Episode 8 - Story Telling with Pixar and Why animation isn't just for children

Updated: Oct 11, 2019


animation - moving images created from drawings, models, etc that are photographed or created by a computer. 

associated - connected to something or someone 

confronting - to be face to face with or deal with a difficult situation or person. 

engaging - pleasing and desirable 

majority - the larger number or part of something. 

overprotective  - wishing to protect someone, especially a child, too much.

profound - felt or experienced very strongly or in an extremely emotional way.

released - to allow something to be shown in public or to be available for use. 

RenderMan - a graphics program used by Pixar to make animations. 

structure (writing) - the way in which the parts of writing are arranged or clearly organised.

subsidiary - a company that is owned by a larger company. 

trailer - an advertisement for a film or a television or radio program which contains short parts taken from it. 


Hey everyone, and welcome to Episode 8 of the Arty Anglais podcast. The podcast where we talk about Art, Culture and society to help you learn English naturally.

Hey everyone and welcome to Episode 8. I'm the host of this podcast, Tara. I'm a teacher from Melbourne, Australia who is living in the south of France. If this is your first time listening, welcome to my podcast. Here I like to talk about lots of different things related to art, culture and society to help my English students learn English in a more natural way. Have a listen to the first podcast Episode if you want to learn a little more about why I made it. In the next few episodes I'll be talking about some different themes including animations and book recommendations, and in a few episodes I want to make an episode about some of my top tips for places to visit in Australia. So many people in France have been asking me recently where they recommend to visit so I think it might be time to make a Podcast Episode about it. Melbourne, where I am from is considered the cultural and artistic capital of Australia so I'm looking forward to sharing some of the places I know and love with you. I think it might also be an interesting way to explain the differences between Australian English and English from America and England. I always find it to be such as interesting topic especially when I speak with my American and English friends and family!

It has been super hot here in France this week. The Canicule or 'the heatwave' is what everyone is talking about here in France. A few weeks ago Gallargues-le-Montueux just recorded the all-time highest temperature in France of 45.9 degrees Celsius! This record was previously set in Montpellier (where I live) with a temperature of 44.3 degrees Celsius. Let me tell you. It was hot! Even for an Australian. On Friday night, I stood out on the balcony at 11pm, and it felt like I had just stepped into a sauna! Many people here in France don't have air conditioners because unlike some parts of Australia, it doesn't get hot enough for long enough to need it. One of the things I love to do when it's hot is going to the movies! When I was young, and it was hot, we used to go to see a film because the cinema had great air conditioners and comfortable seats. It was an excellent way to escape the heat for a few hours and to watch a good movie. In the summer of 1995, I remember going to the cinemas to watch the revolutionary new animation film - Toy Story. I remember loving it so much that I saw it a few more times. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before - 3D cartoons! I enjoyed the humour of Mr and Mrs Potato head and Rex the most. After watching Toy Story for the first time, it made me wonder what if it were true that all your toys came to life when you left the house? Cleary, Pixar was already starting to have an impact on my imagination.

Some of my Pixar DVD collection ... English + French

Then just the other night while I was walking home, I saw a poster to advertise the release of the next Toy Story film - number 4. Twenty-three years after the release of the first one. I've been waiting for this movie to come out for a long time and finally it 's here. Toy Story would have to be one of my favourite childhood movie series, but my all-time favourite made by Pixar is the movie Inside Out. It 's not just the incredible animations I appreciate, but it 's the way that Pixar tells their stories. Now, some of you might think that Disney and Pixar movies are just for kids, but I'm going to try to convince you otherwise. Many Disney and Pixar movies have a clear message that is suitable for both kids and adults, and they do this because the people at Pixar are great storytellers! Many, people, writers and animators reference their famous 22 rules for great storytelling. I listened to a podcast recently by Brian Peters who discussed his top 6 of Pixar's 22 rules list. I enjoyed it so much that I decided I wanted to make the next Podcast about it.

So today I'm going to talk to you about a few things:

- The History and where it all started for Pixar

- 6 of my favourite of Pixar's rules for great storytelling

- My favourite Pixar movies and why I like them

- How you can use the 22 rules to create your own story

I am also going to talk about one other animation company who is making big animation films today and they are based in Paris in France.

The History of Pixar

I found out a lot about Pixar while doing research for this podcast. I think it's really important when you have an interest in something to find out a little bit about the history. It really helps to appreciate that sometimes even the most successful companies come from a challenging road. We could use the expression 'It wasn't all smooth sailing to explain the road for Pixar. It means that they had to face several challenges in the process of becoming the successful studio it is today. Today Pixar is known as Pixar Animation Studios or Disney Pixar. It is now a subsidiary company which means it is a company that runs on its own but Disney owns it. Pixar is best known for creating CGI (computer generated images) animated films including: Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Monsters Inc, Cars, Ratatouille and Inside out just to name a few. You can see the timeline of all the movies they have made on their website.

