What Can You Learn From Pixar?

If you’re asking yourself that question, chances are that you don’t know them that well! That’s because the answer when it comes to animation is pretty much everything.

They’re the titans of imagination, the giants of animation and the something else very large of storytelling, so whip out your notepads, you might just learn something.

How to tell a good story

Speaking of storytelling, it’s a mighty fine place to start. This is an art that’s so hard to teach, and some people are just predisposed to telling tales whilst others find it way harder.

Pixar’s staff are well-placed to give you some pointers, though. Their insights on the topic can certainly inspire a lot of budding yarn-weavers:

“One of the things you hear all the time, this advice: is write what you know. Now, as a kid I was like, I don’t want to write about suburban Minnesota, that’s boring! I wanna write about explosions and monsters and car chases. Well, what that actually means is, yeah go ahead and write about monsters and explosions and car chases, but put something into it that talks about your own life, how you feel. Do you feel scared? Do you feel alone? Something from your own life will make that story come alive and not just be a boring car chase.”

Pete Docter, Director Inside Out, Up, Monsters Inc.

You have a unique perspective that inspires you. It’s about recognising your emotional response from your own personal experiences, no matter how mundane, and trying to use that emotion to encourage the audience to get the same feeling.

Pixar director and storyboard artist Emma Coats Tweeted out 22 of her tips for storytelling. As you might imagine, 22 Tweets are a nightmare to try and link to, so here’s a compiled list:

  • You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  • You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
  • Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  • Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  • Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  • What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  • Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  • Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  • When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  • Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  • Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  • Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  • Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  • Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  • If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  • What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  • No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  • You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  • Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  • Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  • You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  • What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Some really helpful, quick-fire wisdom there. Print em out and stick that on a wall somewhere to ensure you avoid getting bogged down in a creative funk.

The filmmaking process

You don’t grow to be a studio the size of Pixar by not streamlining the filmmaking process. Doing so while still retaining the creativity and imagination that makes their movies such smash hits is an art all of its own.

They’ve made a great video which takes you on a tour of some of their different departments whilst following the lifecycle of a movie and teaching you some of the fundamental skills that go into making a movie.

  1. It all starts with an idea or concept like: “When kids leave the room, their toys come to life.”
  2. The story department then figures out what happens by using simple drawings and ‘storyboarding’ the plot alongside these rough sketches.
  3. Production designers begin designing the world and characters by painting, drawing and even sculpting.
  4. Storyboards are then passed on to editorial, who string them together and time them out, adding music, dialogue and sound effects as they go.
  5. From here, the film starts being produced digitally by technical artists, who create the characters in 3D.
  6. Riggers add controls to the models and ensure that the animators will be able to manipulate them.
  7. Set designers create digital worlds, sometimes by coding simulations to build the larger sets automatically.
  8. Virtual cameras are created and placed throughout the set, in much the same way that real cameras would be.
  9. Finally, the project is passed on to the animators, where they do their thing.
  10. Adding clothes, hair, fur or the strands of a sea anemone are then added by simulation technical artists.
  11. Textures and surfaces are created and applied to the characters and sets by texture artists.
  12. Next up, lighting is added, with some scenes requiring over 200 light sources.
  13. All this is then passed on to the rendering department, which they call the ‘Renderfarm.’ All the frames are brought together and rendered, with some single frames taking over 24 hours to complete!

Animated filmmaking principles

As you can tell from that video, Pixar are really dedicated not only to making their movies, but to sharing their insights with the world. Their ‘Pixar in a Box’ series created in partnership with Khan Academy is an absolute goldmine of information.

You can jump in and learn all about the basics which animators need to know like rigging, squash and stretch, and Bezier curves as well as the more technical stuff like simulation coding, lighting properties and colour science.

Honestly, some of this goes over my head, but my best shot of understanding it all, is with these videos. There’s even activities and exercises for you to complete throughout the series, making it an awesome resource for those wanting to learn animation as well as teach it.

Backup your files!

This is common sense, surely? Why do I need to hear this from Pixar? Well it turns out that they almost lost the entirety of Toy Story 2 because of a simple line of code which began erasing hundreds of hours of work before their eyes.

Literally, this happened whilst they had their eyes on the screen. They noticed Woody’s hat disappear, then moments later Woody himself was erased, then Hamm, Mr Potato Head and Rex followed him out the door.

The real heart sinking moment comes when the team realised that their backup processes hadn’t been operating properly, and it became obvious that months of work by hundreds of people might be gone forever.

The movie’s Supervising Technical Director Galyn Susman had recently given birth to her son and had been working from home with a machine backed up with the files that had just been deleted in the studio. The story goes that they wrapped this machine in blankets and drove in at a snail’s pace, back to the studio where the files were restored from Susman’s drive. Phew!

How to get into animation

Lucky for you budding animators with big dreams, Pixar can also teach you what they look for in their new recruits. So instead of keeping yourself up at night with questions like: should I specialise or not? or: what qualities do I have to have? Just consider some of the information that they put together on their Careers FAQ page to provide guidance to people.

Apparently, three quarters of the animators on Toy Story were new to computers when they were hired. That’s bonkers isn’t it? Pixar’s message here is that animators need to specialise in animation itself: “The reality is that computer graphic animators have no advantage over pen-and-ink animators, clay animators, stop-motion animators, etc. So while it’s preferable for someone to have 3D knowledge, it’s not paramount.”

Pixar looks for animation skill first and computer prowess second. The emphasis is on bringing a character to life through your animation, giving them personality, conveying drama and making their acting believable, not on how fancy your particle effects are or how talented you are at still life drawing.

We’ll leave you with this great quote from an unnamed Directing Animator at Pixar that will help you trim down that demo reel and give you the best shot at getting your foot in the door at one of the biggest studios on the planet:

“You’re applying for Animation? Well—show me good animation! Show me acting.

Show me thinking. Show me a character that is alive. I don’t care about lighting, modeling, shading, particle effects, or how clever you are. Blow me away with something I’ve never seen. An original character with a distinct personality!”

Still want some advice from an, ahem, equally esteemed source? Check out our guides on How to get into Animation and How to Create a Portfolio.