Going Inside the Pixar Braintrust for Inside Out

A recent excerpt from Ed Catmull’s upcoming book,  Creativity, Inc. (Random House), reveals the Pixar Braintrust in action on Pete Docter’s Inside Out (June 19, 2015).

“Candor is the key to collaborating effectively,” Catmull writes about the Pixar Braintrust, one of his key management tools. “It is our primary delivery system for straight talk. The Braintrust meets every few months or so to assess each movie we’re making. Its premise is simple: Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid. The Braintrust is not foolproof, but when we get it right, the results are phenomenal,” which has helped Pixar achieve an unprecedented 14 animated hits in a row.

Catmull crucially takes us inside a meeting concerning Pete Docter’s Inside Out, arguably Pixar’s most ambitious film about growing up without losing a grip on childhood charms. It takes us inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl, Riley, whose emotions are anthropomorphized and compete for dominance.

As Braintrusts go, this was a crowded one, with about 20 people at the table and 15 more in chairs against the walls. Everyone grabbed plates of food on the way in and, after a little small talk, got down to business.

Earlier, before the screening, Pete had described what they’d come up with so far. “What’s inside the mind?” he asked his colleagues. “Your emotions–and we’ve worked really hard to make these characters look the way those emotions feel. We have our main character, an emotion called Joy, who is effervescent. She literally glows when she’s excited. Then we have Fear. He thinks of himself as confident and suave, but he’s a little raw nerve and tends to freak out. The other characters are Anger, Sadness–her shape is inspired by teardrops–and Disgust, who basically turns up her nose at everything. And all these guys work at what we call Headquarters.

That got a laugh, as did many scenes in the 10-minute preview that followed. Everyone agreed that the movie had the potential to be, like Pete’s previous film Up, among our most original and affecting. But there seemed to be a consensus that one key scene–an argument between two characters about why certain memories fade while others burn bright forever–was too minor to sufficiently connect audiences to the film’s profound ideas.

Midway down the table, Brad Bird shifted in his chair. Brad joined Pixar in 2000, after having written and directed The Iron Giant at Warner Bros. His first movie for us was The Incredibles, which opened in 2004. Brad is a born rebel who fights against creative conformity in any guise. So it was no surprise that he was among the first to articulate his worries. “I understand that you want to keep this simple and relatable,” he told Pete, “but I think we need something that your audience can get a little more invested in.”

Andrew Stanton spoke next. Andrew is fond of saying that people need to be wrong as fast as they can. In a battle, if you’re faced with two hills and you’re unsure which one to attack, he says, the right course of action is to hurry up and choose. If you find out it’s the wrong hill, turn around and attack the other one. Now he seemed to be suggesting that Pete and his team had stormed the wrong hill. “I think you need to spend more time settling on the rules of your imagined world,” he said.

In Pete’s film, one of the rules–at least at this point–was that memories (depicted as glowing glass globes) were stored in the brain by traveling through a maze of chutes into a kind of archive. When retrieved or remembered, they’d roll back down another tangle of chutes, like bowling balls being returned to bowlers at the alley.

That construct was elegant and effective, but Andrew suggested that another rule needed to be clarified: how memories and emotions change over time, as the brain gets older. This was the moment in the film, Andrew said, to establish some key themes. Listening to this, I remembered how in Toy Story 2, the addition of Wheezy helped establish the idea that damaged toys could be discarded, left to sit, unloved, on the shelf. Andrew felt there was a similar opportunity here. “Pete, this movie is about the inevitability of change,” he said. “And of growing up.”

This set Brad off. “A lot of us in this room have not grown up–and I mean that in the best way,” he said. “The conundrum is how to become mature and become reliable while at the same time preserving your childlike wonder. People have come up to me many times, as I’m sure has happened to many people in this room, and said, ‘Gee, I wish I could be creative like you. That would be something, to be able to draw.’ But I believe that everyone begins with the ability to draw. Kids are instinctively there. But a lot of them unlearn it. Or people tell them they can’t or it’s impractical. So yes, kids have to grow up, but maybe there’s a way to suggest that they could be better off if they held on to some of their childish ideas.

“Pete, I want to give you a huge round of applause: This is a frickin’ big idea to try to make a movie about,” Brad continued, his voice full of affection. “I’ve said to you on previous films, ‘You’re trying to do a triple backflip into a gale force wind, and you’re mad at yourself for not sticking the landing. Like, it’s amazing you’re alive.’ This film is the same. So, huge round of applause.” Everyone clapped. Then Brad added, “And you’re in for a world of hurt.”

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Below the Line, Books, Movies, previs, Production Design, Tech, VFX, Virtual Production

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