Toy Story 3 Toy Story 3

Ten years ago, shortly after Pixar’s Toy Story 3 had opened to widespread acclaim, its screenwriter Michael Arndt delivered a lecture at the studio in which he laid bare the “complete nightmare” that was scripting process. “Toy Story 3: Mistakes Made, Lessons Learned,” a brilliant breakdown of the craft of Pixar-style storytelling, is now available as a video online. Watch it here.

Arndt admits that he walked into Pixar thinking he knew what storytelling was (and with good reason: he’d written the screenplay for Little Miss Sunshine, which went on to win him an Oscar), only to be humbled by the demands of the project. For three years, he drafted and redrafted, trying to nail the “tentpole moments”: those key turning points that hold up the story, like the “inciting incident,” “first-act break,” and “climax.”

Arndt explains what each of these moments requires, using examples from Toy Story 3 — and, fascinatingly, comparing them with discarded earlier drafts, which Arndt can see in hindsight were “bad.” Crucially, he reveals how a good plot is an expression of the characters. If the narrative stakes tell us nothing about who Woody and Co. are and what they think, something isn’t working.

Pixar's brain trust

The lecture also outlines Pixar’s in-house story development process, which includes consultations with the famed “brain trust” of creative leaders. Arndt humorously recalls his frustration at receiving feedback that was both blunt and vague. “If I have one talent as a writer,” he says, “it’s my ability to restrain myself from lunging across the room and strangling people.”

It’s unusual for animation writers to analyze their work in such detail in public, and even rarer to see such revelatory behind-the-scenes material from a Pixar feature. That’s what makes Arndt’s lecture so interesting. He has also uploaded other informative educational videos on his website, Pandemonium, Inc.

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