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“In 1998, I had finished writing ‘Toy Story’ and ‘A Bug’s Life’ and I was completely hooked on screenwriting. So I wanted to become much better at it and learn anything I could. So I researched everything I possibly could. And I finally came across this fantastic quote by a British playwright, William Archer: ‘Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.’ It’s an incredibly insightful definition.

When you’re telling a story, have you constructed anticipation? In the short-term, have you made me want to know what will happen next? But more importantly, have you made me want to know how it will all conclude in the long-term? Have you constructed honest conflicts with truth that creates doubt in what the outcome might be? An example would be in ‘Finding Nemo,’ in the short tension, you were always worried, would Dory’s short-term memory make her forget whatever she was being told by Marlin. But under that was this global tension of will we ever find Nemo in this huge, vast ocean?”
Two-time Oscar winner Andrew Stanton  (Wall-E, Toy Story)
TED talk: The Clues to a Great Story
(Also has interactive link of Stanton’s talk.)

H/T to Scott Myers at Go Into The Story for pointing the way to Stanton’s TED talk.

Related links:

Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 1)
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2)
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 3)
The Dark Side of Pixar & Disney
Writing “Finding Nemo”

Scott W. Smith

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Toy Story 3 is about change. It’s about embracing change. It’s about people being faced with change and how they deal with it.”
Lee Unkrich
Director, Toy Story 3

“All the Toy Story films have been about mortality. It’s all about ‘Who am I? Am I going to be replaced?'”
Darla K. Anderson
Producer, Toy Story 3


It’s debatable whether Toy Story 3 was the best film of 2010, but from a filmmaking perspective it’s hard to top the 4-Disc Blu-ray/DVD combo that Pixar created for Toy Story 3. It shows how meticulous the Pixar team ( of “hundred and hundreds of people”) is in creating such wonderful movies. The team discusses how they took four years to create Toy Story 3, first creating a full length animatic story reel (sort of a rough, moving storyboard).

You’ll also learn quirky things in the behind the scene footage like how director Lee Unkrich loves steamed broccoli.

But since this is a blog on screenwriting…on the second disc you’ll find an excellent 8-minute recap by Toy Story 3 screenwriter Michael Arndt on how he came at the story.  He explains how he studied other Pixar films Finding Nemo, Toy Story, and  The Incredibles to see how they set up their worlds, characters and stories. Here’s a recap of his recap:

—Usually a script is about 100 pages with three acts with the first act about 25 pages long, the second act about 50 pages long, and the third act 25 pages.

—Introduce your main character and the world they live in.

—Introduce character doing the thing they love most. It’s the center of their whole universe.

—Expose hidden character flaw. In Toy Story, Woody takes pride in being Andy’s favorite toy.

—Storm clouds on the horizon. In Toy Story it’s Andy’s birthday party and all the toys being worried about being replaced.

—Baboom! Something comes in and turns your character’s life upside down. The thing that was their grand passion gets taken away from them. Woody gets displaced by Buzz.

—Add insult to injury. Something that makes the whole world seem unfair. Woody doesn’t just get replaced, he gets replaced by a total dofuss.

—Character comes to a fork in the road and a choice must be made. Take the high road (the healthy responsible choice) or the low road (unhealthy, irresponsible choice). If the character chooses the right thing you really don’t have a story.

—In Toy Story, Woody could make the right choice and say—”I had my day in the sun.” We identify with his pain.  But he makes the unhealthy choice which leads to Buzz being pushed out the window which leads to other unhealthy choices. Woody then is forced by the other toys to find Buzz and bring him back—that’s your first act break.

—The character sets out on a journey where they have to get back what they lost and hopefully fix that little flaw they had when we first met them.

That sound you heard a while back was the cash register as Toy Story 3 ticket sales crossed the billion dollar mark.

Update 7/1/14: This video is now on You Tube.

Toy Story 3 is that rare film that not only was well received by critics and is winning awards, but at the box office it became the top moneymaker in 2010, the top animated film in history and is currently listed at #5 on the all-time world-wide box office list. All it took was four years, a few hundred talented people, and a little steamed  broccoli.

I don’t know if Pixar is as an enjoyable place to work as it looks on the behind the scene footage, but I’d sure like to spend a week there sweeping the floors just to soak in the culture.

Update 1/25/11: Just announced this morning, Toy Story 3 earned a total of 5 Academy Award nominations including not only Best Adapted Screenplay (Script by Michael Arndt/ Story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Lee Unkrich) and Best Animated Film, but for the big daddy itself, Best Picture. PopEater  quoted producer Darla K. Anderson saying, “We did take a lot of risks on this film — we had some moments of loss and poignancy. We risked Andy giving the toys away… And I wasn’t sure how people would respond to the film — but I knew we told the story we wanted to tell.”

