Skip links

Pixar’s Storytelling Formula

The name Pixar is known by almost every child out there, for the movies they make get engraved on the hearts of children and adults alike. By now, most people understand the obsession Pixar has had with stories. The films it makes take time, and their stories are almost always elaborate yet delicate. They don’t rest until they are 100% satisfied with the film they have created. Toy Story 2 took just nine months, but when Pixar was unimpressed with the film, they decided to pull it back and start from scratch again. Why? So, this time, they could get it right.

There are 22 storytelling rules that Pixar adheres to, but among them, five are the most notable. Let’s take a closer look at what Pixar’s Storytelling formula really is.

The Formula

While this formula exists, it is important to note that it cannot make one an expert storyteller. It takes time and experience, and Pixar has accumulated quite a lot since it originated in 1986 in Richmond, California.

But for any screenwriter out there that has the talent but no idea how to harness it, these 22 screenwriting tips might be incredibly helpful.

  1.  The character needs to be admired for more than just their success.
  2. What’s fun to do as a writer is not typically fun for an audience. Writers must put themselves in the audience’s shoes to create a story.
  3. You can’t always know the story’s theme until you are at the very end of it. Once you are, you must rewrite the story entirely around the theme you have discovered.
  4. Once upon a time, there was…
    Every day…
    One day…
    Because of that…
    Because of that…
    Because of that…
    Until finally…
    Ever since then…
    This is how it works. This is how they structure their stories.
  5. Simplify the story, adjust your focus, combine the characters, remove detours, and set your story free. It may appear as though you are removing important stuff, but you’re just making your story better in the grand scheme of things.
  6. Understand what your character is good and comfortable with, and then do the opposite to them to challenge their character arc. Then write how they deal with it.
  7. It may sound weird, but you must figure out your ending before you figure out your middle. This way, you can write accordingly.
  8. Finish your story even if you don’t think it is perfect. Try again and do better in your next story.
  9. When you find yourself stuck, figure out what you wouldn’t want for your story ahead. Make a list. This might help you figure out what you want to happen.
  10. Analyze the stories you currently like and figure out what makes you like them. You can use this to create your own story.
  11. Put down your ideas on paper so you can start working on them. The story, no matter how great it is in your mind, is nothing until it is on paper. And then it is something.
  12. Don’t settle for the obvious. Discount the first five ideas you have, and then surprise yourself with a 6th.
  13. Make sure your story characters are opinionated. Don’t make them passive and likable because that won’t make for a good story even though it is fun to write.
  14. Why have you chosen this specific story? Get to the bottom of it.
  15.  Put yourself in your character’s shoes and ask yourself how you would feel in a situation. This will build credibility for unprecedented situations.
  16. Understand what is at stake and then write accordingly. The audience must root for the character, so there should be some reward for the character down the line.
  17.  If it isn’t working, don’t push the story. Come back to it later with a fresher state of mind.
  18. Understand yourself to write this story better and know that there is a difference between giving it your best and fussing over it.
  19. Use coincidences to get your characters into trouble. Don’t use them to get them out of it.
  20. Take what you hate from a movie and turn it into something you like.
  21. Identify the situation your character is in, and then write accordingly. Is there a reason for your character to suddenly act cool and out of his/her usual form? If not, then give it a reason first.
  22. Figure out the essence of your story and what you want to tell the audience. Go from there.

Themes in Pixar’s Storytelling

Let’s take a look at some of the themes that make Pixar’s storytelling such a unique example and something video producers can apply to their storytelling techniques to make more engaging videos.

The Grey Area Explored

In most cartoon movies, it becomes fairly evident too soon which characters are good and evil too soon. Pixar’s characters are neither but are somewhere in between. Pixar tells stories in a realistic way. They show through their films that an antagonist is not entirely a villain or bad to the very core. Perhaps the villain is just someone that is very hurt or misunderstood. Syndrome from The Incredibles is proof of that.

Instead of focusing on the good and the bad as polar opposites, Pixar takes its time to explore the grey area in the middle to build characters that are incredibly complex and real in nature.

Every Character Has an Arc

It is a pretty common saying in the theater world that there are no small parts, just small actors. The same holds very true in Pixar’s world of Storytelling. Even if the story contains a small rat, it will have its own arc in place; that’s just how diligent Pixar is in ensuring every character is given their due diligence.

Storytellers must use this to their advantage and give all of their characters arcs, even if they are minor characters. It goes a long way to help the protagonist reach his/her end goals. And if Pixar is proof of it, it makes for a very successful film.

