I bet most writers have heard of Pixar Studios. They are the huge animation powerhouse that is now owned by Disney. They’re best known for a string of huge blockbusters films, all earmarked for family viewing. Even if you don’t make a point of watching Pixar films (and by the way you should), you may have stumbled across a helpful and widely shared infographic about the 22 storytelling basics attributed to Emma Coats, a former member of the Pixar creative team.
After watching hours of Pixar movies with my kids, I’ve realized there are some less well-known Pixar tricks. Some of the things I noticed relate to the Pixar 22, while others aren’t mentioned at all. However, I can say with certainty they show up time and time again in Pixar’s films.
Heather and I both love watching movies and they’ve taught us a lot about story craft. Heather wrote about her experiences in a post called Watching for Writers. I’m following her lead today with 5 overlooked storytelling tips I learned from watching Pixar films.
1. Have a Theme:
Pixar admits to loving a good theme; it’s number #3 on their storytelling list. What they didn’t mention is the themes they like best are always about the value of self-sacrifice. It shows up when Flick ventures into the unknown to save his ant hill in A Bug’s Life. We see it with Eve, who is willing to put everything aside as she strives to finish her mission directive in Wall-E. And it’s in Brave when Merida finally accepts her role in preserving the safely of her clan, even if that means marrying someone she barely knows. Whatever the storyline, putting personal needs aside for the sake of someone else is a critical stage in almost every Pixar film. In some, such as Brave and Cars, this realization shows up in the climax as part of the character’s change. While in other stories, like in Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, the safety of others is always something the characters are willing to fight for.
2. Give Characters Opinions:
Number #13 on the Pixar list is: give your characters opinions. However, what isn’t mentioned is reversing those opinions is also critical to the formula. At least one character will always revise their core opinions of another character during the course of the film. It shows up in Finding Nemo as Marlin learns to let go and trust others (including the wacky Dory). And it’s in Cars as Doc realizes that beneath McQueen’s bragging is a kind heart. Revising popular opinions is one of the core plot points of Monsters, Inc. The whole society is based on one belief: that frightening children will produce scream power and save their world from a power shortage. Yet they must revise that core viewpoint in order to survive. Characters with strong opinions are fine, but knowing when and how to revise those viewpoints is makes characters great.
Pixar says in their number #19 storytelling tip that coincidences are perfectly acceptable for getting characters into trouble, but they are not acceptable for getting characters out of trouble. In almost every film, it is teamwork that gets Pixar’s characters out of trouble. The value of teamwork is a concept that shows up with both good and bad repercussions in The Incredibles. It’s even Mr. Incredible’s moto, “I work alone!” that ultimately drives his number one fan Buddy to a lifelong quest to kill all superheroes. Lightening McQueen shows the same disregard for his pit crew in Cars. Later both characters realize their mistake and make amends. Mr. Incredible accepts the support of his whole family, and McQueen builds a new pit crew and decides to stick with his original sponsorship team. Playing into this aspect of teamwork, Pixar always reminds us of the value of family. When Remy marshals the other rats into helping him cook (Ratatouille), or when the ant colony stand up to Hopper and his gang (A Bug’s Life), it is solidarity that gives the hero their strength. The reoccurring role of community and family factors into almost every Pixar climax.
Pixar favors clear-cut villains. There is often nothing redeemable about their bad guys, and several of them (most notably Hopper in A Bug’s Life and Mor’du in Brave) meet with a rather gruesome end. Pixar villains are young and old, male and female, and even robotic with the 2001: A Space Odyssey homage to Hal of the villain Auto in Wall-E. Pixar also favors what I like to call the back-up antagonist. This is a character who is not the main antagonist and is often not inherently an evil character, but adds significant tension to the protagonist’s life anyway. It’s often the back-up antagonist that sparks the protagonist to make a critical change in Pixar films. Later these back-up antagonists will often evolve into a supportive role. We see this with Anton Ego the bitter food critic who later champions Remy’s right to cook in Ratatouille, and with Mirage changing sides and handing over useful information at the end of The Incredibles. There is also Doc who switches from McQueen’s jailer to his mentor in the second half of Cars.
Pixar likes strong male friendships and almost all of their films have a sidekick character, included in their huge casts of secondary characters. These characters are frequently quirky and easily distinguishable from the other characters because Pixar gives each character (from service robots, to slinky dogs, to caterpillars) a collection of critical attributes to make them interesting. Unfortunately, that means some of these secondary characters are stereotypes or even caricatures, and in terms of female or minority characters there are sadly too few. Still each minor character creates an impression on the viewer and we remember them. From the adventurous and trusting Dot in A Bug’s Life, to the neurotic dinosaur in Toy Story, to the no-nonsense clothing designer Edna of The Incredibles. These are fleshed out supporting characters and we know who they are and what they want.
What do you think? Is Pixar doing a great job as a storyteller? Do these fives aspects of the Pixar model help or hinder the storytelling experience for you?