By: Matthew Wainwright

The story of Pixar Animation Studios is one of the great narratives of our time. It is not just a narrative of financial success, or of a sea-change in popular culture surrounding animated features; more than anything, it is a story about Stories, and the way in which effective and moving stories are developed, released, and consumed.

The events of Pixar’s growth and success are well-documented, as is its process in developing wildly successful feature films. However, I believe there are comparisons that could be made between the way Pixar develops stories for the medium of film and the way in which stories are developed for the medium of print, and lessons to be learned in the comparison.

What, then, is Pixar’s process? It can be boiled down to (roughly) four steps:

1. The Pitch

Anyone can pitch ideas to Pixar executives, and the ideas can be about anything. There is no shame, no overt criticism, and no ‘bad ideas’ — some ideas have more potential to be successful than others, but anything and everything should be considered.

The pitch comes in the form of a brief outline of a concept and characters; at this stage the plot is less important, as it will grow organically from these two things.

Also, ideas are pitched in groups of three, as no one idea is deemed to be strong enough in and of itself to merit sole attention.

2. The Treatment

At the pitch meeting an idea may be selected to be taken forward; this may be one of the pitched ideas, or it may be a single part of one idea or a combination of two or three. The key thing here is that it is the idea being taken forward: that kernel of inspiration, the thing that hooked the executives in the first place.

A treatment is created, outlining a possible plot and the key emotional beats and character arcs that need to run through out the film. Again, the characters and themes are the main focus here: everything serves the story, and the story comes from the characters.

3. Development

Once the treatment is approved, a script is commissioned — always in a team of writers who work closely with the director and other executives to develop the story to a point where it is approaching a coherent narrative. Pixar expressly employs writers who work well in a team, not those who prefer to work in solitary. Collaboration and feedback are Pixar watchwords.

Following on from the script, storyboards are produced to visualize the finished film, and put together in a rough reel to show how the film might play out. This is where the development team and executives can get a feel for the pacing and character arcs. Feedback is given and changes are made, until the shots and scenes begin to fall into place.

4. Production

Finally production can begin — although each stage of the process bleeds into the next. Changes will still be made as shots are being developed. Nuances of character, mood, lighting, set-dressing, camera angles, camera moves, and a thousand other things will be tweaked endlessly to come up with the perfect feature.

The feedback loop is constant, between the director, the writers, the animators, the designers, and the executives. The director is ultimately responsible for bringing all of these departments together, but the director does not work alone. A good director listens to any and all feedback and criticism, and can recognize where changes need to be made to improve the film.

This process continues through to music and sound effects, all the way to the finished product.

Of course there are other ways to break down the development process, but this way will work for the purposes of a comparison.

Let’s look, then, at the route of traditional publishing for producing a novel (we’ll start with a non established or new author first, as the route can be slightly different for an established author):

1. Development and production.

An author works alone to produce a narrative. They spend months or years developing characters, plots and themes, usually in near-isolation, and gradually bring these elements together in a novel.

2. The Pitch

The first-time author takes their finished manuscript and either queries or submits samples to literary agents, waiting weeks or months to hear if they would like to read more. Feedback is rarely given — authors usually hear a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, unless the agent is very interested in their work.

Established authors (and new authors, once they have their agent) will then submit the manuscript to editors in publishing houses, via the agent.

3. The Edit

Once a publisher accepts the novel, they will provide editorial feedback, usually on a one-to-one basis, before taking the book forward to print. Elements such as the cover design, the marketing, and the distribution are entirely delegated to the publishing house. In effect, they take the story off the author’s hands.

For bestselling and established authors, stages 1 and 2 may be reversed — they will pitch an idea to their publisher, who will agree to publish the novel once it is finished and pay the author an advance (the practicalities of advances have been covered elsewhere). But the process is still very linear and solitary.

Clearly, the Pixar process has many advantages over the print publishing process:

  • The idea has to be strong. Everything stands or falls on the idea or the concept, and it is the idea that must drive every other part of the production. Right at the outset, there is a kernel of creativity that underpins everything else.
  • Collaboration is key. This is a contentious area — we all know of film projects that have stumbled and fallen because of too many voices — but clearly it works with Pixar, perhaps because the voices act in unison and everyone shares the same vision.
  • Less time wasted crafting finished items. Who knows how many completed novels are moldering on hard drives, collecting virtual dust, because the writing was great but the idea just wasn’t there.
  • More focus on character arcs and emotional beats. Clearly a good author will do this anyway, but within the Pixar process these two touchstones drive a whole team of people. Characters and emotions are worked out beat by beat, and by the time the feature gets to production the audience’s emotional journey has been timed to the last frame.

There are some drawbacks to the idea of applying the Pixar Process to writing. For one thing, it requires a ‘studio’ — a publisher willing to bankroll and back the development of the Pixar Novel. Because the world of traditional publishing is so set in its ways, such an outfit will be hard to come by.

For another thing, the Pixar Process requires ego to be left at the door. Again, because of the paradigm of traditional publishing — an author working alone to complete a project and taking all the credit for its execution — ego is ingrained in the author psyche. Indeed, authors need a healthy ego in order to cope with the mountain of rejection they are bound to have to climb on their way to publication. But in order to work in a team and recognize that other people might have a better view of the story than you, ego must be taken out of the equation.

In the end, a new paradigm must compete with the old paradigm. Collaboration in writing carries a stigma — two names on a book cover tend to make the reader, if not suspicious, then at least cautious, even when the two names are of a high caliber. The niggling doubt is that the pairing of the authors will dilute their brilliance rather than enhance it.

It is true that print publishing has existed for hundreds of years with the solitary author as the driving force, and many works of genius have grown from this process. However, I believe that a new process would be a welcome, even necessary, change, resulting in a new crop of dynamic stories with compelling characters and a strong emotional arc: stories to compete in this increasingly fast-paced and bite-sized age.

What it all comes down to, in the end, is Story. And we must recognize that there is more than one way to craft a Story. Why not take what works in one medium and adapt it for another medium? Not everything will cross over easily, but surely there is room for more collaboration and a studio-style process in the production of novels?

And, in twenty years time, when writers are picking over the revolution in print publishing that emerged at the beginning of the twenty-first century, they will be calling it the Endever Process.

To read more posts written by Endever author Matthew Wainwright, visit his site here.

One thought on “How can writing books be more like making movies?

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