The Hourglass Door by Lisa Mangum

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Developing a Story: "Presto"

4-1-09: Developing a Story: “Presto”

So last night, Tracy and Cindi and I went up to UMFA (Utah Museum of Fine Art) to attend a lecture with Doug Sweetland, director of the Pixar short film Presto. And it was amazing!
Aside from seeing the short again—which is always a delight—we got to see the early storyboards, the original drawings, and lots and lots of behind-the-scenes footage. But what I loved the most was hearing Mr. Sweetland talk about how he made the leap from being an animator to being a director and what he learned about developing a story along the way.

He told us the original pitch for the story that the “The Brain Trust”—the group of Pixar animators and directors (including John Lassiter and Andrew Stanton, among others) who weigh in on everything—greenlit into production. After that first meeting, Mr. Sweetland said that the idea was considered “Final—with a fix.” And the only note the Brain Trust had to offer was this: “It’s too long for a short.”

Well, that one note was all it took. In trying to figure out what to cut out to make the short short enough, Mr. Sweetland had to ask some hard questions of his story. Questions he didn’t have the answers to. But pursuing those answers led him to the final version of the story that was eventually made into a movie and nominated for an Academy Award. And along the way, he learned some important lessons and got some great advice.

One bit of advice came from Andrew Stanton, who finally said, “Just draw it. It takes 5 minutes.” That was all the permission Mr. Sweetland needed, and he personally drew more than 3,000 storyboards, trying to find his way through the story. He eventually met with the Brain Trust ten times before he figured it out. Ten meetings where no one laughed at his jokes, where no one clapped—but also where no one said to stop, to give up, to quit.

What I learned: “Just write it. It takes 5 minutes.” I shouldn’t get bogged down with thinking too far ahead. Just focus on what I need to do in the next five minutes and write that. Just dive in and write. If I don’t like it, well, it only took five minutes, so it’ll be easy to toss it out and try again. And maybe it takes five minutes to prime the pump and after that, it’ll be smooth sailing. The point is, I won’t know until I sit down and just do it.

Another lesson that Mr. Sweetland learned was that sometimes the only way to move forward is to throw everything out and start over. And he had to throw out a lot. But what was so cool was to see his “Tragically Oblivious Brushes with Greatness” because for every draft he tossed out, there was one moment, one emotion, one drawing that ended up in the final version. What he thought were all failures, were really drafts of success, and it was by stringing all those minor successes together that helped him discover the shape of the story he was trying to tell.

What I learned: Everything counts. Good or bad, I need to just write down everything. Most of it I’ll probably need to throw away, but that’s okay because with everything I toss, it just means I’m getting closer to success.

As Mr. Sweetland honed in on the story, he kept his characters’ motivations simple and focused on the pacing and timing of the jokes. And John Lassit
er provided a key suggestion that was so simple and so right. All Alec the Bunny wants is a carrot, right? So just before Presto takes Alec on stage, he holds up the carrot and Alec almost gets to eat it, but doesn’t have a chance. Mr. Sweetland had originally drawn that scene with Presto holding the carrot vertically in his fingers. John Lassiter said simply, “You should turn the carrot so it’s 
pointing at Alec’s mouth.” A 90-degree turn and suddenly that scene is magic. A simple tweak to the carrot and Alec’s motivation for the whole story is crystal-clear.

What I learned: Sometimes you have to tweak the carrot. Is there something in the scene I’m working on that could benefit from a closer look? Is there a moment, a look, a line of dialogue that is good, but that could be great if I rotated it 90 degrees? Are my character’s motivations crystal-clear? Do my details support the story, the theme? What is the one question that I need to ask that will infuse my story with magic?

A final note. The funniest moment—of which there were many—came during the Q&A when someone asked if Mr. Sweetland had worried about the MPAA ratings board for Presto. He said no, Pixar movies are made for everyone and so you get a feel for what will work and what won’t. He said Alec jams Presto’s fingers into a light socket and no one told him to take it out; John Lassiter thought it was funny. And then he said, “John Lassiter doesn’t care about the children of the world.” And Mr. Sweetland realized what he’d said at the same moment we all did, and he quickly said, “No, no, no, John Lassiter loves and cares for all the children in the world—especially when it comes to electricity.”

All in all, the evening was wonderful, inspiring, and educational. We even got to meet Mr. Sweetland after the lecture and he was very nice and signed autographs for me and Cindi. Finishing off the evening with a free chocolate éclair and . . . well, the old saying is true, “a good time was had by all.”

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing that wonderful evening with us. It sounds like it was memorable and fascinating. Wish I could've been there, but since I couldn't your blog was the next best thing.