Of the animated films nominated for the best original screenplay Academy award, every single one has been a Pixar film. Pixar, of course, being the studio responsible for Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Wall-E, Ratatouille, and almost all the rest of the pioneering computer generated animated movies of the 90s and 2000s. Beyond the quality of their works, the thing that stands out most is the breadth of imagination that must be behind them. Pete Docter, one of the founding forces of Pixar, and writer of 4 of the 7 nominated films, gives some excellent advice in the video below.
Making a go of films so vast and well-constructed can seem insurmountable when, as Pete says at the beginning of the video, you don’t understand how great filmmakers find inspiration. From the outside, it looks as though they’ve plucked everything from thin air. Throughout the video, he spotlights in more precise terms how these ideas take shape, and what makes them (practically) universally appealing.
He discusses finding inspiration in his life, piecing together bits of insight from whatever he’s going through, and translating these indirectly into creative outlets, rather than simply sharing his exact experience. Pulling from this well lends a vividness to a story’s core appeal, and makes fleshing a concept out much easier to intuit based on what feels right concerning what it is you put into it that is personal.
Once you spot Docter’s preoccupation with parenthood, for instance, it can be tough to miss; The protagonists of Up, Inside Out, Toy Story, and Monster’s Inc, all assume the role of a surrogate parent to the kids in their lives. Carl to Russel, Joy to Riley, Woody to Andy, and Sully to Boo. Maybe to some degree this explains the Pixar brand’s enduring popularity with the adults who take their children to see them.
Sometimes it can also be fruitful to grab hold of a particularly arresting idea, and reverse engineer it to construct a workable premise. If enough answers about the idea are asked, some will begin to relate, and the appropriate story can begin to take shape. Feeling a need to fly away from his troubles, he recalls envisioning a floating city, which became the house from Up. Questions (how does it float, where is it floating to, why float there?) lead to Up’s highly inventive, yet perfectly motivated premise. Perhaps his most valuable nugget of insight: never generalize. The more specific and personal a story is, the more it seems to resonate with audiences.
Docter also touches on the collaborative process (how it propels a strong vision with fresh ideas without muddying the overall film), the importance of intention, and listening to masters (as you should listen to him). These insights are accompanied by fittingly whimsical, sort of UPA-style, animation from the Royal Ocean Film Society YouTube channel, which hosts a ton of film-related content, including deep dives into history, criticism, essays, and most importantly: scriptwriting. Well worth checking out.