Oscar Update: Here’s a video of Lee Unkrich receiving the Best Animated Feature Film of the Year Oscar for Toy Story 3 :

P.S. One of my favorite lines from Toy Story 3 is when the Piggy Bank says: “Let’s go see how much we’re going for on eBay.”

Related posts:
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 1)
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 3)
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 4)
Writing “Finding Nemo”
Screenwriting Quote #129 (Bob Peterson)
Toy Story 3’s Ohio Connection

Scott W. Smith

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“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
Andy Defresne in The Shawshank Redemption

In light of quoting Secretariat screenwriter Mike Rich this week (Screenwriting Quote #145Mike Rick & Hobby Screenwriting) it would be hard to look at the list of films he’s written and not see that there is a thread of hope and redemption in all of them.

“It’s very, very hard to get a movie made. Quadruple or quintuple that degree of difficulty when your movie is about endless grim horribleness. If there is no spiritual uplift at the end , the reader is going to heave the script into the fireplace and cackle as it burns. Why should the audience suffer along with the character only for it to have been in vain?…Let the reader end on a note of hope or redemption.”
William M. Akers
Your Screenplay Sucks
page 15

The themes of hope and/or redemption aren’t limited to Disney films or more overtly spiritual films. Here is a short list in a mix of genres and old and new films that I’d put in the category;

The Shawshank Redemption
Casablanca
On the Waterfront
Seabiscuit
Juno

The African Queen
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Toy Story

Jaws
Tender Mercies
Field of Dreams
Erin Brockovich
Rocky

Rain Man
The Natural
Tootsie
Saving Private Ryan
An Officer & a Gentleman
Jerry Maguire
Pieces of April

It’s an easy list to come up with because those are some of my favorite films. It’s also a list shows that themes of hope & redemption are often popular with audiences, the Academy and critics. Sure getting a film made is hard, but what are the odds that your film resonates with audiences, the Academy and critics?(There are reasons universal themes are called universal.)

And on one level every screenwriter hopes the script they are working on will be produced and find an audience and will redeem the time spent working on their craft. (Even the edgy, indie, non-mainstream screenwriter working on the most nihilistic script ever written shares the same desire.) May hope & redemption fill your writing career and your life.

Scott W. Smith

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“We make the kind of movies we want to see, we love to laugh, but I also believe what Walt Disney said, ‘for every laugh there should be a tear.”
John Lasseter
Pixar director of Toy Story, Cars, and A Bug’s Life

“Come in! Come in, you’ve nothing to fear!”
The old lady in Hansel and Gretel

Several reviews of Toy Story 3 talk of the darker nature of the movie. The film just opened yesterday and I haven’t seen it yet, but I wonder if many have just forgotten the darker corners that Pixar has treaded in the past (and Walt Disney before them).

One of the whole themes of Toy Story and Toy Story 2 is the fear of outliving your purposefulness and being replaced.  Of ending up in the broken toy bin, or even worse— being sold for 25 cents in a yard sale. That’s pretty dark stuff. And it’s set up early in the first film when Buzz Lightyear arrives and Woody fears literally being put up on the shelf.

Here are some of the lines from those first two films:

“No one is getting replaced.”

“Yes sir, we’re next month’s garage sale fonder for sure.”

“Toys don’t last forever.”

“You’re broken, I don’t want to play with you anymore.”

“I hate yard sales.”

Facing your own demise is pretty dark stuff. And don’t forget in Toy Story there is the bad boy next door, Sid, who likes to dismantle and destroy toys and dolls. In Toy Story 2 there is a kidnapping and a threat of Woody being sold and shipped to a collector in Japan. Dark stuff.

Remember conflict is the life blood of movies and the gang at Pixar understand this very well. (Maybe I shouldn’t use “blood” and “gang” in the same sentence when talking about family friendly Pixar, but in the spirit of this post I think it’s okay.)

Being old, forgotten, and left behind is addressed in Cars. (“I’m in this little town called Radiator Springs. You know Route 66? It’s still here!”) Roger Ebert wrote of Cars, “It tells a bright and cheery story, and then has a little something profound lurking around the edges. In this case, it’s a sense of loss.” Cars is all the more poignant since it was the great Paul Newman’s last film. (Cars also happens to be Newman’s highest grossing film.)

And how gut wrenching is that montage of Carl & Ellie’s life  in Pixar’s Up? They meet and have hopes and dreams of a life adventure together. But their savings are depleted time and time again as life problems intrude—a car repair here, a house repair there. Finally, later in their life Carl buys tickets for a trip to South America, but before he can surprise Ellie she gets sick and dies. Dark stuff.

