concerned. So some guy named Tim Rice ( I believe it's Sir Tim Rice now) suggested they should add:

  • Songs
  • A happy village song
  • A love story
  • A villain
  • An "I want" moment / song

It was at this point that Pixar knew they were on the right track and had effectively broken the mold. Of course there was much they still had to do.

Copyright 1995 Disney/Pixar

Take the character of Woody, for instance. In the early drafts of the script, Woody came off as a very unlikable character. He was very guarded, negative, and plain selfish and it was killing the movie. But the guys & gals at Pixar realized that real people are much more complicated and layered. So they decided that Woody could disguise his truly self-serving nature by being self-less. Or at least that was the way it would seem to others until the moment Woody found himself under a crate in Sid's room. In this beautifully executed scene, Woody plays his own self-therapist.


Sid is in bed fast asleep.

Woody struggles to move his milkcrate jail, but with the weight of the toolbox on top it won't budge.

Woody looks across the desktop at Buzz sitting dejectedly with the rocket strapped to his back.

Ps-s-s-s-t! Psst! Hey, Buzz!

No reaction from Buzz.

Woody picks up a stray washer from the desktop and flings it at Buzz, striking his helmet.

Buzz lifts his head and turns lifelessly to look at Woody.

Hey! Get over here and see if you
can get this tool box off me.

Buzz just looks away from Woody and bows his head.

Oh, come on, Buzz. I...Buzz, I
can't do this without you. I need
your help.

I can't help. I can't help anyone.

Why, sure you can, Buzz. You can
get me out of here and then I'll
get that rocket off you, and we'll
make a break for Andy's house.

Andy's house. Sid's house. What's
the difference.

Oh, Buzz, you've had a big fall.
You must not be thinking clearly.

No, Woody, for the first time I am
thinking clearly. (looking at himself)
You were right all along. I'm not
a Space Ranger. I'm just a toy. A
stupid little insignificant toy.

Whoa, hey -- wait a minute. Being
a toy is a lot better than being a
Space Ranger.

Yeah, right.

No, it is. Look, over in that
house is a kid who thinks you are
the greatest, and it's not because
you're a Space Ranger, pal, it's
because you're a TOY! You are HIS

But why would Andy want me?

Why would Andy want you?! Look at
you! You're a Buzz Lightyear. Any
other toy would give up his moving
parts just to be you. You've got
wings, you glow in the dark, you
talk, your helmet does that -- that
whoosh thing -- you are a COOL toy.

Woody pauses and looks at himself.

(continued; depressed)
As a matter of fact you're too cool.
I mean -- I mean what chance does a
toy like me have against a Buzz
Lightyear action figure? All I can
do is...

Woody pulls his own pull-string.

There's a snake in my boots!

Woody bows his head.

Why would Andy ever want to play
with me, when he's got you? (pause)
I'm the one that should be strapped
to that rocket.

He begins by building up Buzz in hope of escaping, and then breaks himself down, finally exposing Woody's true weakness - a lack of self-worth.

Of course this was just the first step on the road not taken. In Part 2 of this series, we'll get into more of the history of Pixar and Andrew Stanton reveals more of Pixar's filmmaking philosophies.

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  • I expect about a million more comments that say the same thing will follow...  "The Pixar Rules" are far closer to old-school Disney than Disney has been in years. And for those who note that the model is different because Walt was a "studio exec" I always got the sense his role was far closer to Lasseter's at Pixar... sort of a stick that stirs the coffee, empower the artist style of management.  Great stuff, Sean! Thanks!
  • "No songs
    No happy village song
    No love story
    No villain
    No "I want" moment / song"

    Of course Pixar broke their "no villain" rule with their first movie (Sid), and they've had some great villains ever since.  And, they haven't had a traditional romantic love story, but Woody & Bo Peep, eventually Woody & Buzz, Flik & Atta, Marlin & Coral, Marlin & Nemo, etc.- all of those relationships had love, eventually, anyway.
    And, on a side note, that list of "no's" reminds me of "Beauty and the Beast"- that has a song that is actually sang by real village people, and a song that actually says "I want"...

