CREATIVITY INC: What You Can Learn From Pixar Movies Before They Were Movies

By Britton Perelman · October 14, 2018

In his book, Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, Ed Catmull is adamant about one key point in regard to the creation of Pixar’s phenomenal movies: Early on, they all sucked.

Catmull isn’t saying this to be modest, or to be too harsh on the filmmakers — it’s a true statement. He shares the sentiment, and the stories of when some of Pixar’s most popular movies did suck, because it’s a crucial part of the creative process. As Catmull believes, all movies were, at one time, terrible. 

“Think about how off-putting a movie about rats preparing food could be, or how risky it must’ve seemed to start WALL-E with 39 dialogue-free minutes. We dare to attempt these stories, but we don’t get them right on the first pass. And this is as it should be. Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process—reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its throughline or a hollow character finds its soul.”

To make a movie better, Catmull argues, the filmmakers must develop and develop and develop the core concept until they reach the strongest manifestation of that idea. Only then will they have discovered an idea worth turning into a movie. 

So, in the spirit of embracing suckiness, let’s take a look at some of the stories Catmull shares in his book — stories behind four classic Pixar movies and how they went from terrible to absolutely amazing. 

Finding Nemo

Andrew Stanton’s original pitch for Finding Nemo — a story about a worry-wart clownfish in search of his abducted son — sounds a lot like the movie we all know and love. His pitch outlined the way that flashbacks would explain how Marlin became so overprotective, something that the creative execs at Pixar really loved. The execs and the filmmakers wanted to avoid the costly and messy process of figuring out the story while also animating the film, so they greenlit Finding Nemo with Stanton’s story locked and ready to go. 

But, upon seeing the first rough reels of the movie, nothing worked. The flashbacks were confusing, the Tank Gang plot loomed far too large, and Marlin came across as smothering and unlikeable. Changes had to be made. 

So it was decided that Stanton would go with a linear approach by showing the flashbacks at the very beginning, axing the idea of the Tank Gang as the main plot of the movie and relegate it to a subplot, and many, many other changes. Only after hours and hours of discussions did they reach the strongest manifestation of the idea that eventually led to Finding Nemo.

Main takeaway: Sometimes, though the original idea may seem perfect, the overall story must be adjusted once you actually start to tell it. 

Inside Out

While the catchy title of this next movie may be perfect, the original wasn’t. “The Untitled Pixar Movie That Takes You Inside the Mind” presented many, many problems to its writer/director Pete Docter and his team at Pixar. At a first creative meeting for this movie, Docter told of the main set of characters — Joy, Anger, Fear, Sadness, and Disgust — and where they worked. 

But — and here’s the problem — there were no rules for the world Docter had created. Plus, the story as it was originally presented wasn’t much of a story at all. There wasn’t any moment in the “film” that truly hit on what the story was about — the inevitability of change and the process of growing up.  

At the end of the first meeting, at the prompting of his colleagues and friends, Docter left with a clearer vision — what was problematic, what was good, what he needed to develop more. Before everyone left, one Pixar creative named Jonas asked Docter a question that would help him set up the movie that would become Inside Out.

“’Is what you loved about the film different now than it was when we started?’

’The way the movie opens,’ Pete responded, ‘I love.’

Jonas raised his hand in salute. ‘Okay, that’s the movie then,’ he said. ‘How we set up the story has to handshake with that.’”

Many years after that first creative meeting, Docter’s ambitious film about the emotions that control us all went on to win Best Animated Feature at the 2015 Academy Awards.

Main takeaway: Use the thing that you love most about your idea to help set up the story itself. 

Monsters Inc.

Consider this: “As first imagined by Pete Docter, [Monsters, Inc.] revolved around a thirty-year-old man who was coping with a cast of frightening characters that only he could see.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but that sounds nothing like the movie I saw in theaters. 

That’s because, throughout the course of development, [Monsters, Inc. changed drastically. The one-eyed green monster named Mike? He didn’t exist for many iterations of the story. The protagonist was, at one point, a middle-aged man, a girl named Mary, a six-year-old boy, even a domineering seven-year-old named Boo. 

“’The process of developing a story is one of discovery,’ Pete says. ‘However, there’s always a guiding principle that leads you as you go down the various roads.’”

For [Monsters, Inc. that guiding principle was a basic concept: “Monsters are real, and they scare kids for a living.”

Not only that, but Docter also had something else to help him along the way: the fact that all of the various iterations of the plot shared the same feeling — “The bittersweet goodbye you feel once a problem’—in this case, Sully’s quest to return Boo to her own world—‘has been solved. You suffer through it as you struggle to solve it, but by the end you’ve developed a sort of fondness for it, and you miss it when it is gone.’”

Main takeaway: Have a guiding concept — a situation, feeling, or moment of some kind — that will lead you through the development process as you figure out what your story really is. 


 “Only two things survived from [the] original version, the tall bird and the title: Up.”

Pete Docter’s original idea consisted of a floating castle, a royal family, a fall from grace, and a tall, helpful bird. The princes were spoiled, so people couldn’t relate to them, no one understood why the castle was floating, and the plot was loose at best. 

But Docter knew what he was after — the feeling of daydreaming about running away on stressful, overwhelming days; an experience of life itself. 

So he went back to the drawing board. He added an old man, Carl, his lifelong love, Ellie, and the house carried into the sky by a bouquet of balloons. He added the overzealous Cub Scout and accidental stowaway, Russell. He added a destination — an abandoned Soviet-era spy airship made to look like a giant cloud.

But the setting didn’t work. It was too similar to something else Pixar had optioned, and it was just confusing. 

Then came the idea of having Carl and Russell encounter a once famous explorer on a Venezuelan mountain. There were magical eggs that kept the explorer from aging, laid by none other than the very tall bird.

But that was too complicated.

So back to the drawing board Docter went. Again, and again, and again. 

Up had to go through these changes—changes that unfolded over not months but years—to find its heart.”

Eventually, finally, Docter arrived at the plot, characters, setting, and structure that would prove to be the right fit. 

“The path [Docter] followed on Up was difficult and unpredictable; there was nothing about where the movie started that indicated where it would end up. It wasn’t a matter of unearthing a buried story; in the beginning, there was no story.” 

But Docter knew he had something, and he followed his instincts anyway.

Main takeaway: Your original idea may not add up to anything, but it could lead to something much, much better if you continue developing. 

Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.

Photo credit: Finding Nemo

For all the latest from The Script Lab, be sure to follow us on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.