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The Blog Of David Marks

Insights on great products: How does Pixar turn out such great films?

Posted on | May 22, 2013 | 1 Comment

I recently attended a great talk on storytelling by three notable Pixar staff: Jim Capobianco, Derek Thompson & Kevin O’Brien at the Chabot Observatory in Oakland. It turned out to be not just entertaining, but a chance to learn a little bit about how Pixar creates such amazing films. It’s one thing to create a single hit, but given Pixar’s track record I wondered how their process worked and what I could learn from them.


How do they do it? While I’m sure insiders would have a lot more to add (feel free to comment below), there were a few things that caught my attention during the discussion as applicable to products beyond films.


1) Distribute creative problem solving. Directors assign well defined problems to individuals or small teams to be solved. An example “Tell the history of artwork in the credits, and make the film end on an optimistic note.” (Wall-E) “Get the family from the island to the city.” (The Incredibles)


I think it’s an effective way to break up the project into smaller pieces that smart people can sink their teeth into. It’s one thing to have an awesome team, and another to fully engage them in creative problem solving. There were a couple of stories about people sweating over how to solve a problem, or waking at night with an idea for a solution. And the results are great — each piece of their films from the intro to the credits shines.


2) A shared sense of quality: “That’s the first rule we live by!” I asked a question about how they manage to maintain their very human, story-first focus throughout the film production process. I received an immediate answer — “That’s the first rule we live by!” Telling the story comes first. Films typically require 5+ years to complete, with hundreds of people cycling in and out of the product over time. But everyone knows the keys to success and can make the right choices to keep the quality high for what is most important. If the team doesn’t have a shared concept of what quality means, it’s impossible to create an end product that delivers.


3) Elements of Improv-comedy process (Yes… and). I don’t mean that the writing uses improv-comedy, but that each layer of the production team adds their touch to the film, adding to what the previous group created. In the improv comedy world, this is sometimes referred to as “Yes… and” because each person in a skit builds on what the previous person did. The storyboard team adds their touch to the script, the 3D animators add to the storyboards, the effects team adds to the core 3D, etc. In multiple cases, the storyboard team was surprised and impressed with what other teams had added to scenes.  Again, this provides room for creative individuals to add their touch to the production. Another great way to get everyone engaged.


4) Patience

I was pretty surprised to hear that films can simmer for years before reaching production, then stay in production for 5+ years. That’s a long time and it would be easy to lose focus. Movies aren’t even announced until they are half way through production in most cases. I wondered a bit if this is to provide some flexibility on premiere date until the film is really coming together.

Like any studio, films get tested in the screening room regularly. But I got the sense that Pixar can make larger changes, later in the process than studios using live actors. It’s hard to call up tom Cruise to ask him to re-shoot a film later in the production process, but Pixar can just redo the scene. Big concepts can get reworked later in the process, and there were stories about whole characters getting edited out of films that were not working. Remember the aliens in Wall-E? No? They got cut!


Side note: A friend who spent some time in the film industry pointed out that most films using live actors can’t re-shoot because actors move on to other roles. So no easy way to revise scenes that are not working.


I’m sure there are hundreds of other things that happen during production that make the movies work. But getting a glimpse into the process was very interesting, and I picked up a few ideas that I hope to apply in my own projects. And if any of the speakers read this, thanks for sharing your insights!


One Response to “Insights on great products: How does Pixar turn out such great films?”

  1. Mary Horning
    July 24th, 2015 @ 2:30 pm

    Just discovered this blog entry, what a cool dialogue with Pixarians! THANK YOU for capturing these great insights & sharing them!

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