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‘Stay Scrappy’ and More Wisdom on Creativity From a Pixar Animator

stay-scrappy-creativity-wisdom-pixarWant to spark innovation, influence perceptions, and inspire people to believe in your organization’s values and brand? Take some tips from 20-year Pixar Animation Studios animator – and recent winner of the Brand Personality Award in Animation from The Asia Pacific Brands Foundation – Andrew Gordon.

What does the co-creator of such movies as Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., The Incredibles, and Toy Story 3 have to say to marketers? Plenty. As an expert on character and story – and as a consultant to companies around the world, including Salesforce, Pinterest, Deloitte, and Softbank – Andrew knows that stories matter, not just in movies but also in business.

In his closing keynote talk at the 2018 Intelligent Content Conference, and in our subsequent interview, animator Andrew encouraged marketing professionals to do what the teams at Pixar do: Build a culture of creativity.

CCO: How do businesses unwittingly sabotage the creative process?

Andrew: If you’re building a culture of creativity, people need to speak freely. Any organization can quickly get corporate – a little stiff. People hold meetings for meetings’ sake. Candor is missing in the room. These are problems. You have to break that up.

To build a culture of creativity, people need to speak freely, says @splinedoctor. #intelcontent Click To Tweet

One of the founders of IDEO, Tom Kelley, has said that innovation depends on a willingness to conquer the fear of the “messy unknown.” That’s why you’re more likely to see creativity in places that have that startup vibe.

CCO: How do you keep that startup mentality?

Andrew: You want to stay scrappy, hungry for the next thing, feeling that it’s OK to try things and fail as a way to arrive at a better idea.

In its early days, Pixar was a ratty, grungy place. I loved it. It was what I thought a cartoon studio should be. People played pranks on each other. Everybody’s office was customized. I sat under this big-top tent where we had a train going through so we could deliver cookies to each other.

When Pixar moved from its original scrappy office to the Emeryville (Calif.) offices in 2000, our workplace was suddenly a place where we were afraid to scuff up the floors. The building was very pretty. Many wanted to keep that startup feel, so we pushed on the culture.

For example, I found a hatch in my office wall that led into an air-conditioning vent, which ended in a strange, unused space. I decorated it and started serving drinks in there. I called it the Love Lounge and sent out invitations. I thought I might get fired, but the opposite happened: I got to meet a lot of people. Steve Jobs spoke about this space in his biography, saying that it reminded him of a place he used to hang out at Reed College, but without the acid.

When I moved into another Pixar office I built another secret space, which I called the Lucky Seven Lounge. The idea was how far could I push things. What could I get away with? That was the spirit of Pixar. It’s part of what accounted for us feeling creative and in a relaxed environment.

CCO: What makes a story good – or bad?

Andrew: Many stories have the same basic structure that has worked for thousands of years around campfires or on cave walls. (Andrew picks up a pencil and makes this sketch.)

itensity-vs-time-chartSometimes called a story spine, that structure – starting off, building, going down – is not only in most stories but also in most sequences and scenes. If you don’t follow that structure, you may be telling a boring story or a story that goes on too long.

If you don’t follow a story spine structure the story may be boring, says @splinedoctor. #writingtips Click To Tweet

Tolstoy said that great literature comes down to two stories: a person goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. What does that mean? A person going on a journey is a story of someone changing or learning. A stranger coming to town is about someone who changes the world around them.

Bad stories have predictable endings. Good stories end with a satisfying surprise. A great story ends with a satisfying surprise and conveys universal truth: Money doesn’t buy happiness. Everyone wants love and acceptance. The people closest to you can hurt you the most.

But don’t spell out your message. Allow people to figure it out. As (Pixar director) Andrew Stanton has said, “Don’t give the audience four. Give them two plus two.”

CCO: What processes result in stories that work in business?

Andrew: Creating stories is a messy process. You have to research a lot, collaborate a lot, mess up a lot. You go around foggy corners. You think you’re going down one road, when you discover a better one. Businesses are rarely willing to put in the effort needed to beat the heck out of the story. It’s expensive.

Most businesses undervalue feedback, candor, failure, and iteration. Stories are not good in the beginning. At Pixar, they know that. At some point in every project there would be a crisis – a point at which the whole thing gets stopped. You have to expect these things. They called it “trusting the process.”