I'm going to briefly share some of Pixar's history today which I think helps to illustrate the amazing story of Pixar. Pixar began in 1974 when Alexander Schure created the Graphics Group Lab. He recruited several computer scientists. Some years later George Lucas (the well-known director of Star Wars) offered members of the group a job in his studio called LucasFilms. Six of the members of Graphics Group lab resigned from their jobs, found temporary jobs for a year and then finally moved to Lucasfilm in 1979. Apparently, the six members that moved didn't want to make Alexander Schure suspicious so they waited a whole year to move to LucasFilms. Amongst those recruited to Lucasfilms was Ed Catmull from the New York Institute of Technology, who would later become the leader of the team and an important person who would bring the movie Toy Story to life.

The early years at Pixar were important for the team as they developed a lot of critical tools and technologies that have contributed to making CG (computer graphic) animation what it is today. During their time at Lucasfilms the team worked on creating an animation rendering software known as REYES. Which stands for Renders Everything You Ever Saw. This became the basis for the program produced by Pixar called RenderMan a photorealistic 3D rendering software produced which was first released commercially in 1989 and is still used today (obviously with advanced technology and tools. It is incredibly advanced software that allows animators to create realistic lighting effects and high-quality images. It is available to use as a commercial product and has been used in films such as Avatar and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. If you're interested in finding out more about the graphics program, I suggest you visit the Pixar RenderMan website. You can watch videos about the history of the program, learn about how it works, and even learn how to use different features and tools of the program.

In 1986 Pixar became an independent company when it was purchased by Apple inc and the Co-founder of Apple Steve Jobs was the majority shareholder of the company. It was lead by Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith. After several years of financial losses, challenges and failures, in 1991 Pixar made a $26 million deal with Disney to produce three computer-animated feature films, including Toy Story. By then the software programmers, who were doing RenderMan and a small animation department, who made television commercials were all that was left of Pixar. Despite the total income from RenderMan, several television commercials and smaller animation projects, the company was still losing money so Steve Jobs, thought it might be time to sell Pixar.

In 1994 Steve Jobs even contemplated selling Pixar to other companies such as Hallmark Cards and Microsoft! However, when he learnt from New York critics that Toy Story would probably be a hit—and Disney confirmed they would distribute it for the 1995 Christmas season, Pixar was given another opportunity to prove it could make it. I'm glad Pixar was given another chance aren't you?

The year 1995 was an important year for Pixar. Toy Story, the world’s first ever full-length computer-animated feature film, was released on November 22. It opened at number 1 that weekend and it went on to become the highest grossing film of the year after it made $192 million in the United States and $362 million worldwide.

Toy Story was recognized with Academy Award® nominations for Best Original Song, Best Original Score, and Best Original Screenplay. It was the first time an animated film was ever recognised for screenwriting.

John Lasseter who was the director of Toy Story received a Special Achievement Oscar® from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his “inspired leadership of the Pixar Toy Story Team. This had resulted in the first feature-length computer animated film.” Interestingly, John Lasseter started his animation career at Disney but was fired from his job in 1984 because he was promoting computer-animation. Can you believe it? At the time I guess computer generated animation was a pipe dream and many might have thought it too difficult and time consuming. So, he then joined the Lucasfilm team in October of 1984 and collaborated with the head of Pixar Elvin Catmull to produce Toy Story! Lasseter is well known for teaching many computer scientists about filmmaking, animation, and art.

During the 1990s and 2000s, Pixar developed the "Pixar Braintrust," the studio's primary creative development process, in which all directors, writers, and lead storyboard artists at the studio look at each other's projects regularly and give each other feedback.

After years of conflict between Disney and Pixar, it was finally purchased by Disney in 2006 at a valuation of $7.4 billion which resulted in Steve Jobs becoming Disney's largest single shareholder at the time. John Lasseter was named the chief creative officer of Pixar and Walt Disney Feature animation. On January 25, he was welcomed with huge applause and his colleagues hoped he could save the animation studio from closing. The very studio he had been fired from 22 years earlier from closure. What an amazing story! To me, that says many things, but importantly, it's to never give up on your dreams no matter what anyone says to you and to follow what you believe. Had John Lasseter given up on his dreams to create an animated feature film we may not have ever seen the Toy Story films we know today?

Since 1995 Pixar has made and released 21 feature films (with Toy Story 4 being the 21st). A further 2 movies are set to be released in 2020. On top of this they have made 20 Pixar shorts which are short films that showcase the skills and expertise of the animation studio.

