Features and Columns

6 More Filmmaking Tips from Pixar

Because the greatest animation studio in America is overloaded with inspiration.
By  · Published on June 13th, 2017

Because the greatest animation studio in America is overloaded with inspiration.

Five years ago, on the eve of the release of Brave, we devoted our Filmmaking Tips to Pixar. The whole studio rather than one filmmaker (or three, as it’d be for the release at hand). There’s good advice to be found there from co-founder/president Edwin Catmull, director/CCO John Lasseter, filmmakers Brad Bird and Pete Docter, and the late Steve Jobs.

Now, on the eve of the release of Cars 3, we’ve got another bunch of tips. They’re not all new lessons learned since the previous compilation. In fact, only two of them are from after 2012. But they’re all additional tips worth knowing, whether or not you’re interested in working at Pixar or even in animation.

Check out advice from Lasseter, Meg LeFauve, Michael Arndt, Andrew Stanton, Peter Lin, and Jim Capobianco below.

1. Don’t Be Seduced by Technology

In our first Filmmaking Tips from Pixar compilation, there’s a 1996 Charlie Rose interview where Steve Jobs talks about how the technology should serve the storytelling. Fifteen years later, Lasseter (who was also in that old interview) gave a related piece of advice in a New York Times reader Q&A on the fundamental need for basic tools over the latest tech:

The advice that I have is don’t be seduced by the technology. Every young person gets so excited about new software packages and new technology. Technology never entertains an audience on its own. It’s what you do with the technology.

It’s so important as you start out to go to an art school or film school that has really strong basic, fundamental classes, and don’t skip over those. Don’t think you already know. What I mean is basic 2-D design, basic 3-D design, color theory, figure drawing, perspective drawing, basic drawing, basic three-act story structure, basic animation principles.

These fundamentals are the things that I use every single day; they’re so vitally important. The tools you use will constantly change, but it’s knowing what to do with those tools is what’s going to make you a great filmmaker and a great animator.

And here’s a video from 2009 where Lasseter says the same thing:


2. Do It for the Characters

Who are you making the film for? Yourself? The audience? How about the characters? Meg LeFauve (Oscar-nominated co-writer of Inside Out who went on to work on Captain Marvel) offers a bunch of tips on emotional storytelling in a 2015 Fast Company article and one of them suggests an interesting solution for writer’s block: stop thinking it’s about you.

What Pixar taught me is to just keep writing even when I’m out of ideas. I learned that if you just keep going back to the well, it will uncork and there will be more. For me, personally, the worst thing that can happen is a shut-down where I am literally not able to physically write.

And I think the other way that I got unstuck once or twice is I realized, especially for my own personal writing more than maybe at Pixar, that if I don’t write this story this character will never exist—they will never be in the world, they will never get a chance to tell their story.

So I had a responsibility to sit down and fight to get the story out for that character. That really helps my brain shift so it’s not about me and my ego and what I’m able to do and not do; it’s for the character and letting their story be told.

Here’s more of LeFauve on the importance of your characters over yourself plus more advice to AFI Conservatory Fellows in 2016:

3. Take a Good Thing Too Far

In an overemphasized but instructive animated video from 2012, Michael Arndt (Oscar-winning writer of Little Miss Sunshine, nominated co-writer of Pixar’s Toy Story 3) explains the lessons he learned at Pixar about the first act of a script. The gist is that your main character needs a passion and then a flaw involving that passion that will initially send them down the wrong path when that thing they’re passionate about is taken away from them.

4. It’s All a Joke

Now that you know all about the beginning of a story, you need to know that the ending is all that matters. Well, not exactly, but it’s very important as it’s the goal to which everything else before it leads toward. In his 2012 TED Talk, Andrew Stanton (Oscar-winning director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E and also a nominated writer of those and other Pixar movies) explains that “storytelling is joke-telling” in that regard. The rest of his talk covers a lot of things about storytelling, but that main principle of serving an end goal ties into it all.

5. Be Imperfect

Nobody’s perfect, but Pixar’s computer software is. At least when it comes to images and the simulated camera work that captures those images. But that’s not realistic nor is it realistically cinematic. Some imperfection, maybe in focusing, gives viewers a feeling they’re watching something real (this is different than Brad Bird’s giving in to imperfection).

In this video from Khan Academy’s indispensable Pixar in a Box series of filmmaking lessons, cinematographer Patrick Lin explains:

6. No One’s Gonna Love Your Film More Than You Do

Film is a collaborative art, and yet there’s one person really considered the filmmaker on any project, live-action or animation. Maybe less so with animation, unless it’s a short. In a series of blog posts from 2009 sharing lessons learned while making an animated short, Jim Capobianco (Oscar-nominated co-writer of Ratatouille, director of its short spinoff Your Friend the Rat and his own short Leonardo) starts off with a reminder that no one cares about your art as much as you do:

It is important to realize no one will care as much for the film as you will. Many people have passed through the corridors of Leo, some have helped and some haven’t no matter what good intentions they had. This is to be expected and there is no ill will, you just move on. But you have to be prepared to fill in where others have dropped out or have an alternative plan.

So how do you get people to work on your film? With money, of course. It’s a job. But not all films, especially early in one’s career, has that kind of budget. Well, Capobianco also points out that it’s not necessarily money that attracts help. The people working on your film need to get something out of it, and that could be a number of possibilities. He writes:

Perhaps one of the most important lessons I have learned working on Leonardo and working with people in general is that everyone needs to get something from the collaboration. This took me some time to figure out. A friend warned me when I started that no one will deliver if you don’t pay them. I thought, “Oh no, they will love the project. They will want to do it, and besides they’re my friends.” Well he was right to an extent.

What I learned is: You, as the main creator, get the film and all the good (and the bad ) that comes with that. The artists working for you, if they are going to deliver, need something, too. This is often thought of in the form of money, but truthfully even when people are paid, the really good work comes when they are stretching an old muscle, trying something new and/or being challenged.

I see this at work all the time, and it was true on Your Friend the Rat. It could be getting a chance to do something they normally wouldn’t…find someone who isn’t doing the thing they want to do (like you’re not — that’s maybe why you’re making your short) and give them a chance to do it.

What We’ve Learned

This time, we covered some fundamentals of storytelling and animation craft, that it’s important to know the basics of both to either create a good conventional story or work off from. Everything you do is in service to the story, which is in service to the end goal, which is in service to the characters, especially the protagonist.

We also learned that, like the main character, your cinematography should be imperfect in order for the audience to believe in its basis in reality. Finally, don’t think for a second anyone’s going to serve your vision as a filmmaker without it benefiting them in some big way. Especially at Pixar, which is very collaborative but also long considered itself a “director’s studio.”

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.