Most businesses undervalue feedback, candor, failure & iteration in story creation process. @splinedoctor Click To Tweet

And, you have to keep your egos out of the process. A favorite saying of the Pixar story team sums this up: “Story, no glory.” I loved that saying. It means so many things on so many levels.

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CCO: When do you build on a story idea and when do you start over?

Andrew: At Pixar, they often ask, “How can we plus it?” You want to build on people’s ideas. “Plussing” is a huge thing, like the “yes and” approach in improvisational theatre. It makes a mediocre idea better.

Sometimes, though, you need to set an idea aside. (Pixar founder) Ed Catmull has said that creative people sometimes hold on to an idea that they need to blow up. For example, they might want to keep a scene that got a laugh in a screening even if that scene isn’t right for the story. You have to be willing to let go of something great for something that fits your story.

CCO: Where can people find inspiration for creative work?

Andrew: I get ideas when I’m out and about. I go to shows. I go to museums. I people-watch. My family inspires me. A lot of ideas happen when I’m sitting on a bus or in a plane or in the car. I’m also a diver. I like to see microcosms and pretend that I’ve discovered some little city where something is happening.

One of the directors at Pixar says you have to live life to create stories. You can’t just be on YouTube or your phone all the time.

In a business environment, creativity has to come from the top. You have to have somebody in place who encourages it. During my time at Pixar, it was (Chief Creative Officer) John Lasseter.

CCO: How do you keep ideas flowing freely?

Andrew: The saying was “suck early and suck often.” The sooner you get the bad ideas out, the sooner the good ones start to emerge.

Surround yourself with A players and create the space for everyone to give honest feedback. Encourage people to speak openly and respectfully about what worked and what didn’t. Deliver criticism constructively. Ask questions. Keep it brief. Be prepared to be wrong.

At the studio I was at in London, when I was in dailies (feedback meetings), people sometimes didn’t want to give notes because I was the guy from Pixar. All they need is an invitation to talk. You have to allow for that. Then they have genius ideas.

CCO: How do you transfer storytelling skills to new technologies?

Andrew: It’s less about the technology than about trying to answer the question of why you’re telling this story. What is it really about? Start there, with a strong theme or with a great premise. You just know by the premise if it’s a good idea, something with potential.

Storytelling tips

Andrew advises to start your story-making process not with a big message but with a simple premise: a what-if. Pixar examples: What if toys were alive when you didn’t see them? What if monsters needed children’s screams to power their world? 

Create a logline

A logline or controlling idea is a 25- (or so) word statement that includes four major elements: the main character, the conflict, the way the character changes by overcoming something, a hint of the character’s world.

Create a logline for each story incl main character, conflict, character’s change & world. @splinedoctor Click To Tweet

For example:

“A young woman comes into her own after surviving the affronts of her emotionally abusive boss in the superficial world of high fashion.” (The Devil Wears Prada)

“A spirited farm boy joins rebel forces to save a princess from evil forces and to save the galaxy from the planet-destroying space station.” (Star Wars)

After working with Andrew, the cloud-computing company Salesforce now loglines each project, distilling the controlling idea to about 25 words.

As you develop a project, your logline helps you remember what you are after. It’s brief and clear. That’s important because when you create stories, you often get lost.

Give your story a structure

There are many types of structures, usually following the same basic story spine (as illustrated above): the character getting into conflict, the climax of that conflict, the low point, the recovery.

You can distill those story basics to seven steps:

  • Once upon a time …
  • And every day …
  • Until one day…
  • And because of this …
  • And because of this …
  • Until finally …
  • And since that day …

That’s a story structure that anybody could use to hang a story on. For kids, you might add, “The moral of the story is …,” but by the end, the theme should come out naturally.

A lot of companies Andrew has worked with use this framework when plotting their stories so they know they’re hitting the big beats. It might be for a pitch. It might be for the way human resources onboards people. It might be for the way call-center employees handle a call.

You don’t have to include all seven steps. In marketing content you might need only three. A commercial, for example, might have a hook, a build, and a resolution. There are a lot of story structures. Look for one that works for you. These are tools, not rules.

A version of this article originally appeared in the August issue of  Chief Content OfficerSign up today to receive your free CCO subscription.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute