Monday, June 28, 2010

WE LOVE PIXAR: The Secret Ingredients

I came across this great, very well-written article on The Big Hollywood blog archive. It's well worth a look. The things we learn from PIXAR can be applied to any of our projects.

WE LOVE PIXAR: The Secret Ingredients
by James Hudnall

Not since Walt Disney created a film studio based mostly on animation has a film company had such a string of successful family films. In fact, Pixar has had more successes in its run than Disney did in its early years. Lucky for Disney, they distribute Pixar.

Many in Hollywood may be scratching their heads trying to understand why this company has had so many winners. But the secret ingredients are the very things that Hollywood often forgets are the most important elements to any movie. It’s like baking a cake without eggs, flour or sugar. It can be done, but good luck with that.

Let’s review the simple ingredients that makes the Pixar cakes so delicious.

1. Story Fundamentals: Every story is an argument. It should have a point. The point should be made strongly and you should either learn from it or come away with more understanding than you had going in. A story is really there to put things in some kind of perspective. A protagonist is given a set of problems they have to solve in order to achieve the thing they desire. In overcoming those problems they learn about themselves and grow as a person in some way.

If the story is well told, we relate to the characters and identify with them. Pixar does that. They create stories that we can relate to, that show us a world we understand. These tales give worthwhile meaning to the lives of the characters we just went on a journey with. And because of this, they are stories we remember and want to see again. They teach you this stuff in writing school, if you had a good teacher, but many studio execs completely forget all this and go for effects and exploitation and anything else they think will fill the seats. They completely forget is that no one cares about characters they don’t like or relate to. This brings us to ingredient #2.

2. Strong Characters: Pixar creates good stories around strong characters. When I say strong, I don’t mean they can beat people up. In most cases, the Pixar characters are a threat to no one. They are like most people, easily harmed by life’s cruel ironies and twists. But they overcome these problems by being proactive. They heroically defeat their obstacles. And often, through teamwork with others who they often disagree. Through these experiences everyone learns something and the audience is satisfied. Characters in stories need to grow because there has to be a net change from the beginning of the story to the end. Or a movie can feel neutral or pointless. Again, this is a simple truth known since Aristotle’s time that so many movie-makers fail to grasp.

3. Great endings: Endings are at least 50% of what makes a movie good. If your ending is lame, predictable or doesn’t live up to the preceding parts of the film, then the whole picture is forgettable. How many movies have you seen that thrilled you until a stupid ending ruined it? The ending is the last thing an audience remembers. It isn’t called the climax for nothing. Our excitement is built up to a point and If the ending is a fizzle, there are no fireworks, kids. And you don’t want people walking away disappointed. Pixar always delivers satisfying endings. You get plenty of bang for the bucks.

4. Magnificent Art Direction and Animation: These are animated films after all. Pixar has always been one of the most cutting edge animation houses in the business. Their work is superb. It’s the icing on the cake. And the cake they make is moist and delicious.

The rest of Hollywood could learn a lot of Pixar, but hubris being what it is, they probably won’t. Noneth less, we are very happy that Pixar is with us and keeps delivering fine films.


  1. I don't think their stories are perfect but they are genuine,and sincere. Its hard to find that in films today.
    Plus when you watch a Pixar film you can tell they have a love of the story and it shows on the screen.

  2. I don't think the "recipe" is a checklist of what you need in your story. It's more of a 20-20 hindsight view of what Pixar has been doing. And its very true, while it is a business - they seem to really love their projects. You rarely hear about Pixar in-house sniping about the quality of the show, the way you do at the Mouse-House and other studios.