In the opening scene of Pixar’s Finding Nemo, Marlin’s wife and large family are killed by a barracuda. And soon afterwards his only son, Nemo, is captured by a scuba diver. Dark Stuff.

Fortunately the gang at Pixar also know how to balance some of their darker, somber themes by cloaking them with humor. They understand stand that life is a mixture of sadness and humor. They simply understand human emotions—even if their creations aren’t always human.

Certainly part of the magic of Walt Disney was not shying away from harsh and dark conflict. Think of Bambi’s mother being shot (“Mother we made it. Mother…”) or of Cruella De Vil who abducts puppies with the hopes of making a dalmatian coat. We’re talking Silence of the Lambs creepy.

Of course, Disney was just tapping into the tradition of fairy tales before him. Stories of a big, bad wolf who has eaten grandma, a witch who desires to put Hansel and Gretel in an oven, and a giant who yells to a poor, fatherless boy;

Fee-fi-fo-fum!
I smell the blood of an Englishman?
Be he ‘live, or be he dead,
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.

In real life we may be scared to go into the woods, but as writers (even writers of children and family stories) into the woods we must go.

But don’t forget to pack a flashlight.

Post tenebras lux.

Related post: Everything I Learned in Film School
Toy Story 3’s Ohio Connection
Screenwriting Quote #129 (Bob Peterson)
Writing “Finding Nemo”
Screenwriting the Pixar Way

Update 6/21/10: I was one of the people who helped make Toy Story 3 a record Father’s Day weekend.  It continued the same theme of the fear of being discarded, of outliving your usefulness. Overall it is a super film with the best ending of the three movies. Had a little water in my eyes at the end and it wasn’t from wearing those 3-D glasses for an hour and a half.

I can’t help wonder how hard it is for people who are unemployed to watch that film with their kids as they face uncertainty of work in the future. Just read an article where 40 is considered old at Google. I could help but think of Woody, Buzz and the gang when I read the following rely in the comments section of the post:

My husband has been coding since 1980 and was plucked from college his junior year by IBM because of a shortage of programmers. He can code rings around most newbies who weren’t born when he wrote his first lines of PL1 and cobalt. The main problem as I see it, is that he doesn’t look shiny and new while he does it and that turns off a lot of employers.

Scott W. Smith

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“The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” — Alfred Hitchcock

slaterebirthj.jpg

Since tip #3 focused on the one main person in your story,  it makes sense to address the other numbers related to screenwriting. Numbers play a key part in every production from the slate that keeps track of takes to you keeping track of your mileage for expenses. Screenplays are not exempt from the numbers game.

When you were a child the chances are pretty good that somewhere along the way you used one of those paint by numbers kits. If the number was one, you were supposed to use blue, number two yellow, and so on. And when you finished painting in all the numbers you actually had a decent little painting—for a six year old.

That’s actually not a bad way to approach writing––no matter what your age. I know it sounds cold, calculated and superficial, but hang with me for a moment. When I first started writing I was confused about the numbers game. Advice I got in books and magazines seemed conflicting and confusing.

Screenwriting by numbers is simply basic story structure and demystifies the process. Think of it like playing or watching a sport. It helps if you know the rules of the game. What are the boundaries, how high is the net in basketball or tennis? How are points scored, how long is the game played?

It takes nothing away from your originality. It takes nothing away from the story you have a burning desire to tell. It does not diminish the status of a great athlete just because he shoots a basketball at the same ten-foot hoop everyone uses, it enhances it. The limitations show his greatness. 

“Limitation stimulates the imagination.” — Milton Glazer

This is my favorite chapter to talk about because it’s like pulling back the veil on the main part of simplifying the screenwriting process. It’s easy to grasp and easy to follow, yet it’s a hangup for many writers because they miss it. If you don’t like the sports analogy think of it in terms of cooking or whatever field of expertise you have.  As Clint Eastwood says in Dirty Harry, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

Part of knowing the limitations is knowing what form you are writing for. For instance how long can a short film be and still be eligible for an Oscar? According to the Academy “A short film is defined as a motion picture that is not more than 40 minutes in running time (including all credits).” The total run time of a 30 minute sitcom is 22 minutes.  A video for You Tube cannot be longer than ten minutes. And to point out the obvious if you’re writing a 30 second commercial you have 30 seconds.

How long should a feature film script be? A coy response would be—as long as it needs to be. In the feature film world (especially for the new screenwriter) the real answer is most films fall between 90 and 120 pages.  

You can rebel against that all you want (go ahead point out the exceptions) but in reality, at a page a minute, the majority of movies made fall between an hour and a half and two hours in length. Why fight that? There is great freedom there.

A mighty river is powerful only if it has banks to contain it. (Just to sneak in an Iowa reference here and remind you that the mighty Mississippi River flows along eastern Iowa. Part of the Third Coast.) Look at these great films from a variety of genres that fall within the 100-120 minute parameters:

Finding Nemo 100m.

