PICNIC ’06, Day Two: The Creative Process at Pixar Studios

September 28, 2006 · By The ARGNet Staff in Events, Features, News 

Written by Sean C. Stacey and Brooke Thompson

Opening the day with the Keynote Presentation was Dr. Michael B. Johnson, Pixar Animation Studios‘ Moving Picture Group Lead. His presentation explored creativity and collaboration, art vs. craft, design vs. engineering, and above all, a unique entertainment experience. As he carried us through the creative process mixed with clips from a variety of Pixar’s projects, the message was clear – “Story drives everything.”

From the pitch — which is essentially telling a story at the same time as you are selling it — to the big screen, the creation process is driven by the story. It starts with the team – the best team that you can find because, as he pointed out, “A good team can take a bad story and fix it or reject it; a poor team cannot.” It takes a team to work through the process of iteration and criticism which is essential to fixing issues with the story, the characters, the design, and so on. At Pixar, art is a team sport. You cannot make a film by yourself.


He told of a artist stuck on an idea, his head between his hands until someone told him, “Just do something so we can fix it!” So, dare to fail in the development process, because only then can you move on. It’s important to keep moving, trying new ideas. A good story artist, Johnson explains, always has another idea waiting.

In Pixar’s The Incredibles, there was a scene that involved a plane crash. Originally, the pilot went down with the plane. While it was a compelling and emotional scene, it was obvious to some of the team that it was too much for the story because it would cast blame and guilt on one of the characters. Fortunately, the team process worked and the scene was changed to one that was much more effective though not as realistic. But, as he pointed out, “it’s not about being real, it’s about being believable.”

He closed by pointing out that it’s the story that drives everything. Don’t look at the spin-offs. It’s not about you. So, never forget that you’re making a movie. Passion will get you through.

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