6 Filmmaking Tips From Pixar

By  · Published on June 20th, 2012

If there’s any outfit that celebrates the team sport aspect of filmmaking, it’s Pixar. What began as the Graphics Group at LucasFilm has evolved into its own behemoth of wonder and magic. Not just pioneers of technology, they’ve sought to invent in order to put stories out into the world ‐ using computer animation for the ancient purpose of spinning tales and crafting characters.

Led by Ed Catmull, the production house (which was bought by Disney in 2006) boasts luminaries like John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich and many more.

There newest film, Brave, is in theaters this week, so here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from RenderMan and company.

Brutal, Honest Feedback in Support of the Team’s Vision

“One of the protections is the notion that [team leaders] have the final say so. Now this is a very hard thing to say because we say we are filmmaker led. The reason its hard is if they can’t lead the team, we will actually remove the person from it. That’s our version of what a failure is… it’s hard because it’s a personal thing. Until you reach that breaking point, you have to do everything you can.. sometimes it’s adding people to the team, sometimes it’s removing them, but as leaders we don’t tell them what to do.

We have a structure so they get their feedback from their peers… every two or three months they present “the film” to the other filmmakers… and they will go through, and they will tear the film apart. And it’s very important for that dynamic to work, because it could be a brutal process, there needs to be the feeling they are all helping each other who wants that help. In order for that to work its important that no one in the room has the authority to tell the director they have to take their notes [and make changes]. So no one is taking a list of what you have to do to fix the film. All we can do is give the feedback and he goes off with the feedback… our job as leaders is to protect the dynamic in the room so that they’re honest with each other.” ‐ Ed Catmull

There’s a large element of faith that comes with working closely as a team ‐ relying on other people to come through under difficult constraints while also worrying about your share of the load. There’s also a desperate need for thick skin. Great products of any kind aren’t built by sparing feelings in the room ‐ but being caustic and negative isn’t the answer either.

A balance of delivering harsh criticism in a way that colleagues can still grab coffee together afterward is crucial.

Start Terrible and Be Unafraid

“Every single Pixar film, at one time or another, has been the worst movie ever put on film. But we know. We trust our process. We don’t get scared and say, ‘Oh, no, this film isn’t working.’” ‐ John Lasseter

In the book “Bird By Bird,” writer Anne Lamott expresses the idea that we’re terrified as writers of finishing a first draft and then getting hit by a bus. That we’re afraid to put something so awful down officially and then disappear, leaving it behind for others to find.

The truth is that first drafts are garbage. The worst truth is that we often know we’re writing garbage while we’re writing it. The key is to get it done (and then use that brutal peer review process to make it better). It’s not like Wall-E or Toy Story or Up were Pixar’s first passes or anything. They took years of careful honing to make as strong as they are.

Technology Should Work in Service of the Story

Embrace Black Sheep and Imperfection

“I said, ‘Give us the black sheep. I want artists who are frustrated. I want the ones who have another way of doing things that nobody’s listening to. Give us all the guys who are probably headed out the door.’ A lot of them were malcontents because they saw different ways of doing things, but there was little opportunity to try them, since the established way was working very, very well. We gave the black sheep a chance to prove their theories, and we changed the way a number of things are done here.” ‐ Brad Bird upon starting on The Incredibles

In the same piece, Bird talks about the crippling effect that “perfection” can have on a project. It can take 100% of your focus and place it on the wrong thing. That ties in well with the concept of starting terrible and going from there. Team Pixar seems to relish in being as bad as possible on the road to greatness.

Never Start With Marketing in Mind

“Because just myself, I… and this is kind of our approach at Pixar in general, we don’t really think about marketing and merchandising. That’s not what makes a good movie. If you start with that…well, you know where that goes. You have to think about good storytelling and characters first. Then hopefully, the rest of that stuff will follow, some more than others. But if you don’t have a good film and strong characters, then you don’t have anything down the road. “ ‐ Pete Docter

With the Cars franchise and the upcoming sequels/prequels, it’s unclear whether this philosophy still reigns supreme, but it’s hard to accuse Pixar of abandoning a Story First approach even in their missteps. Start with characters, and you get Finding Nemo. Start with toy sales in mind, and you get Battleship.

Know Your Lenses and Lights

What Have We Learned

The root lessons here involve 1) knowing as much as possible about your craft and 2) realize that you’re not going to pop out a polished product on the first or second or third or fourteenth go of it. Embrace the challenges and your own faults in order to learn from them and craft something better.

On the wildcard front, Bird’s offering insinuates that even when a system is working, it can still be changed or improved upon. So listen to a black sheep once in a while.

Overall, it’s about creating characters and dropping them into a compelling story. Unfortunately, that’s not a silver bullet for successful filmmaking; it’s the hardest part of the process.

But it’s one worth fighting to get right.

To suggest a director, email us.

Check out previous entries in our Filmmaking Tips series:

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.