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Must-Read Commentary on Pixar, Joe Ranft and the “22 Rules of Storytelling”

In 2011, Emma Coats, a now-former Pixar story artist, tweeted out a series of twenty-two storytelling tips she’d picked up during her time at Pixar.

The Internet, as is wont to do, misinterpreted Coats’ tips as ‘rules.’ Innumerable major media organizations and blogs republished Coats’ tips as the “22 Rules of Pixar Storytelling,” some even going so far as to illustrate them with stills from Pixar films. The unfortunate effect of this irresponsible distortion was that the average person now believes Coats’ tweets represent some kind of definitive rulebook about Pixar’s storytelling process.

While it may be true that Pixar, in its maturity, has slumped into formulaic story structures and characters relationships, it is still a gross mischaracterization to suggest that all of the studio’s story artists use the same playbook of warmed-over story tips.

Industry veteran Mike Bonifer, a founding producer of the Disney Channel who was instrumental in the classic documentary series Disney Family Album, has written a thoughtful corrective called “Rule #23” that addresses the creative hazards of misreading Coats’ tweets. In his piece, Mike looks at the rules through the prism of a personal friend, Joe Ranft, Pixar’s original head of story who died tragically in a 2005 car crash.

Bonifer writes eloquently about Ranft’s approach to creativity and his refusal to put himself into a box:

When it comes to Joe Ranft, he had more than 22 games or rules, or whatever you call them. It went way, way deeper than that. He was a magician, a card-carrying member at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, so he had sleight of hand games and gestural games. A gifted mimic, he had voice and impersonation games. He had a Tell it Like James Brown Would Sing It game, a Conga Line game, a Sling Blade game, a Fake Teeth game, a Boxcar Children game, he had games for losing weight, games for raising his children, games for what to do with the money he made at Pixar. He had a game for deciding which side of the street he’d walk on. He had a game for appreciating how precious water is. He even had a game whereby he’d take a sabbatical from Pixar every few years to work with his pal, Tim Burton. No one else at Pixar could’ve gotten away with that one. See, he was a rule-breaker, and he had as much game as anyone I’ve ever known. He didn’t call them games, that I know of, although he was a Groundlings alum, and surely would’ve recognized his moves as being games in the improvisation sense. Whatever you call them, they were gifts that made things better in a thousand different ways, it didn’t matter if it was storyboarding on a Pixar film or waiting in a supermarket checkout line. Joe’s participation in it guaranteed it’d be better than it would’ve been if he had not been involved.

Bonifer goes on to suggest a perfect rule #23: “There is always another Rule.” It’s worth your time to read the entire piece, which can be found on Bonifer’s site GameChangers.com.

  • I always feel it is kind of damaging to believe there are necessarily rules in place for storytelling. I feel in the case of Emma Coats, she wrote a lot of loose tweets intended as guidelines that got picked up and recontextualized by the Internet. Speaking of Twitter, Robert McKee tweeted about storytelling rules once before saying the only real rule is to grab audience’s attention and keep them captivated, there are many different ways to get there.

  • mike robertson

    Emma is very talented. she would make a great director!

  • “While it may be true that Pixar, in its maturity, has slumped into formulaic story structures and characters relationships”

    This is not new. Honestly, from my perspective, Pixar has almost begun climbing out of the rut of making stories about things that are funny because they’re like people. When I first saw the 22 “rules” I was surprised that they were so vague. I figured the actual Pixar rules would have been things like “every joke must wait four beats before the punchline.”

  • Toonio

    If every piece of art followed a script, museums would be so redundant and unnecessary.
    If you want rules galore to do storytelling and anything around it go to Sony, Blue Sky, Dreamworks and sadly Pixar.
    The only one that comes to an outlier on storytelling is Laika (even when it was Will Vinton’s). But god forbids they fall victims of their own success, else we are doomed.

  • Floyd Norman

    I often enjoyed speaking with Joe after hours while working at Pixar. As far as I’m concerned there are no story rules. There never were.

  • Atish Tripathi

    There are no rules, there are only tools. They are interesting tips to keep in mind nevertheless. I particularly liked “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.”