    Great article, Sean!  Can't wait for the rest of the series!
  • Yeah, that's a great 'concept' to work with, but as time has told, eventually these basics will be broken because there are two things a growing studio will need: direction and identity. They think that they can go on like this without studio execs, but eventually they will need more leadership than just the bunch of writer-directors walking around there. Pixar also thinks that they have set their identity to the outside world, but there is a concept that will break that too: change (and according to the article they love that, so). People don't want to see film after film of the same studio identity. They also want change.

    Why I think everything will eventually (wow, how many times have I said that word) change? Because I am placing Pixar in the Greiner management model, and in that model they are at phase 1/2 (of the 7). They are growing because of their outspoken creativity (phase 1), but eventually they will get a management crisis. After that crisis they will step into phase 2, were they will begin growing through organized growth. At some point being creative isn't enough anymore, because when the competition sees the possibilities of successfully connecting management and creativity, they will advance at a much faster rate dan you.

    Maybe it works for now, but eventually it will all change. And if they've got some good leaders within the company, the change will not be a bad one.
  • I don't think Pixar's culture is as lassaiz faire (sp?) as empoor suggests... I think management exists (Jobs/Lasseter) but it is far less overt than what goes on at a lot of studios and companies.  I believe that the coaching philosophy used on Michael Jordan in basketball was the famous "give the ball to MJ and get the hell out of the way." Managed leadership exists at Pixar in far more of "power to" rather than "power over" format, at least this article suggests it to be so.

    I do expect that this model won't sustain itself forever (that's a fact of life). But it certainly has worked far longer than the Eisner-era culture of synergy, top-down, micromanagement.
  • "But it certainly has worked far longer than the Eisner-era culture of synergy, top-down, micromanagement."

    That's for sure :D (and has worked far better too)..
  • Am I the only one who finds those Pixar rules worrying? Going out of your way to say there are certain things that can't appear in a film really limits the amount of things you can do. I mean, no love story? No villain? What happens if someone came up with a great love story? Would they just ignore it? Do you think Walt Disney would have come up with a list like this?
  • I also are not sure about the "No Villian Rule", while they villians have not been as front and centre as in some of the traditional Disney flicks,  most of their films have some great villians...Syndrome, Sid, the Prospector etc.
  • "Frankenollie said:
    Am I the only one who finds those Pixar rules worrying? Going out of your way to say there are certain things that can't appear in a film really limits the amount of things you can do. I mean, no love story? No villain? What happens if someone came up with a great love story? Would they just ignore it? Do you think Walt Disney would have come up with a list like this?"

    I don't worry about it ... Why? Because they've already broken all their own rules.

    No Songs - I can't think of many Pixar movies with no song. I'm not sure if Nemo had any, but the Toy Stories certainly did, as did Cars.

    No Love Story - A big part of Cars was definitely a love story, and on many different levels, really. Lightning and Sally, Sally and Radiator Springs, Lightning and Mater ... there was lots of love going around in that movie.

    No Villain - As someone already mentioned, Sid was a villain. And I would certainly quantify Al of Al's Toy Barn as the villain in TS2. Bugs Life had villains ... there have been plenty of villains in Pixar films.

    No "I want" Moment / Song - How about Jessie's "When Somebody Loved Me" song? To me that's a classic "I Want" song. Ditto for the "Our Town" moment in Cars. I'm quite sure there are others I'm missing, but two's enough.

    No Happy Village Song - Okay ... I can't come up with a happy village song (although the Shh Boom segment from Cars might qualify).

    Point is, Pixar is smart enough to know that they needed to break their own rules.
  • "Surfer_Ed said:
    I also are not sure about the "No Villian Rule", while they villians have not been as front and centre as in some of the traditional Disney flicks,  most of their films have some great villians...Syndrome, Sid, the Prospector etc."


    Sheesh! I missed some of the biggest, baddest villains in Pixar's films, didn't I?
  • As far as I know, ever Pixar movie has always included a love story.  Oh what I would give for movies NOT to have love stories.  Predictable and they hardly ever add anything to a story when it comes down to it.
  • I was at the Expo, too. Andy Stanton's Rules were particularly for Toy Story, and how they wanted to make their first feature different from the mold (not about hard and fast rules for Pixar forever). He brought up Sid (and Darla), but considered them more like obstacles rather than pure villians. And the "no songs" rule refered to characters breaking out into song, a la Ariel, Belle & Aladdin.
    They beauty of the discussion was not about the rules, though. It was the idea that "The idea in the room wins" (a Lassiter quote). It's not about politics in the Pixar story rooms. It's about ideas. One particular young woman on the panel told how she was a Production Assistant and happen to unconciously make a face at an idea while she was taking notes in a story meeting. Lassiter noticed her grimace and asked what she thought. Very scared, she gave her opinion. John asked her to write some pages over the weekend. Now she is a writer working on an un-named Pixar project.
    (Sorry if I am revealing things that will appear in later posts)
  • About them "Pixar Rules":


    1. No politics

    Maybe that's what you saw and heard but Pixar has been littered with politics by plenty of small minded folks in all kinds of places.

