Part 2 of the Journey of Pain

Here’s part two of my notes from Andrew Stanton’s Journey of Pain talk, from the Screenwriting Expo 5 in Los Angeles last year. Teaching Short Film Production this term on Animation Mentor, and helping a dozen students whip their short films into shape, has reinforced how much animators are storytellers, and even within an individual shot many of these ideas apply. In some ways, every new shot is a tiny little journey of pain, but it’s the good kind of pain, if you’re up for the challenge.

Be warned that some of these notes are fairly cryptic, and quite a bit is lost reading them without the video clips and additional info provided during the talk. . .

Andrew’s next key point was to know your characters. He described how Toy Story 2 was initially being done in a separate building, staffed by a “B-team,” while the A-team worked on A Bug’s Life. They realized that TS2 wasn’t up to snuff, but couldn’t do anything about it until they finished ABL, at which time only 10 months remained on the TS2 schedule. The A-team and the B-team combined, and the script for TS2 was rewritten in a mere 3 months. That compares to 36 months for the original TS script, and 38 months for the ABL script.

How was that possible? Because the characters were known. This is where most rewriting happens — in trying to find, and refine, ones characters. With TS2 the tricky part was defining the three new characters (including Jessie, whom Joe Ranft nailed by describing her as “a bipolar Ellie Mae”), and this was were most of that three months was spent.

When thinking about characters Andrew said he enjoys returning to The Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Less Masters, which is a collection of post-mortem autobiographical “epitaphs” of 244 former citizens of a fictional town in Illinois. It reminds him that there are an infinite number of characters, and stories about their lives. He also cited a quote from Mr. Rogers to the effect that, “There isn’t anyone you can’t love once you know their story.”

He also read a passage from American Pastoral, by Philip Roth, regarding meeting people, and how “we always get them wrong.” (See this discussion for the passage, along with thoughts about its significance.)

The next key is to Know your world. As an example, Fantasy = Rules. In a fantasy world, you must establish your rules (which can be anything you want), but then you must be consistent and true to those rules. A key element of audience enjoyment is anticipation mingled with uncertainty. If you don’t follow any rules, then there’s nothing to anticipate. Anything can happen, so nothing matters. In Monster’s Inc. a crucial story development was the invention of the rule that screams = fuel — this gave the film structure, and much of the story came easily once this was established.

Which lead to the next key, Inner, not Outer, Conflict. An example was that initially Monster’s Inc. had a complex lead story involving an “industrial accident” for Sully (he’d been stuck in a child’s room and saw the effects his frightening had on the child, leaving Sully traumatized). This focus on the outer conflict (the screams, and the effects on the kids and on Sully) turned out to be a dead end. In the film you’ll recall that the screams ended up occurring off screen.

Writing is like Archeology — keep digging, and throwing away what doesn’t fit. Write, and rewrite, and rewrite some more, and be ruthless about throwing away your ideas that don’t fit.

Closing the gap between intention and effect. I have to confess that my notes here are too spare to give this bullet point much context, but I believe he was referring to both the writing process (having a clear idea of what you want, and doing what it takes to achieve that) and an element of a satisfying story. Andrew talked of how Finding Nemo was conceived as a CG film from the start, that the story required an emphasis on reality to work, since the ocean was the antagonist. He went on to describe how the Pixar effects artist did such a perfect job of recreating the ocean and it’s elements that they had to go back and make it slightly hype-real to convince people that they didn’t just shoot live-action for the backgrounds.

No Flashbacks! Initially Finding Nemo began with Nemo going off to school, and the backstory of Marlin and his wife, and her murder along with all but one of the eggs, was told in a series of flashbacks. The problem was that the audience didn’t find out why Marlin was so horribly overprotective until late in the film, by which time the audience had long before made up their mind about him. Andrew was finally convinced that the flashbacks had to go, and came to the conclusion to Only tell what’s vital . . . and tell it linearly.

Music — the score in Finding Nemo kept it from being treacley and playing like an After School Special. The music was conceived from the start to be another character. Andrew frequently constructs scratch soundtracks from existing music, and writes to that music.

Storytelling Unified Field Theory: 2 + 2. Notice that it’s not 2 + 2 = 4. The story doesn’t tell the answer — the audience adds it up. The writer supplies the key elements, and leaves it to the viewer to finish the thought. This is yet another example of the idea that audiences enjoy working for their entertainment. Plus this is a good way to keep your writing economical. And this applies to every aspect of the film, and not just the writing.

He then played an audio clip to illustrate this idea, from the first lines of an Elaine May/Mike Nichols’ play:

[phone ringing]

[male voice]: Hello.

[elderly female voice]: Hello. This is your mother . . . remember me?”

With those few words, the audience has all the information it needs to fill in the back story and know the situation.

Tell the truth obliquely — let the thrill of suspense and discovery work within the viewer’s head.

Don’t let the strings show. This is pretty self explanatory, though much easier to say than to do.

In wrapping up, he listed the Pixar Philosophy:

–It’s not for kids (the films are aimed at everyone).

— Be filmgoers first, and filmmakers second (make movies you want to see).

— No formulas.

— If a formula appears, stop doing it. (Now, about those Pixar blinks . . . ;))

— Animation is a medium, not a genre (something Brad Bird has been saying for years).

— Dare to be stupid.

— Just make good movies.

He gave a Walt Disney quote, the key part of which was: “Fun and wonder are the important elements [of great animation], in addition to quality in production and performance — fun in the sense of cheerful reaction, the appeal to love and laughter, wonder in that we appeal to the constant wonder in men’s minds, which is stimulated by imagination.” For Andrew, the emphasis should be on the last phrase, on appealing to the wonder in people’s minds.

Then he noted that, despite how much he has learned about screenwriting and storytelling, he misses the “stupidity” he had on that first Toy Story screenplay. The problem is that once you get experienced, you have a tendency to kill your daring ideas before you explore them.

During the Q and A, Andrew was asked about screenwriting books he recommends (The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri), the key to a good second act (“know your punchline”), and some question that led him to say that he’d found Robert McKee’s story seminar beneficial.

4 Responses to “Part 2 of the Journey of Pain

  1. Jurgen Wolff Says:

    Thanks for this. That’s a great point about having to have rules even in a fantasy world (or especially as a fantasy world, as they will be different from the rules every knows about in the ordinary world). This is where a lot of horror and scifi pictures fall apart–because anything can happen (no rules) when it does, there’s no surprise or tension, it’s just one thing after another.

  2. Alonso Says:

    Great notes Kevin, thanks a lot!

  3. Kevin Says:

    You’re welcome, Alonso and Jurgen!

  4. Belzecue Says:

    I’ve transcribed Stanton’s keynote here:

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch