The Pixar Film “Inside Out”: The Zigzag Creative Process Succeeds Again!

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.

3 thoughts on “The Pixar Film “Inside Out”: The Zigzag Creative Process Succeeds Again!

  1. On the other hand, we know we want education to lean heavily on creativity and we know it never ends (or shouldn’t). I’d love to be part of a PLC that considered the driving question: How might we incorporate the zig-zag model into an approach to effective learning and effective problem solving? I wonder if might already have happened?

  2. My teacher education colleagues and I talk about teaching as “disciplined improvisation” in the 2011 book _Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching_. I believe that the zigzag model of teaching is very much consistent with learning-sciences based pedagogical practices, including problem based learning, project based learning, inquiry based learning…

  3. I Really Loved The Disney Pixar Film “Inside Out” Because It Is A Fun Movie To Watch And The
    Characters Are Pretty Hilarious And Funny And I Loved And Enjoyed Watching The Fun Movie
    And It Has Best Pictures And Best Animated Movie Ever I Seen In My Life And I Give It A Big
    Thumbs Up For The Best Filmmaking Of Inside Out And Best Voices Of Amy Poehler, Lewis
    Black, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, Phyllis Smith,Richard Kind And Kaitlyn Dias!

    PS I Really Want To Thank All Of The People Who Made Inside Out For Fans
    And Non-Fans Who Really Admired The Best Movie!

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