A good team or good story?

Posted on June 19, 2009


This is an article from Script Magazine that came out recently about the Pixar movie “Up”. It’s about their philosphy of storytelling. Which is more important, a great team or a great story? The answer may suprise you…


No B in “Team”

This brings up one of Pixar’s great insights, a truth so profound that almost nobody in the movie industry will listen to it:

“The team is more important than the idea”

This discovery dates back to the studio’s near-disaster on Toy Story 2. As Ed Catmull, the Pixar co-founder who still runs the company, recounted in an address to the SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference last year, they had put a “B team” on the project, which they expected to be a direct-to-video sequel. But the company soon found it was “bad for our souls” to have a team working with lower expectations. They decided to make Toy Story 2 a theatrical feature. Unfortunately, the team they’d put on the movie wasn’t delivering work at the level needed. So, after working himself to exhaustion getting A Bug’s Life out the door, John Lasseter screened what was finished on Toy Story 2, rejected it, and decided to throw most of it out.

He took personal charge of the picture and it was redone, nearly from scratch, starting only eight months before its release date. Catmull called this experience a “brutal, brutal process” that left one third of the company with repetitive stress injuries. But, the revised story worked beautifully. What was the difference?

“We realized that if you take a good idea to a mediocre team, they’ll screw it up,” said Catmull. “And if you take a mediocre idea and give it to a good team, they’ll either fix it or throw it out and do something else. So the important thing was to find good people.”

Pixar went so far as to change their development department, ordering them to stop looking for ideas for films. “Their job is to find teams that work well together,” said Catmull. Peterson and Docter are part of one such team. “I definitely feel we manage to jell a bit,” says Peterson. “We each have skills that complement each other.”

The directors truly are king at Pixar. Nobody can make a director accept a note and no one can overrule him. That means the lines that separate the writer and the director are even more blurry than usual. As Docter explains, “Typically, someone will come up with the concept, usually the director, and shepherd it along all the way. Then we bat it around for a while, either in smaller groups or in a little larger groups sometimes.”