Careful Choosing Your Medium 

It’s not always easy to create films in live-action, and then even film giants like Pixar have to rely on animation, as was the case for movies like Up and Brave. The scenes that these movies contained wouldn’t be possible to create in live-action.

As such, storytellers must understand their mediums well and restrict themselves within the realm of possibility while exploring the unexpected. It’s a pretty big ask, but talented storytellers will understand it and know just how to implement it in their stories.

In case you’re making a film that requires live-action and animation, then work hard to push animation as far as you can take it.

Emotions Without Lessons

Pixar creates incredible stories that are suited for animations and then pushes its boundaries to create complex characters that live it.

When Pixar takes their time with the characters and their emotions, it shows just how much care and depth they put into their stories, which gets just the reaction they want from the audiences. The audience reacts emotionally, which is what Pixar is after with their stories. This happens effortlessly, even though a lot of effort and time goes into bringing it to this point beforehand. 

Not Everything You Hear is True (Monsters, Inc.)

Let’s take the example of Monsters, Inc. The main monster characters, Mike and Sully, are terrified of the child (Boo) when they first meet her. They were told their whole lives that children are toxic, diseased, and therefore dangerous. Any child or adult watching this movie however understands that the real monsters were Mr. Waternoose and Randall. The primary monsters, Mike and Sully, end up developing a meaningful and emotional bond with Boo. 

Pixar created this story using its formula to indicate that not everything they hear is true. Mike and Sully’s whole world came apart and was recreated into something new when they found out children were not toxic or dangerous. Their monster academy turned into laughter academy in no time, though it was a bit of an adjustment. 

Embracing Death & Adult Themes (Toy Story)

Pixar’s competitor in the filmmaking industry, Disney, focuses their movies primarily on existing fairytales. In contrast, Pixar creates new stories about modern times, which are more relatable, and original stories provoke real thought in people. Their themes are incredibly complex, and they’re not afraid to explore.

Their themes vary from movie to movie, but Pixar’s core concepts remain the same, and they are incredibly relatable in today’s time. They help foster human socio-economical development with their Storytelling. Who can say that about essentially cartoon films? Just saying that is an insult to Pixar’s incredible stories. They’re much more than just cartoon films; they are new universes of their own. Pixar made sure of it.

Pixar doesn’t let death and jealousy remain taboos in their film. They aren’t afraid to explore matters of kids moving away to college, growing out of their toys, exploring life after death, and adapting to change even though we may not like it at the moment we experience it. Pixar helps children understand complex concepts that would be too daunting to explain with just words. Pixar demonstrates it for them while keeping them safe.

Take Toy Story, as an example here. The emotions, such as the jealousy Woody feels towards Buzz Lightyear, are not emotions of toys but are emotions of real people. But with the help of a movie, these concepts are much better explained to children.

Characters Always Ready for Adventures (Up)

In Pixar’s Up, when Carl lost Ellie, who was the love of his life, it turned his life upside down and took all joy out of it. Yes, Pixar isn’t afraid of demonstrating these difficult emotions to children! When Carl finds Ellie’s dream, he finds himself taking an adventure of a lifetime. Pixar helps children understand that just because one aspect of someone’s life is over doesn’t mean a new one can’t begin! Carl found a friend in Russell the dog, even though he was annoyed with him, to begin with. 

Complex Emotions Displayed in Pixar Movies 

Movies like Brave tell us that family is everything, even though family members may butt heads with each other at times. Toy Story tells us that change is inevitable. The Incredibles tell us that a moment of fame is just a moment. Finding Nemo tells us that it is okay to let go when your children grow up, as it is part of life. Onward helps us understand and appreciate what we already have. Ratatouille teaches us to be our most truest selves no matter what. 

Disney vs. Pixar 

One might argue that Disney movies are great, and they are. But we can’t simply categorize Pixar’s films as children’s movies alone. They are much more than that, and it is all because of their character development, attention to detail, and unique storytelling formula. 

Pixar movies help children understand complex concepts without making them seem like the end of the world, so how can you as a filmmaker employ those same principles in your video making? It may appear difficult to accomplish at first. Still, filmmakers can truly benefit by learning from Pixar’s storytelling formula and applying it even in videos unrelated to the fiction world. Fiction may be a very different field than the kind of videos you might want to make to reach your audience, but good storytelling’s core principles are the same, even for your videos. 

So, what’s your next video going to be about?