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Just one guy's quest to unlock the mysterious art of storytelling on screen.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Michael Arndt Sprinkles Some Pixar Storycrafting Magic

Michael Arndt

Stephen Hoover took notes at the Austin Film Festival when Michael Arndt spoke about cooking up Toy Story 3.  This is manna from story heaven -- not a new recipe for most structuralists out there, I expect, but tasty nonetheless.  Reading once isn't enough.  Rest, digest, then return for seconds.  Thank you, Stephen, and thank you, Michael.

  • The First Ten Pages
    • Establish the protagonist’s expectations for the future. What exactly are they expecting? It doesn’t have to be super positive, but it’s their realistic take on where they are headed.
    • Establish the interactions/relationships between the characters. What is their life in its normal state.
    • The expectations should be concrete with specific details. E.g. TOY STORY 3 (TS3) – Toys expect they will be put in the attic. Not a great expectation for the future but that’s what they think. Clear specific examples – Christmas stuff is up there, won’t be so bad. Central philosophical viewpoint of protagonist Woody: Love is being there for Andy. Love is staying.
  • The Inciting Incident
    • A game changer. Destroys these expectations. Shocking when the expectations not met. Disrupts plans for the future. Changes sense of self. Changes sense of world.
    • TS: Woody expects things to go on as is and ... here comes Buzz. Woody is cast aside and lands under the bed. This is great because: 1) unforeseen by Woody, 2) visceral (gut wrenching to see Woody under bed cast aside), 3) action set piece illustrates it (Army men move out), 4) represents Woody’s darkest fear.
    • TS2: Woody expects to go off to Cowboy Camp with Andy but his arm rips and he’s left behind.
    • TS3: A dual inciting incident: 1) Woody is going to college – better than he expected, 2) other toys are put out as trash – worst possible outcome for them. Action set piece: Garbage truck coming to get the toys – worst fear.
    • So an ideal inciting incident is:
      1. Unforeseen
      2. Visceral
      3. Action set piece – an enactment of the character’s worst fears
    • Other Inciting Incidents:
      • Mr. Incredible is happy being a superhero and expects to continue. His plans for the future are shattered when he’s sued out of ‘business.’
      • TOOTSIE. “No one will hire you.” Can’t continue as he has been in the past.
      • STAR WARS. Family killed. Can’t go back to that.
    • The Inciting Incident spins story in new direction and protagonist must come up with new plan.
      • TS3: Woody will rescue the other toys.
      • STAR WARS: Go to Aalderon.
  • First Act Break
    • Page 25.
    • TS3: Toys arrive at Sunyside. Hero should be active. His decision drives it. Woody leaves friends behind – got to get to Andy. Circumstances change – quest begins. Rooting interest.
    • Finding Nemo: Dad has to find Nemo. Sets up the second act goal – specific and defined – to achieve global goal. Seems easy but thwarted at midpoint.
    • STAR WARS: Get the R2 unit to the Rebel base. Specific goal. Global goal: defeat the Empire.
  • Midpoint
    • Deepen the stakes.
    • Change direction.
    • Six Story Threads in TS3:
      1. Andy going off to college – does want the toys (Mrs. Potatohead sees this.)
      2. Toys – want to go home. That’s their new goal.
      3. Lotso – bad guy but we don’t know this until midpoint (MP).
      4. Buzz – deluded guard at MP
      5. Barbie and Ken – romantic subplot; she breaks up with him at MP
      6. Woody learns Lotso’s backstory (he was dumped by the girl as she grew up).
      • All of these REVERSALS happen simultaneously. No treading water. 3 minutes of screen time.
  • Second Act Break
    • “Out of frying pan into the fire.”
    • Forces the stakes of the story.
    • Succeed in 2nd act goal BUT major setback in global goal.
      • STAR WARS: Get R2 to the Rebel Base but was part of Darth’s plan and now the Death Star has located them.
      • LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE: Register Olive in the contest on time (2nd act goal) BUT they see she’s way out of her league.
    • Stakes – win or lose – force them.
      • TS3: Stakes for Woody at 2nd act break:
        • external – fate of toys
        • internal – does Andy still care?
        • Philosophical stakes – is child/toy love real?
        • In the original version, Woody wins the argument with Lotso. This was changed to Woody losing the argument/being in doubt. Big setbacks in all 3 sets of stakes. No way out of crisis. Philosophical stakes between your protagonist/antagonist. Lotso’s being together = love. Kids grow up, discard toys. Therefore, there’s no real love between kids and toys. It’s an illusion and Woody is an idiot for believing it.
    • In some sense, the protagonist struggles because he on some level agrees with the premise of the antagonist.
      • SPIDER-MAN: Goblin tells Spider-man they are alike. Do all this for the regular people and they end up resenting and hunting you down.
  • Climax
    • Epiphany for hero.
    • Hero’s sense of world changes.
    • Philosophical climax of story. Philosophical success leads to external and internal success.
    • Must resonate and be universal.
      • TS3: Epiphany for Woody. World view of love. Love = being there for Andy. Lotso was tossed aside (like Jesse in TS2) – universal that kids grow up; never really loved me.
    • Push the stakes.
      • IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: “You’re worth more dead than alive.” George Baily agrees with Mr. Potter. He has the view of wealth = financial success. Travel the world; trips to Europe.
    • The villain POV appears irrefutable. The protagonist struggles because he agrees with it to some extent.
    • Epiphany is the philosophical climax.
      • TS3: Woody sees Andy with his mother. MOM: I wish I could always be with you. ANDY: You will be, Mom.
    • Villain POV is accurate but it’s shallow and petty – hollow version of the truth.
    • New truth the protagonist realizes is deeper and a more poetic understanding of the world.
      • UP: “Adventure is out there.” Narrow/literal definition. Protagonist believes he had to go out and explore. End he reads the book where his deceased wife tells him she did have a great adventure – their lives together.
    • Redefines these ideals.
    • Storyteller’s role is to change audience’s perspective on life and to find these deeper truths and live a fuller life.

UPDATE: More about Toy Story 3 from Bob Hilgenberg and Rob Muir who worked on an earlier draft.
"Some people have asked about the ending of our TS3 script. That's a pretty complicated question if you haven't been able to read the entire script. BUT, here's a quick thumbnail version of what we did and how the toys fared in our version."