The head of creative at Disney shares 4 ways he finds inspiration and beats mental blocks

Photo: Toy Story/ IMDb

LOS ANGELES — John Lasseter is the chief creative at Walt Disney and Pixar. His credits are a roll-call of the great modern animated movies: Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Cars, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, WALL•E, and Up.

We thought the “ideas man” would be the ideal person to ask for advice on working through a mental block.

His answer is to avoid limiting yourself to producing just one outcome or result, give yourself a few options to progress forward, and collaborate with your colleagues or as he calls them, a “creative brain trust”.

Here are four things Lasseter suggests to do if you get a mental block.

1. Have more than just one solution to a problem

“First of all, in both studios, Disney animation and DisneyToon studios, we bet on people. A story teller, a filmmaker. And we ask them to go away, and with their teams, and come back with three ideas. Not one, but three ideas. And they all have to be great. And so that right there is something to help — if people get stuck on just one idea, and you get to a block, well it’s nice just to be able to step back and go, ‘Okay, now let’s think of another idea, and then another one.’ And every single one of them come back says it was so free. So, that’s one simple aspect at the very start of production.”

2. Form a creative brains trust

“The other thing we do is we have all the other directors and the heads of stories and writers, the key people of creating the stories, we have a kind of formal or informal creative brains trust, a story trust, we call it, where we’re their peers. And we show our movies internally every three months. … [We’re] always looking at our story with this group, and this group is very honest. There’s no politics, there’s no hierarchy… It really is about a peer-to-peer [feedback]… They help to prevent you from getting into that block. “

3. Be honest about problems

“And one of the things that I ask all the filmmaking teams … I want them to lay the problems out. I want to hear their thoughts. [I say] give me everything we brained up, everything we’ve gone all into… and let’s roll up our sleeves and we’ll figure out and solve this. I love problem solving that way, story-wise…. We believe in the process, we believe in ourselves. And it will take time. And it will take trial and error. I always say that in making our animated films, the stories, is exactly the same as walking into a maze. Where you know there’s an exit somewhere, but you have no idea where it is. And we just start walking down paths. We go try things all the time. You learn as you go.”

4. Keep your eyes open to the world for inspiration

“[I get inspiration from] collaboration, I would say. I’m an observer. Animators tend to be observers, and watch things. And certain things I always remember as I’m doing research. If I go, ‘Oh wow, that’s interesting,’… remember that because your audience is going to say exactly the same thing. But I just love learning, too, and finding things out. My wife is always like, ‘How do you know that?’ I just read, you know. I look things up. I mean my smartphone, thank God for Steve Jobs inventing the iPhone, because to me, 99% of what I use it for is not social media, texting, or phone calls. It’s looking stuff up, and reading stuff.”

*The author travelled to Los Angeles as a guest of Disney.