On Sunday, Sept. 6, 2009 George Lucas presented John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird, Pete Docter and Lee Unkrich with the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at Venice Film Festival. This is the first time in the Festival’s history that the Lifetime Achievement award has gone not to an individual filmmaker, but to a team of filmmakers. The next day, the Festival hosted a Pixar Animation Master Class on storytelling: during this rare and exciting panel dedicated to the Pixar filmmaking process, the directors discussed the various aspects of bringing their stories to life.
Animation is the most collaborative among art forms; one of the things that is very special about Pixar is the collaboration, never has a studio been so collaborative.
At Pixar we make films to entertain our audiences, all across the world, both children and adults. We make movies for ourselves, the kind of movies we would like to watch. We all have kids, we all love movies and we all love animation and this is what we wanted to do from the beginning as filmmakers.
We (the creative Brain Trust) get together to help each director to make the movie the best it can be, and the director knows that. And so he takes the notes that make the movie better.
One of the things I remember more clearly of when I was a very new animator at Walt Disney, is a great professional called Ollie Johnston
, a fabulous animator. I was not a great drawing person, my students were a lot better than me. At that time, when I was struggling drawing in a scene, he took my stack of papers and started flipping it. And I thought he was going to start talking about the drawing. But he turned to me and he simply asked: “What is the character thinking”? That simple statement from this guy hit me so strongly, that it became kind of a foundation of everything I have done after that point.
When you look for “animation” into the dictionary, one of the definitions is “to give life to”. The thing that I have always loved about animation is creating life. In our films the animator and the animation are the act. An animator must animate a character so that every single movement appears driven by that character thought process. That is when it becomes a thinking character.
You are moved by these characters, you believe in these characters. All the meticulous and hard work should be completely invisible. We wanted the audience to be involved in the scene and not to think that Nemo is a bunch of computer layouts. We do not want you to think about the many hours that took to create that scene. You are just carried away by the scene and every focus in every step of the production that we do at Pixar is about the story. It is about entertaining the audience.
We are constantly changing and growing, trying to make things differently. One of the things I stress in animation, is that you have to show your stuff really early: every single morning each animator shows his stuff so we can be sure they are on the right track. I also get inspired by what the animators do without telling them to. In Pixar we have a room with a video camera and mirrors so they can actually try out the acting of the character.
Walt Disney once said: “for every laugh there should be a tear.” This is the foundation of every Pixar film. This is not about animation, it’s about making films. I say something to my sons: “I want you to choose a profession that you love, because if you do you’ll never lose a day in your life.” And this is true for everybody, we work so hard, many long hours, but we so dearly love what we do.
Now we are going step by step through the entire process on how we make a movie, on how we develop stories and on how we can tell a story visually.
In Pixar there is no politics, we are all employees, we do not have agents, no creative executives, no deal-making. We are very similar to the old studio systems where the artists work under one group on multiple projects: I’d like to call it a film school without the teacher. It’s a filmmaker driven studio, we invest in people. As John has previously described, we have a creative Brain Trust where the directors get together sort or like doctors conferring on another doctor’s operation. And we also have in-house original ideas, based either on ideas that the directors had, or stories the directors like or want to invest in. We pick one idea and we hammer on it. Again and again, until it finally is good enough to show other people.
First of all it is not just for kids: basically we make the movies we would like to see, we are film-goers first and filmmakers second.
We work hard on making movies as original as we can, in other words we think more like our own audience, what I’d like to see if I were the audience who wants to enjoy themselves as much as they did on the last film, but every time in a new way.
Being stupid is only possible if you are in a creative estate environment. So the truth is that we are not good at getting it right at Pixar, but we are really good at getting it together when we are getting it wrong in fixing our mistakes. And I think that’s really where our specialty lies. And the variable is that we have discovered something fresh from having made those mistakes. So we don’t try to avoid it, we embrace the idea to make mistakes.
The script is not the end of developing a story, it is the beginning of it: to me screenwriting is not writing, it is an intermediary form, it’s a way of passing all the ideas in your head to the screen. It’s also what I’d like to call cinematic dictation. You’re just basically notating what you have seen in your head, when you are trying to catch the visual aspect of something.
We just wanna tell 2 + 2 and let the audience decide on what 4 is. And that’s really the way to construct anything. The way dialogue is done, the way actors act. The way scenes are put together. I think you can apply it to any aspect of film-making. It is all about audience participation. Movie-making is all about manipulation, but it is only truly successful if your audience has no idea that they-re being manipulated. In most cases 2 + 2 gives you a greater sum than 4.
How you tell the story becomes as much important as the story itself. Even a great joke can be murdered by a bad joke teller. So the joke and the joke telling are equally important.
Personally I think you have to develop both characters and plot simultaneously. Plotting to me is your means of discovering the character. Then once you have found what that character is, you have to link them together, one begets the other.
If we are going to talk about breaking the rules, we have to know what the rules are. And this is what storyboarding was traditionally used for, it was used to work out business for the characters, what the characters were doing.
I got my first opportunity to do my first feature film, it was Iron Giant. I had a third of the money and a third of the time I had for the other animated films of our competitors. So I dealt with something unfamiliar with animation, this was Warner Brothers, not Disney. They had limited power with visual imagination, so we had to find a quick and relatively cheap way of getting closer to what we were envisioning. We spent a larger percentage of our budget on storyboarding, because it was the cheapest place to make the stage. We couldn’t afford to do anything else, we got to look and know exactly what we were doing before we did it.
When I came on to Pixar to do The Incredibles, we had a different sort of problem. It was to enlarge the scope without enlarging the resources. I had way more resources than I had for Iron Giant, but the scope of the film was so huge.
The Incredibles was a fast cutting film, large location to a large shot camera, the only way to wrap our heads around it was to figure it out early. The downside of that is that you’re kind of locked in. The upside of it is that you know much more about the rhythm of the film and the specific needs of each shot.
Film is alive, it is a medium, it is a dream medium and dreams are unpredictable. There is a difference between sleeping and dreaming. One is active and one is throwing yourself off balance. Don’t take anything for granted: it’s a way to keep your company, your movies and yourself alive.
Everything you see on the screen has an emotional charge. Characters, locations and the props in there exist for very specific story reasons. This is the primary job of the set designer. The first question a production designer should ask himself is: “what is the story about emotionally”?
Designing for computer animation has no accidents, everything you see has to be intentionally designed, built, shaded and lighted.
Film-making is discovery. We do not just start drawing, we do a lot of research. The sense of authenticity really helped us capture an emotion. We wanted to look authentic.
The primary job of the lighting is to direct the eye. There is a whole lot of tricks to make sure people are looking where we want. The second job of lighting is emotion. And John (Lasseter) says that light is much like music and can really emotionally affect the eye. We are all trying to get inside the head of the character. Use light to represent how that character is feeling.
Lighting really works the same way it does in live action, so you have lights everywhere to get the final shot. Lighting is not left to chance, everything is planned for an impact. The quality of work is due to the fact that we are working with some of the best professionals in the world.
The ultimate goal of lighting is to make the audience feel something.
Pixar: 25 Years of Animation Exhibition