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The secrets behind Pixar impeccable animation storytelling

Beyond delighting and entertaining its audience, Pixar has claimed its position as one of the spiritual champions of good storytelling. This article will explore the 3 main ingredients behind Pixar’s recipe for its animation storytelling.

Pixar found the essence of animation storytelling: obstacles

One of the storytelling techniques Pixar uses revolves around watching a character struggle outside of its comfort zone. The studio knows people love watching characters have their misfortunes thrown at them.

This polar opposite is more than just the worst-case scenario. It is an incident that forces our hero to react and deal with it and in the best movies, to grow and change. In other words, it's not enough to have something bad happen. It has to be something that makes the character react emotionally and be called to action.

A telling example is the story of Woody the cowboy. In Toy Story (1995), Woody is extremely comfortable being Andy's favorite toy and the leader of the toy community. However, he then faces a horrible disaster: a new shiny toy taking his place, his privilege, his identity. Likewise, with Toy Story 2 & 3, Pixar manages to find even more challenges for Woody. The character now has to deal with choosing where he belongs and the fear of being left out.

animation storytelling - Pixar found the essence of animation storytelling: obstacles
Woody the Cowboy faced the fear of replacement in Toy Story (1995) animation storytelling (Source: Polygon)

Another instance of Pixar’s use of putting characters into calamities in animation storytelling is in Ratatouille. The technique started from the movie's premise: Remy is a rat that has a passion for cooking and dreams to be a chef in a gourmet French restaurant. This has fueled the whole story of choosing between his abnormal passion and his family & community.

animation storytelling - Pixar found the essence of animation storytelling: obstacles
Ratatouille (2007) animation storytelling puts Remy in a battle of choices (Source: Pixar)

As seen above, because of this unlikely situation, the infringement on a character's cushy life creates conflicts, which fuels the story. Once the animators at Pixar have this essence, they have a seed that they can sprout into a story and you also have a good tool to keep it economical. What is not part of this essence probably should and would not be a part of the story.

Pixar always avoids cliches in animation storytelling

One of Pixar's greatest strengths is its ability to surprise us. Pixar's determination to avoid cliches pushes their stories and characters to more interesting and exciting places than you'd expect.

For example, The Incredibles (2004) subvert your typical superhero story. Superheroes usually expected to be adored by the public and just try to fit in as their secret identity. Mr. Incredible made the whole world hate them. Already, we are seeing a brand new angle of superheroes and the story feels fresh.

animation storytelling - Pixar always avoids cliches in animation storytelling
The Incredibles (2004) offers fresh storytelling (Source: Pinterest)

To develop such interesting ideas like that and overcome the infamous “writer's block”, Pixar has a suggestion: make a list of what does not belong in your story. Ask questions like “What will never happen?” This approach raises fresh concepts. The answer to the questions is the basis for the plot. You can see this in Monsters Inc (2001), where Pixar probably knew they were going to make the monsters, or at least some of them, harmless and lovable.

Overall, it all boils down to knowing and exploring the world. Animators should see their world from different perspectives, learning what is in it and what is not, the possibilities and the impossibilities. With that observation, you do not have to choose the first idea that comes to mind. In fact, it's probably better if you don’t.

How Pixar created characters to facilitate the animation storytelling

Characters with strong opinions are an important ingredient

For Pixar’s characters, opinions and values are important, because they give us conflict. Beyond that, they turn the physical and emotional conflicts, like love, hate, success, failure, life, death, into abstract ones. It is a battle between values in the story, a cause, something worth fighting and sometimes even dying for.

In other words, placing strong-minded characters is a part of Pixar's art of storytelling. The characters’ opinions turn them into compelling heroes, villains, mentors, and friends because these values give us character arcs, which are usually what move us the most.

As an example, you can consider these two mentors from the Pixar universe: Dean Hardscrabble in Monsters University (2013). If you take a deeper look at the movie, Monsters University’s story is really about how Mike & Sully dealt with Dean Hardscrabble and her views. She brings Sulley down because he doesn't wanna be greater than he is, and she systematically tries to crush Mike's hope of being a scarer. This is not out of maliciousness, but due to what she believes in.

animation storytelling - Characters with strong opinions are an important ingredient
Monsters University (2013) consolidates the meaning of a villain in animation storytelling (Source: Pinterest)

This is the secret of any good villain and the story around them: They do not have to be mean, they just have a set of values that go against those of our protagonist. Without this, the villain would not be the main character’s polar opposite.

Another case of character-building in Pixar animation storytelling is the difference between Marlin and Gill in Finding Nemo. Marlin always saw Nemo's wounded fin as a weakness, whereas Gill refused to give him any help, believing he should learn to fend for himself. This struggle between values leads to Marlin's arc of giving his son more independence and space, and Nemo's arc of learning his own worth.

animation storytelling - Characters with strong opinions are an important ingredient
Gill & Nemo in Finding Nemo (2003) (Source: Pinterest)

Characters have to be believable

Movies, practically by definition, should be all about interesting characters making interesting decisions. However, to convince the audience, these decisions have to be justified emotionally to be more than just a pretty set pieces and funny lines. By contrast, if your character's actions and decisions seem false, they break the reality of the movie and snap the audience out of it.

We can see this animation storytelling technique in the movie Up (2009). At first sight, the movie’s premise does not make any sense. Although the story appears original, colorful, exciting, and moving, it would be unbelievable that the main character, Carl, releases an endless cloud of balloonsfrom the roof of his house and escapes the city.

It is a ludicrous action for a character to make, which is why Up spends 20 minutes setting it up. In these 20 minutes, we get a heartbreaking sequence depicting Carl's wife, showing his deep emotional connection to the house and his lifelong dream to go to Paradise Falls. We also see a conflict for Carl, where ruthless businessmen are trying to take his house away, which helps him decide to fly his house with balloons. The movie also considers the character’s background, in which Carl spent his life selling balloons. All of these details not only make strapping a bunch of balloons to your house logical. It actually seems like the best course of action

Conclusion

Thanks to its brilliant conflict and character-building, Pixar animation storytelling is enigmatic. Along with the gorgeous animation, the studio has created a joyful universe, in which people of all ages can immerse themselves.

In terms of animation storytelling, DeeDee Animation Studio’s movie also tells compelling stories with a range of interesting characters as well as plot details. Thus, if you are interested in great storytelling in Vietnamese animation, please check out more about our Animation.


References:

Nofilmschool.com, Love Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling?

Rotoscopers.com, The Pixar Villain Formula



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