Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The New Thing is coming in 5 days

This is important. Svend linked me to this great talk by Ed Catmull a co-founder of Pixar, about their corporate culture, and story-creation process (it's about an hour long):

Here's the big thing I took away from it:

When you start to make ... anything (a film, a game, anything) it isn't very good. You have to go through a lot of steps to get to good. You can feel you're making progress if you can see it's taking a step forward every three to six months.

So there's some success criteria from the people at Pixar: it doesn't need to be perfect; it just needs to be moving forward regularly. From my experience, there are many ways I can tell one of my projects has taken a step forward, including:
  • I've deepened my understanding of the material
  • I've found a simpler, more elegant way of expressing the idea
  • I've figured out what it's really about
What's important for me, though, is that I think this applies to more than just creating ... stuff. I think it applies to personal development, time management, and the feeling I want of being on top of my life. This principle (a step forward every three to six months) takes the pressure off needing the 'perfect' system that makes everything all right. It's shown me that it's good and reasonable to think of my life as a work-in-progress, as long as I'm happy that I'm actually progressing (taking those steps forward).

In the last two years the big steps forward have been PLAY, getting comfortable with dating, and free writing (which I'll talk about very soon). Next is the New Thing - which will be coming in five days.

More things I took away from the Pixar talk after the jump ...

Show your stuff everyday. Show it when it's weak, when it's not perfect. Get over the embarrassment of showing your stuff to people.

If the audience knows what the end of the movie is before they start watching it, then you don't have a movie. The same goes for the writer knowing what the end of the movie is before they start writing it. The end can't be inevitable and it can't be obvious. In the presentation, Ed Catmull talks about how the writers needed to change Toy Story 2 so that it wasnt' inevitable that Woody would return to his friends after being kidnapped.

Successful movies are filled with thousands of ideas. And you need to get most of them right. In order to do that, you need a team that works well together, in order to execute those ideas. The goal of development is not to find good ideas; it's to put together teams of people that work together well.

Successfully creating something involves showing it to people when it's incomplete. Then you make
adjustments and show it again. Doing this starts to lessen your freakout at showing people work that isn't perfect. It also means you finish it quicker, because you're making corrections as you go rather than presenting a single 'finished' thing that inevitably needs to be completely reworked.

You get your first project out and it'll be a mess. But it's only a failure if you don't learn from it.

In a high performing team, about one-third of the stuff you do will be wrong.

Success hides problems. For example, when you're healthy you can get away with doing a lot of unhealthy stuff. Success means you're not motivated to 'dive deep' and look for the problems.

... So you need to constantly review. You need to make itsafe for people to tell the truth. And you need to dig deep to find the truth. And you need to do it because human organisations are inherently unstable. But they fall slowly. Most people don't notice it happening until it suddenly collapse. ... So you have to do constant assessments to look for the slow crises, for the ways your organisation (or your life, maybe) are already falling apart.

The New Thing starts in 5 days.


Pearce said...

Re: endings - what about those stories that start with the final scene, then show how this ending came about?

Or those stories where the ending (death or catastrophic failure) is obvious and inevitable, and the audience then spends the entire movie hoping that it will not happen, and then it does?

Most obvious example: "A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life"

Steve Hickey said...

Quite right - I love lots of movies and stories with that structure. To clarify my summary:

The particular thing that Catmull's talking about here is 'choice'. He's saying you don't want character choices to be obvious, simplistic or inevitable. If you set up a dramatic situation but it's obvious what a character is going to choose, then you run a huge risk of boring your audience.

If you start by spelling out the ending, then you're probably doing something different to keep your audience interested.

Romeo and Juliet, and the car-crash tragedies you're talking about are great counter-examples - but even then they're stories that are (usually) filled with moments and opportunities for characters to change their fate.

Karen said...

"You can feel you're making progress if you can see it's taking a step forward every three to six months."

I like this... if I use this as a basis for assessing my current progress, I am positively bounding! :-)

Steve Hickey said...

I like it too. It feels so much more reasonable than "Sort everything out right now and make everything perfect in a way that never needs to change ever" (which was certainly my standard for a couple of years, there, and is pretty much a recipe for stress and dissatisfaction).

Keep bounding!