Reaction: Alex Woo ~ Story is King

Alex Woo is a story artist at Pixar Animation Studios. He is originally from Hong Kong and studied film at NYU. He gave a talk on ‘Story is King’ on 4 January at 633 King’s Road, sponsored by the the HKPolyU M-Lab and HKCommons, an incubator company running a few share office sites in Hong Kong. The event was originally to be held at HKPolyU but massive over-subscription had it moved to the Island Evangelical Church at 633 King Street in Quarry Bay. Holding it at a ‘church’ seems to have gotten up the nose of some of the black-clad budding film writers in the audience. The room and set-up were good, lots of food and beer (even in church it seems here in Hong Kong this is fine) and Alex launched into his talk.

I twitted throughout the talk with my new iPhone 4S and tagged them all as #HKcommons. I’ll reproduce those tweets here as I tweeted them and add some explanation:

Asians & pseudo-asians is a bit racists since 1/3 of the audience is pink 😏
Hmmm, Jong Lee was making a joke about Asians and Jews but really I don’t think these sorts of jokes work very well. The audience was 2/3 Asian and 1/3 Other. There were a lot of people who I classify as once upon a time from Hong Kong.

Jong Lee wants to work the story angle as part of his incubation
This is a good point that if you want to be an entrepreneur you need to create your own story. Jong Lee is talking about the HK story of entrepreneurial spirit. There isn’t enough done in HK to make people remember that once upon a time we didn’t all want to be investment bankers, IT geeks or accountants.

Alex Woo now starts with a simple animation about Back to the Future & Howard the Duck, The little mermaid … Power of fantasy
Alex is talking about puppy love as a boy and showing some simple drawings. He is making the point that when the story was good he feel in love but when the story was bad he quickly wasn’t so interested.

story as sexual fantasy for 13 year old boy
He would pray every night that one day he would meet his true love from one of these films. He didn’t quite understand what these feelings were but they were real for him and his brother.

good story is what makes a great film – character goal conflict journey
The classic story line and one that is repeated all the time.

what is king? Of the elements of film STORY is first always
The STORY must come first. There are other important elements but if the STORY isn’t always first then most likely the film will be a dud. He had examples of films with great art direction but no story that were very painful to sit through.

Art direction special fx acting … All are secondary to STORY
Making this point more emphatically. There were a lot of other elements but I didn’t catch all of them. He was saying that these elements were very important but they always needed to support the STORY development. This makes sense but in the real world it can be very easy to focus on special fx (effects) or beautiful scenes and costumes (I think this is art direction) or great directing and the STORY is left behind in the cold. Alex didn’t talk about this but there are famous stories about writers going to Hollywood to write scripts and being completely ignored, see Raymond Chandler’s 1945 article in the Atlantic about working in Hollywood as a writer here.

Story Process – Director + Story Supervisor + Story Artists (those who do it)
He is talking about the 3 levels involved in the story process at Pixar. It is a traditional hierarchy with a lot of the normal tensions in a smallish group working situation.

Story Artist has to sell what he has done to the Director who may or may not like it many iterations
Alex is a Story Artist and he has to sell his ideas to the Director (and the Director’s team). There is a lot of back and forth and more frequently than Alex would like he is re-working and changing his ideas. This is OK and all of these iterations make the final STORY much better. The Pixar story process is a group process.

Like building a house where someone throws a grenade into every 6 weeks – making a STORY
Someone said this to Alex, maybe it was a director he was working with, and it describes perfectly the STORY building process. You can see that this process is not for someone who doesn’t want to change or doesn’t like critical comments. Keeping an open mind and being receptive to suggestions is a real asset in this sort of work situation.

gag sessions – brainstorming snippets for animation in Ratatoiille
These are brainstorming sessions between Story Artists on ideas for what may be used to move the story along. For example, how a rat will use a cheese grater, use tongs, wash-themselves up in the dishwasher. I’m wondering if Pixar uses any formal facilitation methodologies and tools for these sorts of sessions. Alex didn’t mention anything beyond ‘brainstorming’.