    2. No studio execs

    Right. Just look how Disney got involved in every project and tell me that again.

    3. Director driven studio

    Hoo-boy! Only if John likes it.

    4. In-house original ideas ONLY

    Anyone remember Brad Bird bringing his project to Pixar. Somekind of film about heros?

    Sounds to me like you all got the cleaned up for company coming over version of Pixar rules.
  • CapnSkip, you're stretching things a little out of proportion from what Andrew Stanton was trying to convey.

    1) "No politics" means that if someone has a great idea, that idea shouldn't just be tossed out simply because they aren't a "writer" or "director". I'm sure Pixar has politics, but they try to not let it interfere with their story telling.

    2) "No studio execs" means that people who have no movie making experience shouldn't have mandatory say over what goes into your movie. Walt Disney was a "studio exec", but he was also a story teller and creative genius. Combining #1 with #2 also says that if a studio exec has a great idea it shouldn't be dismissed just because he is an exec. There just can't be mandatory notes with an exec telling the director how to make his movie.

    3) "Director driven studio". Yes, John Lasseter is head of creative, but his main role is to push boundaries. To tell the director when things aren't working, and to make sure that they are making the best movie that can be made. Ultimately it is the director who makes the decision because the movie is his (or her) vision and responsibility.

    4) "In house ideas only". Brad Bird's story was his own idea, and he was hired to create it. He wasn't pitched the story by a Hollywood screenwriter, or handed the story by a famous actor who had read the story with his children. He created the idea from his own head.

    It is true that Pixar has broken a lot of their own rules, and that is part of adapting. It think the goal is to try and create a deeper movie than a simple hero-villian with romance type of story, and to try and avoid cliched story telling devices such as songs.
  • I'd agree with FnO, the Pixar Rules started out with "No interference from management", but started to sound a lot like what we were -all- whining in 1994:  "All Disney movies are Katzenberg musicals--And we don't want Katzenberg musicals, poo!"
    And like everyone else at the time, they were throwing the baby out with the bathwater--Disney was making faux-Broadway musicals on Jeff's assembly line, but that doesn't mean that villains or musicals themselves were evil just because of "Hunchback".  (Or, in the case of Disney's later "soundtrack" musicals, that just because your stories had songs meant they had to have characters singing them.)
    What if we were to claim the new Pixar CGI Rules, based on everyone else's overextended-formula mistakes?:  1) No animals, 2) No black-comic voices, 3) No scenes where somebody winces "Oo...That's gotta hurt.", etc.  :)

    The secret to some of the great Disney movies (Aladdin springs to mind) happened when somebody at the back looked at the current in-house storyboards and said "Are you kidding??", which forced the writers to come up with a more fun and natural rewrite idea--
    That can happen with musicals OR Pixar-style comedies, the moment things get a little -too- in-house and start writing the audience out of the discussion meetings.
  • Of course there are SONGS  and BAD characters in every Pixar movie, but stop scruitinizing every little bit of the syntax here.

    Dude, the "No songs" rule just means that they never have the CHARACTERS singing the songs. Jessie wasn't the one singing "When She Loved Me," it was Sarah MacLachlan. Similarly, neither Sally nor Mater sang "Our Town," because it was James Taylor's narrative singing that made the impact so much greater.

    And the "No villains" rule... Obviously there must be some kind of conflict for the movie to have a purpose (otherwise you just end up with that static "Oooh, pretty!" feeling from Soarin' Over California). That being said, I think BaldMelonTim hit it on the head when he pointed out that the Pixar villains are more "obstacles" than villains. The only ones who come close (at least in a "Disney" sense) are Syndrome and Hopper because they are around throughout the movie... but Sid and Al both have minor roles and Darla is around for ONE scene.
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