I learned a lot working at Pixar for over thirty years, often referring to it as the world's best film school. Starting as I did, as a janitor at Lucasfilm, pretty much everything I learned about filmmaking and computers was on the job. When I joined the Computer Division in 1982 I was surrounded by highly intelligent, generous people eager to share what they know. That strikes me a good model to emulate.
This is not to claim that I'm nearly as smart as they. When I got to know Penn Jilette in the early 90's I told him about the caliber of people I was with. He said it seemed familiar, saying that he "went from being the brightest kid in my class to the dumbest guy in my peer group." Exactly. And while I'll never be as generous as Ed Catmull and that amazing team he assembled, I can try.
So, among other things, I plan to use this blog to share some of whatI learned at Pixar about filmmaking, writing, improvisation, collaboration, and other such creative pursuits. This first post is about getting some distance.
You Are Not The Work
One thing that struck me in the old LFL and early Pixar days was how many people came from architectural backgrounds. Architect schools were, and perhaps still are, apparently a mix of design, engineering, and boot camp. I've heard that professors would rudely sweep a student's painstakingly-crafted model to the floor just so they wouldn't get precious about the work. I guess it did toughen them up.
There's a better way.
Learning to separate yourself from the work you are doing is one of the hardest lessons to learn in any artistic field. Quite understandably the person who has labored lovingly over a screenplay, novel, drawing, sculpture, or building design can easily take criticism of the work personally.
Our creations are our babies. Tell me that my dialogue is clunky, my photograph improperly framed, my building uninhabitable and I'm perfectly justified in feeling that you are attacking me. Right?
Only if I'm an amateur.
Steely-eyed professionals understand that notes should never be taken personally. They have thick skins, and ice water coursing in their veins. They know better than to get emotionally invested in what they've created.
And if you believe that last paragraph, I have some prime beach-front real estate in Florida for you. It's true that pros make it about the work, but it's still hard. Of course they feel it. But the right culture, atmosphere, and attitude can get people to a healthy place where it really is about the work.
At CalArts the drawing instructor who taught John Lasseter, Joe Ranft, and many other animation luminaries told his students at the beginning of the year, "Everybody has five thousand bad drawings in them. And we're going to start drawing until we get them all out." Note that he expected the drawings to be bad, and expected the artists to eventually produce good ones.
Get Lots of Eyeballs
Pixar picked up some of its culture and process from Lucasfilm. Working with Dennis Muren on Young Sherlock Holmes was an education on its own. In fact, I should do another post on just that experience later. An important process we picked up there was of how to run dailies. Most film productions screen dailies, or rushes, for the director and editor to pick their favorite takes and quality-control the shoot. At ILM that was taken a step further.
The previous day's shots were put on the "rock-and-roll" projector, which could run forward, backward, fast, slow, or even still. The entire effects crew would gather to see what came back from the lab from the day before. A room full of eyes scoured the shots over and over again, looking for flaws. Dennis would make the determination as to how serious the flaw was. He could call "final", send it back for a fix, or dub it a "CBB" (Could Be Better), meaning that it would go in the final film if they ran out of time to get a better take. To this day Pixar still uses final, fix, and CBB.
Animation Dailies at Pixar became, and still is, a gathering of the director and all the animators on the show. Artists are encouraged, nay required, to show work in progress. Nobody is allowed to work until "it's done" and then show. Everybody in the room is welcome to make suggestions. They are all about how the shot could be better. Then the director decides which notes the animator should address. As John put it back on Toy Story, "My job is not to have the good ideas. My job is to recognize the good ideas."
This applies to the directors as well. The "Brain Trust" (a name chosen sarcastically, but which stuck) is made up primarily of other directors. When they meet to give notes on a movie the notes can be frank and brutal. But the notes are about making the movie better, not about what anybody did wrong.
For years now each film has been screened for people in the company, but outside the production, at least three times at different stages. Everybody is encouraged to give notes. Everybody. Security, Cafe staff, PA's, everybody. The producer makes a digest of those notes and they go into the hopper at the Brain Trust meeting. Good ideas can come from anywhere.
Bully for Pixar. What about me?
Suppose you aren't working with a giant Pixar-sized production. Perhaps you're a writer making a solo pitch with a producer and his or her staff. How might your attitude make or break the deal? At AFM a couple years back a speaker told about a meeting where the producer actually asked the writer if the protagonist of, I think it was a RomCom, could be a monkey instead of a guy.
How would you have taken that note?
Here's what that very smart writer said: "Interesting idea. Let me think about it and get back to you."
In the end the protagonist remained a human. The writer impressed the producer so much that since then they have done multiple movies together.
Making a constant mental effort to separate yourself from your work can pay off in much better work and much more work. It's hard. That script, that scene, that image, might feel like your baby.
They say in the business that sometimes you have to kill your babies. If they aren't making the movie better, out they go. It's going to sting. The real pro is the one who can identify his own targets among his darlings. As Thomas Mann put it, "A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."