Story Problem Solving – bringing in real life experience – Do not return to earth – WallE
This was interesting and insightful. Alex is talking about when there are problems with what to do in a story it is almost always best to use real-life experience to solve the problem. His example is from when he was growing up in HK and playing basketball on McDonnell Road in the mid-levels he talked to his best-friend about what would he do it he could choose to life forever. He didn’t want to live forever if it meant all his friends and family died because then he would be on his own. Alex brought this into the discussion at a problem solving session for WallE about how to deal with the ‘return to earth’ problem. I’ve heard this adice about story-telling in the KM world all the time. The STORY must be real and not a manufactured made-up story. This is why so many uses of story-telling in a business sense seem forced and insincere.

Why is Story King? Abstract values need to be present to impart wisdom. Sharing gives us the framework to understand.
Alex is wrapping it up here. If the STORY doesn’t have values it won’t have any larger meaning or what he is calling wisdom. At least this is what I think he was saying. The STORY is the way we share our wisdom which is a classic knowledge management concept. This seems true to me; a completely concrete and real STORY is very boring but when a STORY has something less real if becomes more real for the reader or watcher. We relate better to the abstract because we can apply it to our own lives and the situations in our lives.

You can become the storyteller, have empathy for others, give people some concrete meaning
The STORY for Alex is why people come to see the Pixar films. It isn’t the great animation; it is the meaning they get from the film. I have to agree that every time I watch ‘Finding Nemo’ with a group of children it is the meaning of the story they want to talk about and not the pictures.

finished now questions Alex Woo film school – awards – Lucas Films 1 year – joined Pixar – he wants parameters – lots of practice
His personal story. He made a well received animated film in 2004, Rex Steele: Nazi Smasher, that won Director’s Guild of America Student Filmmaker Award and top gold prize in the Student Academy Awards animation category. He likes the structure of working at the studio on a film. Someone mentioned Gladwell’s 10k hours and he agreed that it was critical to just do it until you got good at it.

What pulls the story apart? Keep focusing on the story reels and the story process
Alex is saying that it can be easy to lose focus on the STORY. Going back to the making of story reels, smaller sets of action from the STORY, and keep talking to the Director will maintain the focus. A Pixar film takes typically 4 years to make so this is a long time to remain focused on a single STORY.

Why r Hollywood films all the same? The structure is from The Golden Bough (he doesn’t say this)
Are they really all the same? All narrative is basically the same, going back to the the beginning of the “character goal conflict journey”. Alex didn’t mention The Golden Bough. He is describing the Hero, the Obstacle, the Road, the Prize which may be better described in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Why are the values so simplistic? Because this is as much as people can process …
This is why myths, fables and stories from across cultures are always so familiar. Alex is saying that people need simplicity so they can make the STORY their own story.

His favorite film Back to the Future
Alex is describing why he thinks this film is so good. It has abstract values that transcend time. There are dilemmas that people will always have to face about free-will and choice.

Pixar wants the film to come from the directors heart – so story/directors are popular at Pixar
Genuine stories are important at Pixar so the combination of a story-teller and director is popular. Maybe it is easier to do this with animated films. However, even life-action film makers must be good story-tellers but they don’t have the luxury of working and re-working the story with story boards and story writers as they do at Pixar with an animated film. Some of the best story-telling in a life-action film happens on-set and is done by the actors.

about 80% of the time they don’t know if the film will be a sucess
Nothing is sure thing and there are failures at Pixar. Rushing the process is not a good idea.

There can be a lot conflict and a lot of hurt feelings when working on these films
Like any workplace it isn’t always fun and games.

Where do people at Pixar get their values? Are people there religious? Are we being brainwashed? Yes you r and u don’t notice
Someone was asking about if people are religious at Pixar. Alex thought some people were but he didn’t think it was too polite to ask. See The Wisdom of Pixar here

Can a good story teller fix a crappy story – maybe but it won’t stick with you like a Story is King
A journalist from India was asking within the context of terrible Bollywood story lines if a crappy story could be saved. Alex is saying that sometimes a crappy story is still a success but you won’t remember is for very long. Good marketing can save a film but it won’t make a great STORY.

There is so much talk about creating a story in business, advertising, personal growth that is was refreshing to listen to Alex talk about creating STORY for a creative purpose. The problems are much the same wether it is for a Pixar film or creating a story to market a product, sell an idea or sell yourself. Take a look at this recent interview with Alex to listen to him yourself.

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