Casablanca 102 m.

The African Queen 105m.

Psycho 108m.

On the Waterfront 109m.

Sunset Blvd. 110m.

Citizen Kane 119m.

Raiders of the Lost Ark 115m.

Pretty Women 117m. 

The Bourne Ultimatum 115m.

That’s a pretty good list of films, but what about those under 100 minutes? You’ll find more comedy and horror films here because if you can scare people or make them laugh for an hour and a half you’ve done your job. You’ll also find low budget films here because it’s simply cheaper to shoot a film closer to 90 minutes than one that’s two hours. Films with limited sets also are common in this time frame as well.

Annie Hall 94m.

When Harry Met Sally 95m.

Twelve Angry Men 95m.

Halloween 91m.

Reservoir Dogs 99m.

Juno 96m.

Monsters, Inc 92m.

There are examples of films that are even a little shorter than 90 minutes. Generally, today these are limited to youth oriented films.

Bambi 68m.

Toy Story 80m.

Stand by Me 89m.

The Gold Rush 82m.

High Noon 84m.

She’s Gotta Have It 84m.

Stranger than Paradise 89m. (By the way, I just saw yesterday that Jim Jarmusch’s film is now out on DVD as part of  The Criterion Collection. Worth getting just to see a film done in master takes.)

Perhaps, you’re stubborn and you want to point out all the great films that are well over the two-hour mark. Let’s deal with them.

The Godfather 175m.

Dances with Wolves 181m.

Titanic 194m.

Lord of the Rings (3) 210m.

Ben Hur 212m.

Gone with the Wind 222m.

Longer films tend to have a built-in audience which justifies the extra expense. In the case of these listed five were best selling books first and one was based on a well documented historic event. But even those fall between basically the 3 and 4 hour mark. A long limitation, but a limitation nonetheless.

It’s hard enough to get any film made much less one over two hours, so if you’re really interested in getting produced why not improve your odds by writing a 90 minute screenplay? Keep in mind that low budget producers are trying to keep cost down so less is more there. And in Hollywood there are readers who get paid by the scripts they review. Human nature says they’ll choose the 90-page script before the 150-page script.

Embrace the limitations.

90 Page Script

So let’s say you’re setting out to write a 90 page script. Now what?

1-3 page scenes

Here’s an interesting observation I’ve made simply from reading scripts and watching movies. Most scenes are between 1 and 3 pages in length. So if that averages out to 2 pages per scene and you have a 90 minute movie you have 45 scenes.

45 Scenes

Do you see the freedom here? Most of you could stop reading this blog right now and write down 45 scenes from your childhood or odd things that have happened to you at work. I’m not saying you have a screenplay yet—but you may have an outline. 45 scenes. That’s doable, right? There’s nothing magical about 45 scenes, but it’s a good number to shoot for. I hope you’re beginning to see the freedom in writing by numbers.

When I first started writing I wondered how you kept track of all your characters. Believe it or not readers have the same problem in reading scripts. Which is why most screen plays only have four main characters. There’s just not room to develop characters beyond that. 

1 Protagonist/ 1 Antagonist

Limit yourself to one protagonist and one antagonist.

As I’ve said before, when you write your script either your protagonist or antagonist should be in every scene. (Or have a really good reason why they’re not there.) Once I tuned into this I have watched movies with awe how some writers include the protagonist is in ever scene. It’s so easy when to go off on little tangents and side characters. 

Lots of White Space

When you read a screenplay of your favorite movie the chances are good that there will be a lot of white on the page. Meaning that top screenwriters write sparingly. You generally don’t find big chucks of scene descriptions and thick lines of dialogue.

The Law of 3

I’ve read many a great scripts that basically applied what I call the law of three. As you watch movies from now on I think you’ll see the truth here. 

3 Lines or Less of Dialogue

Dialogue: Most lines of dialogue are three lines or less.                      

3 Characters (or less) Per Scene

“It’s difficult to have a lot of characters.”– Francis Ford Coppola

Most scenes involve three characters or less. There may be other characters around but the main conversation is limited to three characters. The main reason behind this is I think it is hard to write—and hard to follow—more than three characters talking.

Three Subplots or Less 

Generally you are limited to three subplots in a story because again you have limited time to develop them.

There you have it the basic numbers you need to contain your story.  As you watch films with this perspective in mind I think you’ll find that they are generally followed pretty closely. I hope this fires you up to write. How long does it take to write a screenplay? Well those numbers are all over the place but if you want some motivation to write quickly I’ll leave you with a quote from Sylvester Stallone: 

“It took me about three and a half days to write Rocky.” 

Copyright @2008 Scott W. Smith 

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