By Britton Perelman · November 5, 2018
When Ed Catmull set out to write a book chronicling his career and all he learned from it, he wasn’t specifically intending to provide any advice for aspiring screenwriters. But that’s exactly what the president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios did.
By spending his life around creatives — writers, directors, animators, inventors — Catmull discovered a thing or two about what makes a good story.
Here are the six most helpful tips from Ed Catmull’s book Creativity Inc. that relate to screenwriting.
It’s one thing to be able to draw well, it’s another to be able to animate. Animation requires, as Catmull puts it, two essential properties.
The first is movement. What viewers see before them must mimic real life to some degree. No matter the subject — a monster, slinky dog, or fish — the thing being animated must appear to move in a way that makes sense to the viewer. Not only that, but the process of animation — layering static images to create the illusion of movement — must be fluid, lest the viewer notice jumps or inconsistencies that leave them aware of the fact that what they’re seeing isn’t real.
The second property is intention. As Catmull says, “It’s not just lines on paper anymore; it’s a living, feeling entity.” Without emotion, without feeling, a viewer can be looking at the most beautiful animation in the world and not have any reaction at all.
These two properties — movement and intention — must also be present in screenplays. The story you’re telling, in some way or another, must mimic real life. It must make sense to the audience, no matter the genre or plot. If your story takes place on Mars, so be it. But the world of Mars must have its own rules and you must abide by them, and there must be something humanlike in the aliens on the Red Planet. Likewise, you must imbue your story with feeling, with intention, or else your audience won’t have any way in.
What inevitably happens when movie-loving writers sit down to pen the next great screenplay is that they want to use things from the films they love, the films that made them want to write in the first place. But, as Catmull explains, you can’t take too much from the works that inspire you.
“References to movies, both good and bad, are part of the vocabulary of talking about filmmaking. And yet if you rely too much on the references to what came before, you doom your film to being derivative.”
The reason your favorite movies are your favorites is because they’re wholly original, unlike anything else and somehow utterly familiar at the same time. The key to achieving originality is, as the creatives at Pixar know so well, research.
For every Pixar film, the filmmaking teams are sent on research trips so that they can fill their movies with authentic details. For Ratatouille, they visited Parisian kitchens, for Up, they brought an ostrich into the headquarters, and for Monsters University, the team was sent on a college tour of several prestigious schools around the U.S.
Now, you may not be able to afford a trip to Australia just to research coral reefs, but that’s what the Internet is there for. You may not know what you’re looking for when you begin researching, but that’s perfectly fine.
“You’ll never stumble upon the unexpected if you stick only to the familiar,” Catmull writes.
Do your homework. Use research and fact-finding to fuel your inspiration. Find the originality.
Unleashing creativity, or tapping into your creativity, or getting creative — whatever you want to call it, being creative requires bravery.
It’s a lot to write something, put it out in the world, and say, “Here it is. This is what I made.” It’s even more to put the pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, in the first place.
Because the creative process is scary. There’s a lot about it that is uncertain, nerve-wracking, and downright risky. But the rewards can be infinite.
So, Catmull says, you must persist.
“Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear. Doing all these things won’t necessarily make the job of managing a creative culture easier. But ease isn’t the goal; excellence is.”
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: Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull