Story Is King

In Ed Catmull’s book Creativity, Inc., he tells the behind-the-scenes story of the immensely successful Pixar Animation Studios, giving insight on their management style and corporate philosophies. Three words stood out from the book: “Story Is King”. It is a maxim that employees live by at Pixar and it is deeply rooted in their history.

In 1984, Pixar produced its first movie: a two-minute short film titled “The Adventures of André and Wally B”. At the time, computerized animated films were unprecedented. The team had to literally invent the technology as they animated the scenes. For the movie, they had chosen a complicated setting: a forest. With its rich foliage, it caused a processing intensive rendering.

The movie’s deadline was the computer graphics trade show SIGGRAPH. Wally B would be the first computerized movie to ever be shown at the conference. The night before the premiere, the team was mortified. The forest scenes took too much time to render. In order to get it done in time, the trees had to be presented in black and white, in rough wireframes. This meant that a part of the film would switch from full color to monochrome. What a disappointment to have on the eve before the event. Or so you would think.

After the screening, the majority of the people interviewed who had watched the film replied that they hadn’t even noticed the switch. Why was that?

“They were so caught up in the emotion of the story that they hadn’t noticed its flaws.”

With this anecdote, Mr. Catmull points to the importance of the story. The difficult technical details of creating such an innovative film, were secondary.

“For all the care you put into artistry, visual polish frequently doesn’t matter if you are getting the story right.”

When Pixar’s groundbreaking movie Toy Story became a massive success and received rave reviews, Ed and his team took pride in the fact that the reviewers talked mainly about how Toy Story made them feel and not about the intricate technical details.

I find it fascinating that such a technically engrained company as a computer animation studio, funded by no other than Steve Jobs, would have such a motto. It proves again that technology is only a means to an end. The story is what’s important and the emotion that it sparks. “Story Is King” are words to remember.