Pixar’s creative process has always followed a zig-zagging, improvisational process–one that’s perfectly aligned with the lessons emerging from creativity research. All of the research is showing that effective creativity, and exceptional creators, all follow an improvisational process: you don’t know where you’re going to end up, or when you’ll get there. It takes a while (and a few successes) to learn to trust in a process It’s because at first, it can feel like aimless failure.
Pixar, the animated movie powerhouse, has stayed true to the zigzag process, because they know their successes emerged from it. From their first hit, Toy Story (with its many twists and turns documented in the book The Pixar Touch), all the way through Frozen, creative success has emerged from this unpredictable, wandering process.
Pixar’s latest movie, arriving in theaters June 19, is Inside Out, and it’s been in process since 2010. It started with the thinnest of premises: we’ll go inside of a pre-adolescent girl’s head, and we’ll personify each of the emotions she feels every day, showing Sadness and Joy (for example) as cartoon characters. Think about that very simple idea, and ask yourself: How would you make a movie out of that? What happens at Pixar is that they start without knowing how it’s going to end. They start working it out, and then expect frequent changes to happen along the way.
It looks like the zigzag process has worked yet again: The bittersweet movie got a huge positive response from critics at the Cannes Film Festival, it’s expected to make $250 million just in the USA, and it’s already being discussed as an Oscar contender.
John Lasseter, in an article in today’s New York Times, says “We’re always tearing up work and starting over. At Pixar, we trust our process.” The article mentions several zigzags: for example, they were going to have the girl’s character go into a deep depression, but as they worked this idea out, they realized “that was not appropriate” says Pete Doctor, the director of the new movie (and also of the Oscar-winning “Up”). Another zigzag: One version of the script had Joy and Fear getting together. They worked for months, but couldn’t quite make this plot work. Eventually, they decided to turn to Sadness and give her a key role, when everyone had previously been leaving Sadness to be a peripheral character. This unexpected zigzag turned out to work surprisingly well.
Not many movie studios can afford, or can trust, a director to take four or five years to go through the zigzags that the creative process requires. But there aren’t any shortcuts; this is how you get surprisingly original creativity.