Andrew Stanton: The clues to a great story

Recently I’ve watched a Ted talk presented by Pixar’s filmmaker Andrew Stanton, who wrote and directed “Finding Nemo”(2003), “WALL-E”(2008) and wrote scripts for Toy Story movies and Monsters, Inc. In his talk he spoke about storytelling, how he approaches it when he’s writing a script and why do we love stories.

Stanton says that we all love stories because “Stories affirm who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. And nothing does a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories.”(2012). I think that’s something that gets overlooked sometimes when we discuss stories. It seems to me that the main reason people like stories, whether is it a novel book, or a movie, or a story on a radio, we seem to think that it all comes down to the entertainment, how we, humans want to be entertained. But his point is different, or at least he gives it a fresh perspective, as he sees it from a different angle.

As a storyteller/writer you should “know your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal”. This is important – it shows that stories should be well planned ahead and the ending should be figured out from the start so the middle part is the journey to that goal. Coming up with endings is hard, I realised that while planning and writing the story for my final project and I’m still not satisfied with it.

Another point he makes is to ““Make me care” — please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, just make me care. We all know what it’s like to not care”.(2012) This is something that every scriptwriter should have in a back of his head, that the only way to catch audience’s attention, to entertain them is by making them care. Later on he goes on about how we should make the audience put things together, make them work for it. So instead of giving them everything on a plate, let’s make it fun for them to solve it for themselves. As he says “We’re compelled to deduce and to deduct, because that’s what we do in real life. It’s this well-organized absence of information that draws us in.“(2012).

A character should have a spine, a goal, something they’re striving for. He gives examples of Pixar characters, such as WALL-E, or Marlin from “Finding Nemo”, but what’s really interesting is what he says at the end, that these goals can sometimes lead to some bad decision making, that characters get in trouble because of them, there are new obstacles in front of them. And that’s what makes stories much more interesting and entertaining.

He also talks about how he was struggling in the early days of Pixar, while writing “Toy Story”. At the time there was a certain formula for animation movies. For example there was a lot of singing involved and there was some romance. The story wasn’t working out and Disney was panicking, so they wanted all these things in the movie. But Stanton and the rest refused, and as he says: “And thank goodness we were just too young, rebellious and contrarian at the time. That just gave us more determination to prove that you could build a better story. And a year after that, we did conquer it.”(2012). It shows that there are no hard rules in storytelling, there are only guidelines. However liking the main character is something he says is a “fundamental”.  I think it would be hard for the audience to relate to an unlikable character, especially in the animated movie. Although there are examples of successful stories with unlikable characters in main roles, I’m thinking about House from “House MD”, or Kevin Spacey’s character from “House of Cards”, but I’m not totally convinced they’re unlikable. They might be evil(in House of Cards case), or rude and cynical like House but there’s something about their characters that people like.

According to Stanton one of the most important ingredients that a story should have is a sense of wonder. “Wonder is honest, it’s completely innocent. It can’t be artificially evoked. For me, there’s no greater ability than the gift of another human being giving you that feeling — to hold them still just for a brief moment in their day and have them surrender to wonder”(2012).

He ended his talk with saying that drawing from our own experiences, our own stories is also something a storyteller should do. “Use what you know. Draw from it. It doesn’t always mean plot or fact. It means capturing a truth from your experiencing it, expressing values you personally feel deep down in your core.”(2012)

Andrew Stanton: The clues to a great story, 2012. [online] TED talk. Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/andrew_stanton_the_clues_to_a_great_story/


Large eyes

Is there something more recognisable in animation characters than their big eyes? Doesn’t matter if it’s anime, or western animation, large eyes are a troop that is very popular in the industry. It can be understandable when it comes to Japanese animation, as according to research Japanese people read faces differently to Westerners. As they live in a culture that values humbleness, modesty, a culture that is rather closed and supressed emotions, rather than expresses them, it’s easier for them to read what another person is feeling by looking at their eyes. Same research claims that Westerners, Americans in particular(as they’re were the subject of the study) look at the mouth first. This tendency could be seen in something as trivial as internet emoticons. While in the West we focus more on mouth, where J represents a smile and L illustrates sadness, emoticons used in Japan concentrate on eyes (^_^  – smile,  ;_;,  or (‘_’) – sadness).

But why would this style be popular in Western animation? As I’ve mentioned above we’re supposed to look at the mouth first. One of the reasons might be simple. We associate large eyes with things that are cute. It’s an easy way to make our character more appealing and likable. It has been started in early Disney films and it is still popular to this day. It was so popular that it influenced Japanese manga artists who used it in their work. Large eyes, small noses and chins appeal to viewers as they make them look cute, like babies, which creates the illusion of innocence and vulnerability. This style is in particular popular in Disney and the way of designing their female characters. It’s pretty well illustrated here, where we can see how different female characters would have looked with normal eyes. It’s an interesting attempt, but I think it could have been executed better, eyebrows also play an important role in how we perceive the character and they make them look weirder now.  What I’ve noticed in Mulan’s example is the fact that her large eyes are making her stand out from the crowd, straight away we can tell she’s the main character. We can also see large eyes in toys such as Bratz dolls. These dolls are overly sexualised and promote a specific image of a women, which could be harmful, especially to young girls. A Tasmanian artist, called Sonia Singh, decided to challenge this by giving these dolls a makeover. another artist, Nicolas Lamm, created a doll which is very similar to Barbie doll, but her body looks more like an average girls body, rather than super skinny Barbie dolls. What’s interesting Time magazine interviewed few children about it and the feedback was mostly positive. What’s interesting is the fact that student seemed to relate to this doll more that to the unrealistically looking Barbie.

There’s a well-known quote, which says that “Eyes are the window to a soul” – the origins of this quote are unknown, some say it was Da Vinci, others say it was Shakespeare. I feel that our emotions are always coming through the eyes, we can tell if someone is happy, or sad by looking at the eyes. They also tell what kind of person we are. If someone is shy he won’t maintain the eye contact, they will look around the room, or at the floor. When a person is confident it’s the opposite. Eye movement can also tell us what the person is thinking for example when we’re looking up this usually means that a person is remembering something that happened in the past. All of those can be used to tell a believable story through the character, make his/her expressions more interesting and also natural. I feel like the viewer might not notice it, as it’s something that we rather do automatically, not thinking about it, but character animators should be aware if this techniques. As I’m going to use a lot of close ups in my animation these eye movements will help me get my point across better.

Khazan O., 2013, The Psychology of Giant Princess Eyes [online] The Atlantic, available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/11/the-psychology-of-giant-princess-eyes/281209/ [Accessed date 18.05.2015]

2015, ‘Sexy’ Bratz dolls given a make-under [online] Daily Telegraph, available at:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11359647/Sexy-Bratz-dolls-given-a-make-under.html [Accessed date: 18.05.2015]


Stampler L., 2015, See How One Artist Dramatically Changes Bratz Dolls to Look Like Real Girls [online] Time Magazine, available at: http://time.com/3676653/bratz-dolls-makeover-real-girls/ [date accessed: 27.05.2015]

Wenner M., 2007, Americans and Japanese Read Faces Differently [online] Livescience.com, available at:
http://www.livescience.com/1498-americans-japanese-read-faces-differently.html [date accessed: 18.05.2015]