The Science of Pixar

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A few weeks back I took my kids to an exhibit at the Franklin Institute called The Science Behind Pixar. I’m very fond of Pixar’s work, practically all of it, but in particular Toy Story 3, Up, and The Good Dinosaur. That said, I expected the exhibit to be geared toward little ones and wasn’t real sure I’d be learning anything. Happily my expectations were wrong. The exhibit was divided up into the different stages of film production.

At the very beginning, I was heartened to see, is story. Writers conjure a world and a narrative and everything that follows–those years and millions of dollars–is all in the service of bringing the writers’ work to life. Once the story is more or less in place, artists go to work sketching characters in two dimensions, and then sculptors come along and model it in three. From here the 3D image is scanned and made digital. Riggers decide where all the digital joints and nodes will go. Surface designers use mathematical algorithms to smoothen out digital shapes. Virtual cameras are designed and implemented. Actors give voice to characters. Simulators populate complex stuff like hair, marching armies, waves in the sea–again using math. Virtual lights are added to underscore drama and mood. And finally, rendering compresses the whole 3D extravaganza into a 2D movie.

Here are those stages again:

  1. Story & art
  2. Modeling
  3. Rigging
  4. Surfaces
  5. Sets & Cameras
  6. Animation
  7. Simulation
  8. Lighting
  9. Rendering

I’m tempted to look for analogues between this process and bringing characters to life on the page. Naturally there are many, but the differences strike me as possibly even more interesting. Simulation, for example. In the interest of verisimilitude, of viewers getting lost in the fictional dream, the folks at Pixar need to figure out what every hair on a character’s head is doing moment by moment. Every swinging arm, every mountain in a range of them, every tree in a forest–these all needs to look believable. We fiction writers often talk about showing and not telling, but we have the luxury of painting with an impressionistic brush. We can select out the “significant detail,” as per Chekhov:

In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.

A fiction writer doesn’t need to describe–indeed had better not describe–every hair on a head, just the few split-end strands that a character blows out of her face. Even the most encyclopedic of writers–like Joyce, who claimed Dublin could be reconstructed from the details in Ulysses–pick and choose. Writers suggest a world, but animators actually have to build it, scene by scene; their algorithms need to work with the variety and fidelity of Mother Nature herself. And all in the service of story. Pretty awesome.

I also found it interesting to think about analogues between the ways animators invent virtual cameras and lighting to tell their stories and the POV choices fiction writers make. Truth be told, while I think lots about POV, I’m not sure I’ve ever thought much about the possibilities of lighting in my fiction. Perhaps I will now (A bright idea! I thought somberly).


While I’m on the topic of Pixar, I’ll paste in their “22 Rules for Storytelling” as revealed by Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats back in 2012. They’re good. I’ve shared them with quite a few students, and have obeyed them to varying degrees in my own writing:

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: 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.

#3: 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.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: 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.

#9: 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.

#10: 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.

#11: 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.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

#14: 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.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.


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