What Can Indie Filmmakers Learn from Pixar's Story Development Process?

With one of the best critical and commercial records in movie-making history, there are a lot of things Pixar does right.  One of their greatest strengths is their ability to consistently craft great stories.  So what’s the Pixar story development process like, and what can we as independent filmmakers learn from it?  As part of a 5 part interview, Mary Coleman, a Pixar senior development executive, shares details about how it all comes together -- revealing some surprising and enlightening things:

For example, the fact that the story is always seen as a work in progress:

“[W]e keep improving the story well into production, which is painful in animation. Making changes is expensive and laborious. But we’ll keep at it if the story’s not right yet.  And we’ve never once gone into full production with it “locked.”

That comes after 3-4 years of active work developing the script, with a full year dedicated to outlining:

“In that first year you’re pitching twenty minute overviews of the story, getting feedback, and rethinking it. We often spend a whole year in outlining before going to a first draft. A lot of time laying that foundation.”

The feedback given for the first draft leads to a second draft, which begins a series of “visual rough drafts”:

“[A] team of story artists begin drawing out the movie, like [a] comic book. Then the comic book becomes like a flip book when the drawings are scanned in and edited together to make our “reels”. It’s a visual rough draft of the whole thing, so if your movie’s an hour and a half long your reels are too.”

Now, you might think that once you start getting into visual rough drafts you are getting close to having a finished script.  Instead, a full 2-3 years are spent going back and forth between the “reels” and new drafts of the written script, a process Coleman says may result in an average of 8 visual rough drafts and many more written drafts.  This culminates with the movie going into production.

The takeaway?

Don’t skimp time on your outline -- Try as many versions as you can before going for that first rough draft.  This is where you figure out the heart of the story.  You're still going to have to write a lot of drafts, but if you figure out what you're ultimately trying to communicate, it will make those subsequent drafts easier to problem-solve and improve.

Keep the visual story in mind -- Once you start working with drafts, start thinking about the story as images in real time, feeling out the beats and rhythms and letting what you learn  inform your subsequent written drafts.  Coleman says that at a certain point it's all part of the same process, visual drafts meshing with written drafts and vice versa, and as visual storytellers we have to take that same attitude to heart.

Don’t be afraid to see the story as always being a work in progress -- With today’s technology making it easier and easier to mix pre-production with production with post-production, use that to your advantage.  For example, edit your footage as you're shooting, seeing what can be improved while still in production.  Don't be afraid to let your actors' performances suggest different possibilities within the story, it's all just memory files, so keep the camera rolling and let them try different takes.

As Indie/DIY filmmakers we're never going to be able to compete with the budget of a studio like Pixar, but with time on our side we can certainly learn from the care, work, and attention that is taken to develop these stories when crafting our own.

For the full interview covering the story development process click here, and for a more visual behind-the-scenes look check out Koo's previous post about John Lasseter.  What’s your takeaway?

[via Go Into The Story]

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"Don’t be afraid to let your actors performances suggest different possibilities within the story, it’s all just memory files, so keep the camera rolling and let them try different takes." Probably the best bit of advice I've read on NFS. Belongs in the director's chair series. Exploit variables. ...I should quote that... PATENT PENDING

March 2, 2012 at 11:58AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Rev. Benjamin

A film is never done. Soderbergh essentially rewrote "The Limey" on the cutting room floor.

March 2, 2012 at 1:15PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Shooting Scripts are printed on White paper, and it's not unusual for the script to look like a Rainbow before shooting is finished. Even with Series Television (5-8 day shooting schedule) there will be many script changes. And they really do Rip Pages from scripts! One 1st AD I worked with had a great line "We'll shoot this scene in Another Lifetime."

March 2, 2012 at 2:41PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Great article I hope many filmmakers will read. From the point of view of a story development person, we find about 1 script in every 300 which interest us as having great characters, a compelling story, and flows quickly without ever dragging. I find that many filmmakers have a solid understanding of their chosen genre, but they see it in terms of it moving from sequence to sequence, which can make for a great pitch but which usually bogs down and languishes within the sequences. The filmmaker may not have as many tools in his writers box as a screenwriter, and thus I urge young filmmakers to seek out screenwriters and employ their tools. On the other hand, I see screenwriters who have never directed who insist they should tell the story, but perhaps they lack the blending of the creative and technical arts to breathe life into a story as one trained to be a director does. Your investors' money as well as cast and crew hopes are riding on a successful film, so make sure the story is rock solid moving forward.

March 2, 2012 at 4:44PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I thought you were linking to this, which I found even more useful and inspiring:

March 3, 2012 at 2:25AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Should have applied this to "Cars"

March 3, 2012 at 3:16AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Kyle Helf

Pretty sure the development process for Cars had less to do with the movies themselves and more to do with making a boatload on merchandising. They're Pixar's weakest movies, but the money they make off that IP in toys, kid's bedsheets, and crap like that is ridiculous.