Pixar thinks these short films are an important part of the future of Pixar:

Innovative storytelling has always been at the core of Pixar’s foundation, and our shorts allow the freedom to experiment and develop both new ways to tell stories and new technologies – many of which often then go on to be used in our feature films. Just as important, our short films also allow us to cultivate the next generation of storytellers here at the studio, letting individuals work on smaller teams and often hold leadership positions for the first time.

What makes Pixar films so great? Well according to the Film Inquiry blog, Pixar stands out against other animation studios because it has:

original storylines that provide both visual enchantment and moralities in narrative meanings. The majority of their plots are often considered unexpected, with a fictional context being implemented into modern society settings.

For example, the movie Ratatouille was set in the centre of Paris. In the movie, we see cartoon versions of real familiar landscapes such as the Eiffel Tower and Champs-Élysées. Then there is an unexpected unique story about a rat dreaming to become a chef in the cuisine capital of the world - Paris. The fictional storyline and the familiar Paris setting brings the local community in Paris to life on the big screen and the themes which are based loosely on culture and society make this story seem like it could almost be real.

Similarly, in the movie Finding Nemo, we discover the spectacular scenery and wildlife of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Then we meet our heroic characters Marvin, Nemo and Dory who are faced with a challenging journey that deals with real-life emotions that humans face such as grief, perseverance and the power of love. All these things brought together help to make them powerful and relatable stories with strong messages.

Pixar have given their 22 rules for telling a Great Story in the form of a recipe to create a successful story. So in this podcast I'm going to share 6 of my favourite with you by using some examples. Maybe this might give you some inspiration and ideas for writing your own short story or maybe it's just interesting to know how Pixar writes great stories.

The rules of storytelling according to Pixar - 6 of my favourite

Rule number 4

All great stories follow the 'Story Spine' - which is a term created by Kenn Adams, where a story follows a clear structure. Pixar has used this story spine to create so many great stories we know.

It goes like this. . .

Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

We can use Finding Nemo as an example:

Once upon a time, there was a clownfish and his son living on the great barrier reef. Every day Nemo's dad who was overprotective of his son, tried his best to look after him and stop him from being harmed. One day Nemo and his dad had a fight because Nemo thought his dad needed to stop being so protective of him. So Nemo decided to take a risk by swimming out into the big ocean. Because of that Nemo was taken by humans and Marvin has to try to find him. He becomes stressed and swims around frantically asking everyone if they have seen a boat. Because of that, he meets Dory... and then the story continues with many events happening with Dory Marvin and Nemo. Until finally...

(I won't give away the ending in case you've never seen Finding Nemo.

Following this structure allows you to meet the message you're trying to convey. It's important to have a clear purpose. Following this structure is also a good way to plan the story before you start writing.

The next rule is very much linked to making sure you have a clear purpose and structure.

Rule number 14 - Why must you tell THIS story? What's the belief burning inside you that your story feeds off?

If you follow the story spine structure but you also create a story that you're passionate about with a clear message then you're more likely to have a greater impact on your audience. For example, maybe you're passionate about the environment and you want to send a message to your audience about using less plastic. Maybe you're characters are animals that are affected by humans who throw away their rubbish without caring about who it affects. There are countless issues you might be passionate about: humans rights, climate change, food, gender and cultural inequalities. Perhaps the issues are smaller scale like workplace politics or what things you believe make people happy.

Although it's not made by Pixar the Disney Movie Zootopia is a fun comedy, but it also deals in a clever way with themes of racism, prejudice and gender inequality.

The reason the Pixar movie 'Inside Out' is one of my all time favourite Pixar films is it has a clear message about the equal importance of the emotions we experience. In my opinion it was a genius way to say that embracing sadness allows you to connect to all your other emotions like anger and fear. The moral to the story was that when you identify with all your emotions it's more likely that you will create stronger connections to other people and in return a stronger connection to joy or happiness. In other words, you cannot have happiness without sadness. If you haven't seen this movie yet, I highly recommend you watch it. Just last night I watched it again in French!

Watch it with the intention of trying to find the messages the film intends to send. What messages do you notice? What other messages can you find in other Pixar movies like Toy Story, Finding Nemo or The Incredibles? This is why Pixar movies are not just for kids. Some of the messages are hidden, deep and profound and the complexity might only be understood when you watch them as an adult.

As a task, I challenge you to make up your own story plan using the story spine and writing down your clear purpose and message for something you're passionate about. Alternatively, pick a Pixar movie to watch and like I did with the Nemo example and use the story spine to write down your ideas that come from the movie. You could try posting your idea to the Discord Forum which is a forum with many native English speakers who can correct your written work. Follow the link on the transcript notes and post it into the proofreading section. Here someone can have a look at the written work you have produced and give you some feedback.

