The new head of Pixar shares his advice for crafting meaningful stories.
Creating some of Pixar’s best films is no easy feat, but Pete Docter has accomplished that and much more. One of the leading men at Pixar since the beginning (and soon to be promoted to lead the studio), he co-wrote Toy Story and Toy Story 2 and later co-helmed the animated features Up and Inside Out, both of which earned him Academy Awards. He also co-directed Monster’s Inc., which didn’t win the Oscar but has become an animated classic and beloved childhood favorite for millions since its release.
Docter is very much multitalented, able to write, direct, produce, and animate — he’s even done voice work in his own movies. It’s clear his longevity at the Disney-owned studio lies in his ability to create meaningful stories with memorable characters. He’s an artist who’s not only helped to shape Pixar but has also worked to redefine the ways in which the world views animation, which is something any filmmaker or animator can aspire toward.
Being someone who’s worked his dream job in the industry for more than two decades now, Docter has been giving back to those who hope to follow in his footsteps. Below we’ve gathered some of his best advice to aspiring writers, directors, and animators over the years.
Your First Time Won’t Be Perfect
For newer filmmakers especially, keeping up the patience to redo something and try over and over again to get it right can be frustrating. But at a 2011 fundraiser reported on by the Piedmont Patch Docter noted that reworking a film multiple times is inevitable:
“Dispose of the idea that you’ll get it right the first time, [because animation is a] messy and organic process.”
Practice, Practice, Practice
Like every other art form, filmmaking requires years to master. In an interview with KTCS9 in 2015, Docter suggested a way to hone your craft, which is just to practice doing what you love and you’ll find your way:
“The first thing I’d say is do it right. There are really no excuses. With your iPhone, you can make movies. You know, you can cut stuff on your Mac, and with a relatively small investment of money. You can start making your own stuff. And I always think of it like, you’d never get someone who had never played guitar before and say alright you’re playing a concert. That doesn’t make any sense. Filmmaking is the same way. You just need a lot of practice. The more you do it, the better you get, the more you learn, the more you see.”
Watch the video below for more advice from Docter and the filmmakers of Inside Out.
Docter expressed a similar sentiment in an interview with DVDizzy in 2009, when asked to give advice to young filmmakers:
“I get a lot of people telling me, ‘I’m thinking of making an animated film.’ Well, don’t think about it… DO IT! Today’s technology makes it easier than ever to create films right in your home. I had a teacher tell me, ‘You’ve got ten-thousand bad drawings in you before you get to the good ones. So get drawing.’ The same goes for films (though as you’re making them they’re all works of genius).”
In a letter he wrote to middle school students in 2009 after their teacher had written to him asking for advice for the students, Docter also expressed the importance of hard work in addition to doing what you love:
“So, Middle School Student, whatever you like doing, do it! And keep doing it. Work hard! In the end, passion and hard work beats out natural talent. (And anyway, if you love what you do, it’s not really ‘work’ anyway.)”
Plus, at the end of the day, even a filmmaker as skilled and successful as Docter started out needing practice. He told the Daily Bruin in 2015:
“I’d say do it. There’s always a way to find some way to do it. It’s surprised me I know. The way I sort of visualized it was that some people were born talented and other people are not. The reality is that everybody needs practice. You’d never hand a kid a violin and say, ‘See ya at Carnegie Hall tonight for your big concert.’ They need to practice for years and years. And I think that any of the arts are the same way. The more you do it, the better it’s going to get. The more you show other people and get up there in front of other people, as painful as that is, the more you’re going to understand how to communicate to people, which is what it’s all about.”
For creative jobs like writing and filmmaking, you wouldn’t think something as practical as making lists would provide inspiration. However, when answering a question at the Oscars Lunch in 2016, Docter gave this advice on finding originality and solutions to dilemmas in your work:
“So think the key is just keep digging. And make lists. This is weird, but a lot of times if you just start writing a solution to a problem. How do I get this character out of a pit? He could climb out. Okay. That’s boring. I could use a ladder. Well there’s no ladder. You just keep making lists until you get down to like number 20 or so and then you’re like wow, that could be interesting.”
Docter even suggests making lists when you feel that you’re in a creative slump. In the book “Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration,” he’s quoted as saying:
“One trick I’ve learned is to force myself to make a list of what’s actually wrong. Usually, soon into making the list, I find I can group most of the issues into two or three larger all-encompassing problems. So it’s really not all that bad. Having a finite list of problems is much better than having an illogical feeling that everything is wrong.”
Another way which Docter gets through his own creative ups and downs is to just push through. In an interview with Ad Age in 2015, he explained how this isn’t necessarily a direct way to find good ideas, but one that laminates the need for them in your brain:
“Sometimes people call this ‘writer’s block,’ but for me creative slumps feel more like someone laughed at my new haircut. It’s more of a demoralizing force: I lose confidence, and all my ideas seem lousy. My approach to this is to power through and wrestle the good ideas out. This usually produces nothing. But it tells my brain that, dammit, this is important — and the good ideas tend to come later when I’m not looking for them. I’ve tried skipping the ‘banging my head against the wall’ part of this routine, but unfortunately it seems to be mandatory.”
Give Your Characters Attention
More than any other studio, Pixar has nailed creating characters with journeys that stick with us forever. In an article on Artella in 2015 where Docter provided lots of advice on developing stories, one of his key suggestions was to place importance on character relationships to help engage audiences:
“If there’s one thing I’d underline for you, it’s this: focus on your characters’ relationships. That’s really the main thing we care about as humans. Why else do we so enjoy gossip? Why do we spend so much of our lives around other people? Even if you have great jokes, an amazing world you’ve developed, or even a powerful statement and theme, it’ll really only ever strike home for audiences through the changing interrelationships of your characters.”
Here’s a video in which Docter discusses creating great characters:
When making a film, you typically want it to resonate with everyone in some way. To do so, as Docter noted in a Conversation at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015 when discussing how his desire to balance work and fatherhood inspired the story of Monster’s Inc., is not to make a general story, but rather, the opposite:
“The more specific and particular you are in the storytelling, the more generally it applies. If you try to generalize, then nobody really gets anything. But if you’re very specific and personal about it, it seems to resonate more.”
Watch the entire conversation below.
What We Learned
Because of their consistent success each year, we may easily forget that Pixar films take years and years to make. But as Docter often noted, those years are spent researching, redoing the story in different ways, and spending lots of time with characters.
The key is not to be afraid to really dig into the world of your film, whether it be a live action drama or an animated story starring fictional monsters. You’re a part of the story you create just as it’s a part of you, especially considering how much time you’ll spend with it. No matter where you start or how successful you become, you can always be better, and your best work can come from having the passion and self-awareness to make a story that is as powerful for you as it is for others.