The Secret Behind Pixar’s Storytelling Process

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Fast Company has an excerpt from Creativity, Inc., the new book by Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull (with Amy Wallace), which goes inside the creative process at the studio. Catmull attributes much of their creative success to their internal process for continually refining stories. It includes meetings with the Braintrust, a group of executives, directors and other storytellers who are assigned to objectively critique the work—but only as suggestions for the director to accept or dismiss on her own:

To understand why the Braintrust is so central to Pixar, you have to start with a basic truth: People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process. It is the nature of things–in order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for a while, and that near-fusing with the project is an essential part of its emergence. But it is also confusing. Where once a movie’s writer/director had perspective, he or she loses it. Where once he or she could see a forest, now there are only trees.

How do you get a director to address a problem he or she cannot see? The answer depends, of course, on the situation. The director may be right about the potential impact of his central idea, but maybe he simply hasn’t set it up well enough for the Braintrust. Maybe he doesn’t realize that much of what he thinks is visible on-screen is only visible in his own head. Or maybe the ideas presented in the reels he shows the Braintrust won’t ever work, and the only path forward is to blow something up or start over. No matter what, the process of coming to clarity takes patience and candor.

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