(I'd be angry at them for that, but their other movies are so good that I won't begrudge them the occasional dumb clunker to fatten up the treasury a bit...not that they need it, but whatever).

March 3, 2012 at 8:16AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


This development process works fine for animated features that are Directed-By-Committee. I don't think it works for live-action as well. Animation requires so much more thought to bring to life character's and worlds that bring nothing of their own to the plate. Live-action is real, it's present, it's visceral, and it's happening right now. To over-bake an idea for live action is a bad idea. Actors, real locations bring a life with them and its best not to squash that. Just because Pixar makes great animated movies doesn't mean you should make your live action movie like Pixar. Apples are not Oranges, people. Cute idea, but it's bullshit for Indie Live-Action Directors.

March 3, 2012 at 11:31AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


To pull the process directly would be stupid. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't learn a lot from their process. The key thing about this is to craft a great and compelling story. Craft being the truly important part here. You can't craft a story overnight, it must be worked at to get anything worthwhile and capable of holding up to a good final product.

March 8, 2012 at 2:02PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I think as I've been writing this vision I have had that if I had the help of one who could film what I have written it would help me. I know nothing of directing or making films. I just know I love them. And I have a love for telling stories. In any fashion. And this medium of telling a story is fantastic! I hope one day I can have someone interested in my ideas. But do praise all the great ideas that are coming out of fantastic minds. As of late.

March 4, 2012 at 3:36PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


March 6, 2012 at 2:53PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


This is an interview on Charlie Rose with John Lasseter.

John Lasseter, director and the chief creative officer at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios

March 8, 2012 at 5:46PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


At one point I fell for the '...never outlining...I need my creativity spontaneous..." mantra; even though this wasn't taught to me in film school. It worked well for me starting off as a writer of short fiction( free association) and a news reporter (deadlines happen...just get it done). But when deadlines were imposed on me during film school -- a new spec every quarter - 4 weeks -- there just wasn't time for free wheeling it. Not when I was taking editing classes ( a boon for all screenwriters as well as taking acting classes); production courses and working part time to pay the bills. And even during my breaks from film school, where I had a good 4 months off...to free write...the end result was not cool. During the rewrites on those specs...I inevitably found myself hammering the rewrites into reasonable shape...and then better...simply by tearing them apart...beat by beat...scene by sceene...and coming up with a detailed outline I SHOULD'VE DONE in the first place.

I swear by them now...but they're very detailed; very specific outlines, averaging 5 to 8 pages per script.
I won't do treatments unless I'm hired and the money's on the table because a lot of producers still like those.

But for all my scripts...which become easily layered enough for growth into novels if I choose to take them to that route also, detailed outlines are where it's at for me. Even more so this past year where I've spent time outside of writing the current specs...to do outlines for a spec franchise, encapsulating 3 specs...because the overall story mythology narrative is that big. It just saves so much time, especially with directing and producing - business duties taking time also due to my formation of my own production company.
In a DIY digital world...it's efficiency. Plain and simple.

March 9, 2012 at 6:53PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I think indie films can take a HUGE lesson from Pixar... more so than bigger films with more seasoned writers...

First of all...Pixar films are NOT directed by committee...but the "committee" is up there taking your idea and tearing it to shreds. This is a really good thing, and indie filmmakers need this lesson more than anyone. The main thing that rewrites is about is about flexibility. If you have to stand up to a group of critics (many of whom may want your job), you quickly find out if your idea can take the criticism or not. They're not a group of yes men, by any means.

The big problem on a couple things I've DPed is that any suggestion or question you have gets shot down. Part of it is freshman insecurity, part of it is having a mindset that...well, we've already written it...we can't afford the time to deviate from it....etc...

In most films I've worked on...I honestly haven't thought the material is ready to shoot. There comes a point where you just have to dive in and do it (this is why I mostly shoot other people's films rather than my own...b/c I definitely spend too long making it right...), but most people are shooting before the script is really ready. I'm talking about super low budget stuff here...just in my experience... Directors/producers who did the writing of the script get entrenched in an idea and then don't want to deviate from it...which makes it inorganic and inflexible and stilted.

The Pixar development process is how animated feature films have more or less always been made (and thankfully, with Lasseter in charge of Disney animation (despite being fired from them years ago...the ultimate payback), hopefully it will help put Disney (not Pixar) back on track.

I too thought the Cars movies were the weakest two Pixar films by far...but I don't think they "sold out" and went for purely product deals, though...look at Toy Story...same paradigm...

I think it's a car thing for people of a certain age...not the kids, but the filmmakers. My uncle is a Californian of around the same age as Lasseter...they just love detroit muscle, which now brings to mind a bunch of southerners in trailers to most mainstream americans now. I'm more of an F1 guy, so I just couldn't stand it, and I think most young people aren't into that Nascar thing, so those movies weren't their most interesting.

March 15, 2012 at 8:05PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Daniel Mimura