The ‘Make it Great’ Story

The story always comes first. Technology just supports it.’

We don’t want to hear your ideas. Just do what you’re told, John!’. the boss’s voice boomed in the silent room.

It didn’t finish. A few moments later, the boss, Ed Hansen, again called John into his room. This time to finish it off: Well, John, your project is now complete, so your employment with the Disney Studios is now terminated.’

John was a young animator working under Ed Hansen, the animation adminstrator of Disney Studios in 1984. John was keenly interested in computer based animation that was in it’s infancy those days. He tried to pitch a computer animated version of a film that Ed gave him to work upon. The boss didn’t like the young kid showing off new technology instead of doing the work given to him. So he fired him.

Disney was the place John dreamt to be as a child when he began drawing. He would draw everywhere – everytime – even in the church. His mother, an art teacher herself, supported him joining the California Institute of Arts where he learnt animation from the famous veterans of Disney Animation. After graduation, John was amongst the final 45 to eventually make it to Disney out of the 10,000 animators who applied for a job. And now, he was fired.

Around the same time in 1983, George Lucas had set up a small computer technology firm that would do animation work for the film industry named Lucasfilms. John grabbed the opportunity to work with Lucasfilms as soon as he was offered. It would be his period of complete immersion into computer animation. The first big turning point in his career.

The next one happened 3 years later in 1986. Geroge Lucas had to settle an expensive divorce so he sold off Lucasfilms. It was bought for a sum of $10 mn by an upcoming tech visionary who made it an independent company with the dream to revolutionize movie making. In the next 5 years, that man would pump in $50 mn of his own money to just keep the company going.

You would’ve worked out Steve Jobs and Pixar, by now.

John first met Jobs for a pitch he prepared for a short animated film. After the pitch, Jobs went silent for a long time – held his fingers together and seemed to stare into the future. When Jobs finally spoke, it was the only thing he would ask John to do in Pixar.

‘John, Make it Great’

That pitch became ‘Tin Toy’ and won the Best Animated Short Film in 1988 – the first ever Oscar given for computer animation.

John Lasseter and Pixar had arrived.

Tin Toy’ became the inspiration for Pixar’s first ever production: Toy Story in 1995. And then a series of great hits followed: A Bugs LifeCarsMonsters IncRatatouilleFinding NemoTangled and ofcourse – Frozen.

The only way John Lasseter knew how to ‘Make it Great’ was to make the story the core of the whole process at Pixar. Here’s something I found to illustrate this.

The first page of the original screenplay of Toy Story (1995) from Scott Myers blog

Urge you to read through this first:

And now, play this video here. Atleast the first 40 seconds. Notice how the screenplay matches frame by frame.

Pixar, never made the film until the story was fixed to the finest detail.

Steve Jobs said it best about Johan Lasseter’s Pixars story process :

‘Basically we build the movie before we make it. One of the things that I’m proudest about Pixar is – we have a story crisis on every movie – and production is rolling and there’s mouths to feed and something’s just not working’ And we stop. We stop and fix the story. Because John Lasseter intalled a culture of story – story – story – even though Pixar is the most technologically advanced studio in the world – no amount of technology will turn a bad story into a good story’

Disney bought Pixar for $7.5 bn in 2006. That’s how much Jobs inital $10 mn turned into. And John Lasseter was made the Chief Creative Officer for Walt Disney and Pixar. Ed Hansen, the boss who fired him, was nowhere in the scene.

Story Notes

Yeah, John Lasseter disappointed everyone in 2009. He accepted sexual misconduct charges. Stepped down, this time again Disney Pixar. Took a sabbatical. And now is the the Head of Animation Division of Skydance. Well, that’s another story.

The Storytellers Secret by Carmine Gallo, captures this story and whole lot of secrets of storytelling through the lens of words greatest storytellers. It is a must read book, if you haven’t yet.

1MinuteStories on Live Audio, 20 Minutes on Mentza.

Every Tuesday, 19.30 hours IST. Come and join me – while we share a new story every week. Discuss and reflect on it a bit and go back with one practical tip on how to make storytelling work for you! All this, in just 20 minutes

Here’s a Mentza clip from the session last week.

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See you there!

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