- When Pixar released the first instalment of “Toy Story” in 1995, it wasn’t just a technological marvel.
- It also elevated storytelling to a new level for animated films.
- Here are Pixar’s five essential rules of storytelling that are essential to understanding why their hit films like “Inside Out,” “Up,” and “Monsters Inc.” feel so perfect.
- Watch Next: How Pixar’s animation has evolved over 24 years, from “Toy Story” to “Toy Story 4”
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Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: There isn’t a question quite as universal in the history of cinema as “What makes Pixar so great?” In just 24 years, the studio has not only introduced an entirely new medium for storytelling but has managed to elevate that form to a staple of our pop culture, consistently creating generation-defining works that have come to define what good animation looks and feels like. All of its films are pure technological marvels, but I think it’s far from what makes the films so special.
John Lasseter: These are just great, new, expensive pencils, you know. That’s what this is. It’s artists using these computers as though, you know, an artist at Disney uses a piece of paper and a pencil. ‘Cause the focus of what we do is still where it’s most important, and that’s with the story and the characters.
Narrator: Pixar’s obsession with stories is actually quite well-known. None of its films is ever made just once, each painstakingly rewritten and reedited until it’s right. It’s how the version of “Toy Story 2” we all know was finished in just nine months, when Pixar, unimpressed with its first cut, decided to start from the very beginning: the story. So how does Pixar get its story right? To understand it, we can take a look at its 22 rules of storytelling. Each gives a unique insight into how its writers work. But five of them are essential in understanding what makes its films so special.
The first rule is in understanding the structure of a story. All Pixar movies are generally formatted the same way. We’re first introduced to the characters and watch them in their routine life, until the safety of that routine is shattered by an unexpected change. The rest of the film follows the characters’ struggle against this change until, from the experience, they reach a lesson. In this way, the stories of Pixar are always about changes. In “Toy Story,” it was the arrival of a new toy, and in “Inside Out,” a move to a new city, and in “Up,” the death of a loved one. The film tells the story of characters who are struggling to accept or adapt to the changes around them. But in a world created by Pixar, changes are also opportunities to grow and learn from. They’re just not aware of it yet. And this conflict is so clear to us as viewers because Pixar takes its time in helping us understand who they are. Which brings us to our next rule.
A majority of Pixar’s magic lies in its characters. And they always feel real and complex because the writers give each of them an opinion. Now, these opinions don’t necessarily have to be agreeable, or at times even likable, as long as they’re understandable. And giving characters real opinions matters because they, in time, incite real emotions. And it’s these emotions that Pixar uses to breathe life into its characters. Joy in “Inside Out” is oblivious to the importance of negative emotions. Woody in “Toy Story” grows jealous of the attention a new toy receives, just wants things to go back to how they were. These are ideas and emotions that are universal, that anyone can relate to, kids or adults. They aren’t good emotions, but they are honest, and this honesty helps us to relate to them. And although Pixar has its fair share of diabolical villains, I think Pixar movies shine the most when they lack one, when these honest yet ugly emotions surface to become the villain of the plot. “Toy Story’s” villain isn’t Sid, but Woody, whose jealousy sets off the main conflict. And in “Inside Out,” none of Riley’s emotional breakdowns would have even happened if Joy had simply accepted that other emotions could matter as much as herself. And when these characters resist change, Pixar throws them a challenge in the form of coincidences.
Pixar has no problem using coincidences. A lot. Sometimes it’s indirectly set off by the characters. But it’s how they use them that’s different. Whereas bad writing uses coincidences to get characters out of a tough situation, Pixar uses coincidences to get them into one. These coincidences put characters in situations where they’re forced to confront and adapt to the changes. But none serves as an easy way out. It’s the characters who have to get themselves out. This makes the stakes higher and every problem a bit more personal. Even an occasion where it might seem like a deus ex machina, it’s a payoff and also a chance for a great character moment. Once the characters find themselves in trouble, Pixar shifts its focus to who they’re sharing the experience with.
Villains often make a great tool for understanding a protagonist, because quite often they embody their polar opposites. Pixar uses villains for the same reason. But more often than not, these opposites are introduced as supporting characters. It’s no secret that Pixar movies are heavily inspired by the buddy-film genre, a genre almost as long as the history of film itself. But it’s a rather perfect genre for inspiration, given what Pixar tries to achieve through its films: to teach a lesson. Most of us learn through others and opinions that differ from our own. The same rule applies in the world of Pixar. Joy learns the importance of other negative emotions and of their symbiotic harmony thanks to her journey with Sadness. And Carl in “Up” is able to move on from the death of his wife because of the journey with a boy who resembles his younger self but is the opposite of the man he’s grown to be. As a film puts two opposing forces through a series of challenges, the two characters have no choice but to grow and learn from each other. Which leads us to our final point: the lesson.
I like to call it a “Pixar moment.” In every film, there’s a point where everything just clicks, when we, along with the characters, learn what the entire experience has been all about. It’s what a lot of bad stories get wrong. They’re busy force-feeding us themes and motifs that desperately scream for attention. But in the works of Pixar, everything is far more subtle. In a lot of ways, Pixar tells a story just like how we learn our lessons. They’re never expected. They never come easy. And we fail constantly in the process. But at the end of it all, it becomes clear why the journey was worth taking. It all feels real and organic because we learn with these characters rather than from them. It’s all really just beautiful storytelling. There’s no doubt that Pixar has a perfect handle on how to tell a story. But beyond that, Pixar’s greatest strength might lie in knowing what its story is about. It might look like an abandoned robot, a family of superheroes, toys, or emotions. But in the end, it’s really a story about us.