The Pixar Braintrust is a respected group of directors, writers, and executives at the company who provide notes and advice to a film’s creative team during the development process. Consisting of John Lasseter, Ed Catmull, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich, Brad Bird, Pete Docter, and others, the group has been credited as one of the reasons for the studio’s success. In Catmull’s upcoming book, the president of the studio discusses the importance of the Braintrust by highlighting a meeting held to discuss Docter’s upcoming film, Inside Out!
In the upcoming Random House book, Creativity Inc., Catmull, discusses leadership, creativity, and management by telling the story of how Pixar evolved from a small studio that was losing money into a massive company that not only prints money but is respected throughout the industry. In an excerpt from the book, printed at Fast Company, we learn why Pixar has found the Braintrust to be an integral part of making films.
Using an example of a Braintrust meeting held following an early screening of Inside Out, Catmull shares an account of a discussion about a certain sequence that centered around memories. The upcoming film takes place in the mind of a young girl, and gives her emotions the starring roles, so the functioning of the brain is an essential part of the world we will see in the film. Bird and Stanton have some great advice for Docter:
But there seemed to be a consensus that one key scene–an argument between two characters about why certain memories fade while others burn bright forever–was too minor to sufﬁciently connect audiences to the film’s profound ideas.
Midway down the table, Brad Bird shifted in his chair. Brad joined Pixar in 2000, after having written and directed The Iron Giant at Warner Bros. His ﬁrst movie for us was The Incredibles, which opened in 2004. Brad is a born rebel who ﬁghts against creative conformity in any guise. So it was no surprise that he was among the ﬁrst to articulate his worries. “I understand that you want to keep this simple and relatable,” he told Pete, “but I think we need something that your audience can get a little more invested in.”
Andrew Stanton spoke next. Andrew is fond of saying that people need to be wrong as fast as they can. In a battle, if you’re faced with two hills and you’re unsure which one to attack, he says, the right course of action is to hurry up and choose. If you ﬁnd out it’s the wrong hill, turn around and attack the other one. Now he seemed to be suggesting that Pete and his team had stormed the wrong hill. “I think you need to spend more time settling on the rules of your imagined world,” he said.
Every Pixar movie has its own rules that viewers have to accept, understand, and enjoy understanding. The voices of the toys in the Toy Story ﬁlms, for example, are never audible to humans. The rats in Ratatouille walk on four paws, like normal vermin, except for Remy, our star, whose upright posture sets him apart. In Pete’s ﬁlm, one of the rules–at least at this point–was that memories (depicted as glowing glass globes) were stored in the brain by traveling through a maze of chutes into a kind of archive. When retrieved or remembered, they’d roll back down another tangle of chutes, like bowling balls being returned to bowlers at the alley.
That construct was elegant and effective, but Andrew suggested that another rule needed to be clariﬁed: how memories and emotions change over time, as the brain gets older. This was the moment in the ﬁlm, Andrew said, to establish some key themes. Listening to this, I remembered how in Toy Story 2, the addition of Wheezy helped establish the idea that damaged toys could be discarded, left to sit, unloved, on the shelf. Andrew felt there was a similar opportunity here. “Pete, this movie is about the inevitability of change,” he said. “And of growing up.”
Setting rules for the world of a film not only helps the creative team narrow their focus on what they are allowed to do, but it also allows audiences to better understand the story and characters. Getting insight into Docter’s development of the rules for Inside Out is fascinating – making memories appear as orbs that roll throughout the mind is a bold yet simple choice, but his fellow Braintrust members advise that it may not click with audiences. Specifically, Stanton hints at the theme of the film, and how the sequence in the film could help establish it.
The excerpt is chock full of many interesting notes, such as how it was Bird who explained to Stanton that EVE saving WALL-E at the end of the 2008 film made for a better arc than the other way around, which was the original idea. The discussion about the Braintrust shines a spotlight on one of the most unique workings of Pixar. There surely is much collaboration and creativity that flows through those meetings, but Catmull emphasizes that the director ultimately decides whether he or she wants to listen to the group’s notes. The purpose of the meetings is mostly to polish a film’s story – having it staffed with some of the brightest and talented storytellers in the industry means that, more often than not, a film’s trajectory is only furthered to its hopeful destination of becoming great.
The full excerpt from the book can be read over at Fast Company. Creativity, Inc. is scheduled for release on April 8th! Seeing as how this short sample was filled with excellent stories from behind-the-scenes at Pixar, the book will undoubtedly be a must-read.