While I was doing the research for this podcast Episode I noticed that Pixar have released information about an upcoming movie entitled 'Soul.' While I do this Podcast, there is no offical trailer but there is this quote from Disney which says:

“Ever wonder where your passion, your dreams and your interests come from? What is it that makes you… YOU?

I'm really curious to know what the message behind this film will be. I suspect it might be about different things that challenge us as humans and all the things that make us who we are. This brings me to my next rule.

Rule number 6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

In this context, 'the polar opposite' means, if your character is not comfortable with heights then put them in a situation where they have to face their fears! Polar opposite means something completely different.

A great example of this is in Finding Nemo. Marvin, one of the main characters is a very stressed out little fish. He worries a lot about things that haven't happened yet and doesn't like to be in situations where he takes risks and puts himself in danger. In the whole Finding Nemo movie, Marvin is placed in situations that are uncomfortable to him. He faces his biggest challenges: losing his son, confronting a pack of sharks and swimming in the ocean with a huge whale and a bunch of sea turtles. All these challenges 'had me on the edge of my seat'! Which means I was constantly excited to see what would happen next. I also felt really sorry for Marvin because All the challenges he faces helps his character to grow and for us to relate to him more. Then, in contrast, you have a character in Finding Nemo who is the complete opposite - Dory whose response to stressful situations was this inspiring little motto:

“When life gets you down, do you wanna know what you’ve gotta do? Just keep swimming.” –Finding Nemo

Even the character Dory is challenged with a Polar opposite. This character has short term memory loss, but throughout the whole movie she needs to overcome this challenge and use her memory in order to help find Nemo. This is another example of the character being challenged with a polar opposite.

The characters we write about should also be relatable (rule 21): You have to identify with your situation and characters:

Pete Docter from Pixar explains this well:

“What you’re trying to do, when you tell a story, is to write about an event in your life that made you feel some particular way. And what you’re trying to do, when you tell a story, is to get the audience to have that same feeling.”

I could definitely relate to Marvin in finding Nemo by being someone fearful of taking risks.

Because the character is so relatable I can truly say, at times this movie made me realise how much good can come from not always fearing the worse and sometimes taking risks. I think you know a movie is good when it helps you to think about something in your own life in a more profound way.

Rule number 10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognise it before you can use it.

Pixar thinks you have to break down every little element about what you love about the stories you like. Those are real feelings you’re having and you have to recognise them in detail in order to tell a great story yourself. For example, I would probably take the best parts of finding Nemo and Inside Out and rewrite the story so it was more relevant to me. It's clear to me that I identify strongly with emotions and overcoming feelings of fear so I would most likely use this as a theme in my own story. I think it's important as Pixar says to find that parts of stories you like and use them as a model.

The famous artist Pablo Picasso is widely quoted as having said that “good artists borrow, great artists steal.” I'm a firm believer in successful learning being able to recognise how other people make something successful, about analysing and reworking different ideas. For example, very often I used a modelled writing technique with my students. We work on writing something together and all the time we talk about how we can make it better. I once did a modelled poetry lesson with some grade 5 students were we used existing poems written by famous poets and we re-wrote them using our own words. This is the way we learn how successful writers write. As a result, their own poems were much more sophisticated and detailed because they better understood the structures and how to use language. The same goes with writing short stories. You could look at any movie you like and analyse why you like it. Use the things you like, change them a little and build your story up from here.

But Pixar also suggests you don't just use the things you do like as a model but the things you dislike.

Rule number 20: Take the building blocks of a movie you dislike and think about 'How would you rearrange them into something you do like?'

Think of a movie you dislike and write down all the reasons you didn't like it.

For example, maybe you didn't like a character in a movie. Perhaps you didn't like them because they weren't relatable. Write down all the ways you would make this character relatable.

The next and last rule is an important one and I think it relates a lot to language learning and being courageous.

Rule number 11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

Firstly, in the context of practicing courage, Brene Brown who is one of my favourite writers says this:

"Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen."

We can use this quote to help us with many challenges related to language learning and even story writing. You need to start somewhere because according to Brene Brown "truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they're never weakness." Even if you think you cannot write, or your ideas are not great, you need to be courageous and willing to give it a go. The same goes for language learning, you need to stop worrying about making mistakes and just let them happen. Just like Pixar's journey - things might not always be smooth sailing but we learn the most from our mistakes and it's important to be open to taking on feedback. So if you're worried about writing something down, I challenge you to step out of your comfort zone and start writing. These are the important first steps to help us keep improving. Very often when we start writing, it sparks new ideas and thoughts and the idea becomes a reality and less scary.

In the famous words of Pixar:

Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” –Ratatouille

and in the famous words of Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story. Believing in the power of life long learning can lead us:

“To infinity … and beyond!” –Toy Story