Letter to a Young Story Artist

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People often ask for my advice on how to land a job at Pixar, where I worked as a Story Artist for many years. Recently, the question came up again, and I thought I'd answer it here.


Dear Young Story Artist,

You're at the start of what I hope will be a bright career!

When I first joined the Pixar, I had never worked in Story. Despite my skill and interest, none of my hometown studios would risk giving me this kind of responsibility, and I found myself stuck in a loop of not being trusted to do something for lack of experience, and not being able to get experience for lack of trust.

I decided to write my own films. They were rough around the edges but had their heart in the right place, and were compelling enough to show my potential. I was hired and, with time and effort, I learned the craft from the best and the brightest. I was so lucky to spend those formative years in a place that championed enthusiasm, curiosity, education, and self-improvement.

A decade later, I still marvel at how much more there is to know. There are countless stories to tell, each requiring its own particular set of resources: people and outlooks, research and ethics, standards and innovations. It's in your best interest to have a strong foundation to build on. This is what I think it should look like:

 

  1. An understanding of the role. The Story Artist supports the film's vision by acting as a proxy for the director, screenwriter, cinematographer, actor, editor, et al. Your responsibility is to make smart decisions on their behalf, so make sure you learn something about all of these roles. As the person first synthesizing a scene into a cinematic form, it's up to you to prove the potential of the material.

  2. A sensitivity to dramatic material. Before anything, you have to be able to recognize and assess ideas. Your job is to turn these ideas into drama. You need to be able to access the emotions and concepts that animate the material. As a steward of the scene, it falls on you to find ways to take advantage of the scene's particular opportunities and challenges. At Pixar we called this 'plussing': the amplification and elevation of ideas.

  3. Mastery of storytelling craft. Storytelling is construction. Acquire an intimate knowledge of story structure, dramatic theory, visual language, thematic elaboration, and the development of character. Learn frameworks, find exceptions, analyze what you like and what you hate, and build your capacity to fix scenes and stories that aren't working. I can't emphasize this enough: learn how to construct a scene, as this will be the bulk of your work. Essentially, you're learning a language, so focus on the basics. As Steven King says, 'Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe.' That's the goal: to bring scenes to life and make us feel something.

  4. Good collaborator-ship. Success in the role relies on moving easily between leadership and follower-ship: you need to be able to work autonomously, share ownership, and also follow direction. The Story Artist is a translator, taking ideas in one form and remaking them in another. But remember that you won't just be using drawings: be a well rounded communicator, and build your capacity for explanation, negotiation, argumentation, and proposal; be prepared to make presentations and appeals, share a vision, and thoughtfully critique. Be a great listener, a good giver of feedback, and take orders and criticisms gracefully. Be accountable to your collaborators. Stand for the right things, show up, set reasonable expectations, tell the truth, 'yes, and', stand up for your vision, be kind, and ask questions.

  5. Mastery of drawing. Drawing is difficult enough to master on its own, but for the story artist, it's just a tool, a language for articulating a vision, for expressing cinematic ideas clearly. Your facility in drawing will, to some extent, determine how well you can sell a scene, but no amount of technical skill can make up for flawed content choices: storytelling comes first. Cinema is an artistic medium, so in addition to drawing, go deep on film, and develop an expansive appreciation of all the arts (and culture, history, yourself, et al.); remember that you're also bringing your knowledge, experience, taste, and personal perspective to the table.

 

Finally, 6. Take pleasure in the work. It's a privilege to tell stories with collaborators, and I hope that your experience is a good one, and that you can enjoy it for all that it's worth. If you're able to make work that you're proud of—work that represents the best of your taste, knowledge, and ability; work that makes the most of what you've got; work that you like, and that you're excited about sharing with others; work that gets to the heart of what's important to you in life—then you're probably doing a few things right.

 

Good luck!
All best,

Nick