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.

How “Frozen” Was Created: New ABC Special Shows How Creativity Happens

anna_elsaFrozen is the most popular, highest grossing animated film of all time. How did the writers and producers create such a big success? Who had the brilliant idea to make a film about female empowerment, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale The Snow Queen?

As it turns out, no one person had this idea. Frozen did not result from a big moment of insight by a genius creator. In fact, the original script was completely different from the movie that we all know and love. The final movie’s themes of feminine strengths and bonds emerged, over time, from a wandering, collaborative, zigzag process.

Kristin Bell–the actress who voiced heroine Princess Anna–has often told how the original script was really different, and how the entire script was thrown out 12 months into production. Princess Anna was originally written as a prissy, girly character. Elsa was originally a villain. Fortunately, the directors–Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee–welcomed a creative process that was open, collaborative, and non-linear. As Lee said,

It’s a lot of back and forth with the characters. They develop a lot over time. The characters are sometimes recognizable from the beginning to where they are now, and sometimes they’re not.

Many of these details about Frozen have been known for a while. But today on ABC, fans will learn many more details. For example, the lyrics to “Let It Go,” the anthem of female empowerment that gave purpose and direction to Elsa, surprised the directors and led to another rewrite of the script. Today’s ABC special also reveals other zig-zagging twists and turns, for example that the song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” almost didn’t make it into the movie at all. (It was so popular at an early test screening that it was re-inserted.)

It turns out that this story is completely typical: Creativity never goes straight from idea to finished product. That’s why I called my new book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. In Zig Zag, I tell the story of how Pixar created the very first ever computer animated feature film, Toy Story. The first script treatment was almost completely different from the final movie that we all know and love, and there’s a long list of surprising zigs and zags in the creative process; here are some of my favorites from how Toy Story was created:

  • toy storyPixar wanted G. I. Joe as one of the toys in the movie, but Hasbro refused to license the rights. Instead, they offered to license the rights to Mr. Potato Head.
  • The writers wanted Woody and Buzz to be rescued from Sid’s house by Barbie, in a commando style raid. But Mattel refused to license the rights to Barbie.
  • Pixar wanted Billy Crystal to play the voice of Buzz Lightyear, but he turned down the part. The next choice was Tim Allen. The directors had wanted Buzz to be a self important, almost arrogant character, but at the first script reading, Allen’s voice made Buzz sound like a friendly, ordinary guy. The directors decided they liked that version of Buzz better, so they went back and rewrote the script completely.

These stories about Toy Story and Frozen offer several lessons about creativity:

  1. The first idea won’t be great, but you need that idea to get the journey started.
  2. You can never know exactly where you are in the process, or how close you are to the final goal. But you can trust in the process to get you there.
  3. Each zig leads to the next zag, and these changes in direction drive the creative process forward.

So how can you get the process started, and keep it moving through your own creative journey? In Zig Zag, I show you the eight steps you can take to move creativity forward.

What It Really Takes to Be Creative

Hugo Lindgren, editor of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, just published a wonderful article* about what it really takes to be creative. It’s titled “Be Wrong As Fast As You Can,” but that’s just part of it. The title is a quotation from a Charlie Rose interview with John Lasseter, a founder of Pixar. (I often use Pixar as a case study when I’m teaching executives how to manage innovation.) Lasseter says

Every Pixar film was the worst motion picture ever made at one time or another. People don’t believe that, but it’s true.

I believe it. Take the Pixar movie WALL-E, and listen to how horrible this pitch sounds: “After humans destroy the planet and all life on it, by smothering it with their huge piles of trash, we watch a silent robot for 30 minutes as he cleans up piles of waste.”

As Lindgren puts it, this is “an acknowledgement of just how deep into the muck of mediocrity a creative project can sink as it takes those first vulnerable steps from luxurious abstraction to unforgiving reality.” He continues:

I know that the next brilliant brainstorm is never going to be the one that will just write itself, any more than the last one did. Ideas, in a sense, are overrated….It’s really about where you take the idea, and how committed you are to solving the endless problems that come up in the execution.

A lot of people have a huge misconception about creativity: They think it’s about having a brilliant idea. They don’t realize that it’s not about the idea; it’s about the unpredictable, winding path that you stumble down as you work to realize the idea. That’s why I’m calling my next book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity (coming in March 2013, preorder it now!).

I love this quotation from writer Thomas Mann (from page 323 of my 2012 book Explaining Creativity):

A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

If you smile in recognition (or even in pain) when you read this, then you, my friend, are a writer.

*Lindgren, Hugo. 2013. “Be wrong as fast as you can.” New York Times Sunday Magazine, January 6, pages 44-45.