Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Story Lecture by Matthew Luhn

Wow, what an awesome lecture. We've been blessed with some really special visitors this year. All of them from the front lines of the best creators of animated film. Yesterday, Matthew Luhn, a senior story artist, and really funny, tallented guy at Pixar. I've regretted not taking more detailed notes from our previous speakers, though I didn't do much better this time. (It's easy to forget when the presentation is so fun.) But I'm going to rewrite here what I did scribble down in hopes of making it stick.

Fist he cited Joseph Campbell in his "The Power of Myth" interview with Bill Moyers. To paraphrase, Campbell says that stories are universal and give people some sort of explanation for the mysteries of life. I'll by that.

Classical story structure has a begining, middle and end. There are other types of story structure but most people will not respond favorable to them because they don't really have what they are expecting in a story. For instance, "minimalism" may not have a plot to speak of and be more like a dream (most Jarmusch, Felinni's 81/2) and "anti-plot" (which is a little more difficult for me to understand but apparently "Wayne's World" is an example because they broke the fourth wall by speaking to the camera. Mulhulland Drive anyone?)

He spoke about the story development process specific to Pixar. In the beginning... there is only a premise. The premise is the seed of the story but is not a story so much as a situation. For example: A rat longs to be a gourmet chef. The premise is then developed into "controlling idea". The way I understood it is that the controlling idea puts a fine point on the main character's motivation and character arch. It's still only a single sentence, and it's still not a story but it's the core of the story and should be maintained throughout the writing process. Every decision made throughout the development of the movie is based on whether or not it supports the controlling idea. He also mentioned that Pixar likes to use a director driven idea. They like to have the whole show lead by one individual with the "vision" - the guy that came up with and owns the idea.

All Pixar films use a "classical" story structure.

-Exposition (the setting, the main character, and the "rules")
-Inciting Incident (this often creates a big change, problem or opportunity in the main characters life)
-Progressive Complications (there can be many, they usually challenge and change the protagonist)
-Crisis (this is where the protagonist makes an obvious change and completes his character arc, usually overcoming a fear or weakness)
-Climax (the protagonist uses his new ability to defeat the antagonist)
-Resolution

In most stories, the main character goes through a change that involves either overcoming a fear, or learning to care about something, or both.

Strong characters often clearly embody a particular character trait. For instance Woody of Toy Story = Loyalty, Marlin (Nemo's dad) = Overprotection/Anxiety.

When developing a new character, try to create someone original and avoid clich├ęs by invoking real memories and meaning from your personal life.  Finish these 4 sentences about your character, each one sees the character from a different perspective.
-It is...
-You are...
-Thou art...
-I am...

That's all I got. He spoke about a lot more shed a lot of light on the storyboarding process as well as writing gags, which apparently he's very good at. He said in brain storming for gags he makes two lists. One of all the connotations regarding the type of character he working with, and one of all the connotations of the setting or activity the character is doing. An example he used was a cowboy doing laundry. What are all the things that people think of regarding cowboys? Hats, boots dust, horses... And for laundry there is the wash board, suds, cloths shrinking or colors blending, the sound shoes make in a dryer. Anyway when you have huge lists for both you start putting them together in funny ways.

Okay, that's all I got. Feel free to correct me or fill in the holes.

Thanks again to Matthew and to Big Fish! Here's Matt's site: http://matthewluhn.com/

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