Storytelling like Pixar with Matthew Luhn

I attended a recent event where Matthew Luhn, a creator at Pixar, shared his advice and thoughts on storytelling. He was quick to point out that storytelling is an important skill in all fields, not just in what some call entertainment jobs. So without further ado, here are tips on storytelling from Matthew Luhn:

Story is the most important thing. Beyond special effects and animation, the story is what matters most, especially in making a strong film. Luhn says great stories have three things. Great stories are memorable, impactful, and personal. A memorable story is one that evokes emotion. Luhn used an advertisement from Tiffany & Co. with a picture of a couple kissing in the snow on a curb in New York City. Even though there are no words telling the story, the little details of the the advertisement—from the Tiffany blue to the font type—send you a story: Tiffany jewelry is the center of romantic memories.

Impactful stories are ones that evoke emotion. Luhn used the opening montage of Up, which shows the story of a man and his wife as they go through the ups and downs of life. He says that the reason this sequence is so impactful is that it trades between evoking laughter, which releases chemicals that heighten memory, and evoking sadness, which releases chemicals that heighten empathy. By the end of the sequence, the audience is chemically and emotionally invested in the story of the now old and grumpy protagonist of Up. 

Personal stories are stories told from a place of truth. At the heart of all personal stories are transcendent human experiences—parenting, dealing with loss, growing up, chasing a dream—that connect with audiences no matter the age. When asked whether Pixar set out to make kids movies, Luhn said that they never wanted to make movies for kids. Their goal was to make movies about real things that anyone could watch. This posed a unique challenge, since the easiest way to make people laugh is by adding crude humor. Instead, Pixar storytellers were forced to look for deeper, more fulfilling lines of humor that didn’t limit the range of the intended audience. He quoted Walt Disney:

“We cannot do the fantastic things based on the real, unless we first learn the real.”

—Walt Disney

Gather Data. If you are going to write a story set in France, it helps to visit France. If you want to have a seen in a junkyard, visit a junkyard. In terms of visual storytelling, Matthew Luhn says that it is important that you get up close and personal with the places and ideas you are going to use. People can sense the added authenticity that comes from doing your research well. To explain this point, he talked about Inside Out. 

For the research on Inside Out, the Pixar team brought in a couple psychologists to teach them about emotions. The psychologists said that there are 3,000 emotions that have been identified in humans. Some psychologists lumped these emotions into groups, and the team gradually narrowed down the main emotions into five characters. They also used the psychologists knowledge of facial expressions to improve the animation. This was probably my favorite bit of info from the event, and I found it useful as a writer.

When you remember things you look to the left and when you make up things you look to the right. You look upwards for visual thoughts, to the side for auditory thoughts, and downwards for tactile thoughts. So if you are remembering what something looks like, you look up to the left, and if you are coming up with the sound you think a dinosaur would make, you look sideways to the right. Luhn says that these tips helped the animators at Pixar make animation decisions that clearly communicated human emotions in even in non-human characters.

For those looking to improve storytelling, Luhn recommended the following books:

  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
  • Story by Robert Mckee
  • Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

During a question and answer session, he gave a bunch of great advice. For those who struggle to find inspiration, he said to look at the world and ask “What if. . .?” If you want to get better at storytelling, he said to be a problem solver. If you don’t feel comfortable problem solving in a storytelling context, he recommended using improv to improve. Finally, he suggested reading and writing as ways to explore and practice storytelling. All these tips point you toward success, especially if they are coupled with perseverance.

Toward the end of the event, someone asked the question, Is Pixar Theory Real? All Luhn could say was that he could neither confirm nor deny. “I can tell you this,” he said, “you’ll know as more films come out.”

—M.M.

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