Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Courtney Meznarich

The Crazy Maze That is the Story Development Process at Pixar

To an outsider (especially a struggling writer), the story development process at huge studios such as Pixar and Disney seems to be a buttoned-up, streamlined machine. But what appears to be formulaic – idea, script, storyboarding, artists, premiere, mega millions in profit – is anything but.

It’s encouraging news if you ask me. It means we mere mortals probably work through a similar story development process as the best and brightest storytellers in the world, with fewer people on our team, of course.

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To prove my point, SoCreate had the pleasure of interviewing storyteller Lorien McKenna. She spent years in Pixar’s story department, working on scripts for massively successful films like “Up,” “Brave,” and “Inside Out.”

While the development process is arguably conducted on a much bigger scale at Pixar, Lorien says it’s still “sort of like any other development process.”

Below, she shares the crazy maze an idea must find its way through to reach its final destination: the screen.

Steps in the Pixar Development Process

Step 1: The Idea

“Someone comes up with an idea.”

Step 2: The Pitch

“They pitch [the idea] to the decision makers at the studio.”

Step 3: An Executive Producer is Assigned

“Every project sort of has its own different executive producer. And then the director will go, it’s the director’s idea, it’s a director-driven studio, so they usually come up with the idea.”

Step 4: The Script is Written

“Sometimes [the director] writes it. Sometimes they hire an outside writer.”

Step 5: Initial Team Begins Art & Story Development

“They go into development; they get a little team of artists, some story artists, and they start working on what it could be. And this is maybe like ten people, and they’re in that process for, I don’t know, six months? Four years? And they’re just trying to figure out what it is.”

Step 6: The Feedback Loop

“And they pitch, and they get notes, and they pitch, and they get notes.

Step 7: Project Approval & Team Growth

“And then, at some point, it’s decided that they’re going to be a feature. It’s going to be a movie. So they get approved to get a producer and more crew and more staff and more artists and a writer if they’re not writing it.”

Step 8: Additional Script Development

“And then a script gets developed.”

Step 9: Reels Dates Assigned

“And then the story artists draw what they think those scenes are. And, this gets really confusing, you get a crew, and your script is developed, and then you get reels dates. So, you show your storyboarded movie on a screening. And that happens over and over and over.”

Step 10: Feedback Loop

“And you get notes, and you rewrite, and you redraw.”

Step 11: Additional Tech Development

“Meanwhile, art production is going on, lighting development is happening, character development is happening, in terms of tech. And as the movie is being developed, more and more people get added. So, at the end, it’s like 300 plus people. But that could be anywhere from like three to seven years later.”

Step 12: A Finalized Film!

Years later, a beautiful film hits the big and small screens after a massive collaboration of hundreds of people.

“So, it’s a very long process.”

Even without a team of hundreds, you can recreate the very same process at Pixar with just a few trusted advisors in your corner.

“Essentially, the process is, does this work? No. Rip it down. Does this work? I don’t know. Let’s try it. Nope, doesn’t work. Rip it down. That’s the process until finally, it works, or you run out of time.”

But you’ve got time, writer,

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