Revisions the Pixar Way: Part One by Max Brace

So Script Frenzy is over. The long hours sweating over your plot, toiling over the characters, agonizing over the dialogue, and praying to reach the page count have paid off. You’ve completed your first draft. Now what?

The Pixar Way

Having worked many years at Pixar Animation Studios in the story department, I have had the opportunity to get intimate with the revision process for the films there. At Pixar, the films are not just written, but also storyboarded and edited to create a storyreel. Once the first draft of the script is done, a team of story artists along with the director, writer, and editorial department spend three months creating the reel, which is somewhat like a rough blueprint of the film with pictures, music, and dialogue. The reel then gets screened to the rest of the studio, including the executives and other directors. At the end the of screening everyone is asked to send in notes and comment about what they saw, and immediately after the screening, the director and writer get together with a group called the Brain Trust (comprised of the creative leads of the studio) and spend the next two hours getting notes from this group about the film.

The director and writer then go back to the film armed with these notes from the Brain Trust and the rest of the studio, and they now must revise the film, re-writing scenes and re-storyboarding and then show the reels again in three months, where the process starts over again.

Why This Works

It’s an important thing to get the film up in front of an audience and see what ideas connect, and what just lie there dead. There have been PLENTY of times when we’d come up with an idea in the story room and fell over ourselves thinking that it was the funniest thing ever, only to hear crickets when it played on the screen. At Pixar, everyone is very passionate about movies, and people want to work on great films, so the notes that come in are honest and hard-hitting. Finally, it is eye opening having the film critically analyzed by the Brain Trust, and getting down to the brutal reality of what your movie is lacking in the eyes of your peers. The added benefit of screening the film is that the audience sees the film for what it is at that moment, not what it could be someday in the future.

But I Don’t Have A Brain Trust!

So how can all of this help you? It may be impossible for you to find a team of storyboard artists, a director, and an editorial department to turn your script into a storyreel, but there are ways to replicate aspects of this process.

  1. 1) Do a table read – Find a group of actors, or friends, and have them all sit down with your script and each read a part. Grab a digital recorder and tape the whole thing. It’s surprising to hear your words come out of other people’s mouths as characters in your story, and will give you a sense of how your dialogue plays. Try to find folks who will take your work seriously, and not make wisecracks in the middle of the table read. Be sure to delegate a person to act as the reader of screen directions who is separate from the actors. If you have a group of willing friends, try paying attention to their vocal manners. Does a person's voice give a dramatic flair? Is your other friend's sense of comedic timing the perfect thing for your buddy comedy? Finally, I'd recommend that the writer not participate as a reader, since hearing others read your dialogue and screen directions is an educational experience.
  1. 2) Send out scripts to family and friends – comparable to screening the film for the whole company, send out your script to people who might be interested in reading it and giving you feedback. You might want to include a questionnaire with the script with specific questions, like who was your favorite character and why? Or who did you not like? Did you get bored with the story? Where? Etc. The idea is to try and get specific notes from people who may not be able to articulate their thoughts clearly. When someone says: “Um, yeah. Your script was fun!” There’s not much there to help you improve it, so try to get your reader to be specific.
  1. 3) Create your own Brain Trust – If you are in a writers group, or know folks who are passionate and knowledgeable about stories; take advantage of their knowledge for your script. Getting genuine, well-informed notes will get you on track for a great rewrite. Just be sure to check your ego at the door.

(Stay tuned for Thursday, when we post "Revisions the Pixar Way: Part Two" by Max. I can't wait!)

Max Brace has been a storyboard artist at Pixar Animation studios for fifteen years, having boarded on many films, including Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and WALL-E. He is currently working on the feature Brave, set to release in summer 2012.