Thursday, February 24, 2011

5 Filmmaking Lessons From "The Pixar Story"


I just recently discovered the 2007 documentary "The Pixar Story," a behind-the-scenes look at the creation, struggles and accomplishments of probably the most successful film studio in history. In addition to the usual rise-to-greatness story, the film also contains of insights into the mindsets of filmmakers. I took 11 pages of notes as I watched it! Don't worry, I won't force all of that information onto you. Instead, I'll share what I think are the five most helpful lessons one can learn from watching this documentary.

1. Filmmaking is collaborative but the end product is the director's vision.
As Pixar began production on its first film with Disney Studios—"Toy Story"—they were bombarded with Disney input. Disney's then chairman of the studio, Jeffrey Katzenberg, wanted all Disney films, including Toy Story, to be "edgy." Pixar obliged this request, addressing every note and jumping through every Disney hoop. 

The result?

A disastrous animatic that was described as: not funny, not moving, not emotional and with characters that didn't quite work, especially Woody, who was mean-spirited. It was clear that this wasn't the film Lasseter had intended to make.

The response to the animatic was so dismal that Disney shut down production and told Pixar to lay off staff. Pixar did neither. Collectively they said, "screw it," trashed the storyboard and jumped back in with a fresh mindset of, "What do we want? What would be the funniest thing?"

They listened to their guts 100%, were brutally honest and worked non-stop. They were empowered and excited because they were finally making the movie they wanted to make. Lasseter knew that the story drove every choice and he confidently had every frame in his head. Their energy produced a new animatic in an unheard of 2-3 weeks which, when presented to Disney, showed the film's potential.

Production was resumed and the rest is history!

2. A support system is necessary.
When Lasseter returned home exhausted from the international press tour for "A Bug's Life," he intended to take time off, recharge and remind his family that he existed. Before he could do this, he learned that "Toy Story 2's" status had been upgraded from direct-to-video to theatrical release and that it was currently a mess. Lasseter's wife understood why he had to swoop in and rescue the production but she made it clear that he'd have to keep more regular hours.

Kate Capshaw reportedly made the same request of husband Steven Spielberg when he was in the process of creating Dreamworks studio; go ahead and have your studio but make sure you're home for dinner every night.

In other words, love and understanding from one's family are essential not only to a creative person's success, but also to maintaining the life balance that feeds the creativity.


3. Be fearless. Be different.
Steve Jobs saw what others overlooked: Pixar's potential. He jumped in and supported the company even at its most desperate moments. Although he lost over $1 million per year during Pixar's first five years, he bravely took the long view because he saw what the company was trying to accomplish even before they accomplished it. Jobs knew that Pixar was way beyond what everyone else was doing. His attitude made it easier for Lasseter to decide to go in a different direction from the usual Disney films—no musicals, no fairy tales. No other studio understands nor embraces fearlessness and originality as completely as Pixar does.

4. Overnight success takes years.
Pixar's original form was created in 1979. John Lasseter joined in 1984. Pixar released it's first feature in 1995. During those years, there was experimentation, commercials, live-action effects and animated shorts. That's a lot of years of a lot of work before the triumph of "Toy Story." It was during those lean years that—while working on the short "Red's Dream"—Lasseter had to share one computer with three other guys! He took the late shift, doing most of his animation between 10:30pm and 5am. He kept a futon under his desk; his assistant would wake him in the morning and he'd get right back to animating. He did this routine for weeks. THAT'S dedication. As Brad Bird aptly noted at the end of the film, "Film is forever; pain is temporary."

5. Enthusiasm can change minds and open doors.
I'd read this before in Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich but didn't fully believe it until this film showed me some real-world examples. 

Lasseter showed Tim Allen sketches of Buzz Lightyear hoping to convince Allen to do the film. But it wasn't those sketches that won Allen over; it was Lasseter's enthusiasm. It was this same enthusiasm that fired up a most likely demoralized "Toy Story 2" crew to get the film ready for release in a mere nine months.

Enthusiasm can make the sale when other methods fail.

I highly recommend watching the documentary but if you don't, hopefully you'll find these summarized lessons useful.

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