top of page

The Power of Pixar

By Al Butter |

Pixar have created some of the most seminal films that have redefined animated films. With a filmography that includes The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Cars 1, 2 & 3, Finding Dory, Up, The Good Dinosaur etc., they rarely put a foot wrong. But what makes their films so engaging, not only to children but to adults too? Exploring their writing techniques, we can get a better understanding of what makes Pixar so successful.

Firstly, they keep their stories simple. Each one of their stories can be summed up in a sentence or two. A cowboy has to overcome his differences with a spaceman to save themselves and understand each other (Toy Story). Monsters realise that there is more to life than their own needs (Monsters Inc.). Being alone isn’t the answer to happiness (Up). Having a simple narrative means that every scene has a purpose in driving the plot forward, keeping the adventure going and keeping the characters active for each moment without becoming background characters in their own film.

More often than not, the main protagonist – or at least some characters – in a Pixar film are grumpy, selfish, surly etc. Think Mike Wazowski from Monsters Inc, Woody from Toy Story, Carl from Up or Lightning McQueen from Cars. When writing Toy Story, Andrew Stanton and ‘team’ had a much more angry, selfish Woody who would not let any other toy on the bed and almost ran the room as a dictator. They soon realised that this is not a character that an audience could relate to or like, so they thought: how do you make a selfish character likeable?

Writer Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Toy Story, Finding Nemo) said in his TED talk that they realised you can make them “kind, generous, funny, considerate as long as one condition is met for him, that he remains the top toy and that is what it is. We all live life conditionally, we’re all willing to play by the rules and follow things along, as long as certain conditions are met, after that all bets are off”1. This can apply to so many of Pixar’s characters: Carl in Up was happy with Ellie until she died and with the risk of the house they built together being taken away from him, he decides to up and leave with it; Mike Wazowski just wants to date his girlfriend and go to work every day until Sully finds a little girl (Boo), throwing his life upside down. Characters who want the world to stay the same are often given a counterpart who is more interested in disrupting the norm, being something more than they are and inevitably making the other character face themselves and their true need and force them to develop as a character throughout the film. It’s Buzz Lightyear to Woody, it’s Sully to Mike, it’s Mater to Lightning McQueen. Each of these are almost the complete opposite to the other.

Even the structure of a Pixar film can be quite formulaic. In 2011 a then visual artist for Pixar Emma Coats tweeted 22 rules of storytelling that Pixar use to create their stories and rule number 4 is their structuring2. It goes like this:

  • Once Upon A Time… This is the initial set up to the film: where and when does it happen.

  • Every Day… They show the audience what the everyday life of this world is.

  • Until One Day… Something happens that throws the main characters life out of balance.

  • Because Of That… If something changes things, then things need to change.

  • Because Of That, Again… The initial plan to restore order has failed and they try again.

  • The Because Of That step can continue a few more times.

  • Until Finally… The story’s conclusion, where the changes made in ‘Because Of That’ have affected the world and characters and everyone is better for it.

So many of the Pixar classics follow this path and it is used over and over. For example, Finding Nemo:

  • Once Upon A Time there was Marlon and Coral. They have eggs and one night are attacked leaving only one egg, Nemo.

  • Every Day Marlon is overprotective of Nemo keeping him from the world outside.

  • Until One Day Nemo goes on a school trip. Marlon, being overprotective, forces Nemo out of the reef and Nemo is taken by a scuba diver.

  • Because Of That Marlon then has to go after him, meeting Dory.

  • Because Of That they then meet sharks.

  • Because Of That they then meet turtles.

  • And so on…

  • Until Finally Marlon and Nemo are reunited. Back home, Marlon has grown and is less overprotective and scared of the world around him.

If you think about any of their films, you can apply this guide to it. It gets to a point in the structure where each action a character makes affects what happens to them next, continuously driving the story forward.

Another key component to a Pixar film is emotional truth. There have been moments in many of the Pixar films that bring a tear to your eye and that’s not a mistake, like in Finding Nemo, where Coral has died and there is one egg left that Marlon swears to protect; or Toy Story 4 where we the supposed ‘villain’ of the film, a Chatty Cathy doll who only wants to be loved, is found by a lost young girl and finally has someone to love; or Up where Ellie dies leaving Carl alone.

Andrew Stanton talks about how to use your truth to engage with the viewer, ‘Use what you know, draw from it. This doesn’t always mean plot or fact: it means capturing a truth from your experiences. Expressing values you personally feel deep down to your core.’ It’s that honesty of emotion put into the story that gives you a deeper connection to the characters and to the story. Using this emotional truth fuels the characters’ need for their emotional resolve at the end of the film.

No matter the film, Pixar try and follow this path. They use characters that want to keep their life the same and pair them with a character that wants something more. They have a structure that sets up characters and the world early before sending them on their adventure. And finally, they add in some emotional truth that makes you connect to the characters and to drive their need. That honesty makes the emotion feel real and not forced. With all of these components, Pixar produces spectacular film after spectacular film, and they remain one of the most successful film companies out there.


(Image copyright: Disney)


Al Butter is a South West based screenwriter with an MA in Screenwriting from Falmouth University. Find him ABScreenwriting.


bottom of page