Saturday, July 27, 2013

Pixar Writers Workshop

Disclaimer: This post talks about people who work at Pixar and write screenplays as a hobby off-hours.  It has nothing to do with the professional writers who are hired by Pixar to write screenplays.


For this post, I'm going to talk about our unofficial screenwriting workshop that we run at Pixar.  We'll cover the benefits of the workshop, the origin, how it runs, how it has evolved, and some intangibles.  The hope is that this will spark other screenwriters to organize their own workshops.


The benefits of the workshop include:

  • Building your writing talent.
  • Getting live feedback on a script and its structure from other experienced writers.
  • Being guilted into producing more pages.
  • Hearing how your dialogue sounds when spoken by real human beings.
  • Insight into the process of other writers.
  • Learning more about the craft by doing.
  • Moral and technical support.


One of the many cool things about working at this amazing place is Pixar University.  PU provides classes on a variety of topics to let employees pursue technical and creative endeavors.  At least once a year they usually provide a multi-week Screenwriting Workshop.  It's taught by some wonderful screenwriting teachers from UCLA and USC, including Tim Albaugh (@timalbaugh), Linda VoorheesBarri Evins, and Bobette Buster.  These classes are typically a mix of beginning and advanced screenwriters, so they're geared towards learning the fundamentals of the craft and getting you started on writing a script.  However, the classes last a limited number of weeks and typically end with students having written the first act but with many more pages to write.  Several of the writers with works in progress decided to start our own workshop to keep our momentum and finish more scripts.

We've tried a couple of times to start an unofficial workshop but they always fizzled out.  This one seems to have stuck, as we've been doing it almost weekly since May 2011.  We've built a strong group that sharpens each other.  Our writers have placed in many of the toughest screenwriting competitions in the country, including the Nicholl Fellowship, Sundance, Austin Film Festival, CineStory, PAGE, and Scriptapalooza.  We all help each other get better.  There's a reason that writers have traditionally formed groups to get peer feedback, from the Inklings to the Algonquin Round Table, to Lucas/Spielberg/Coppola.

How it Runs

The workshop meets every Thursday night in a work conference room for 2-3 hours.  Typically our wonderful organizer Laura sends an e-mail out earlier in the day to get a roll call.  If she's out that day then someone else sends the mail.  We have to have a quorum of at least four people who can make it or we cancel for that day.  This is so that there are enough actors to play the different parts during a table read.  People respond with two things: 1) whether they can make it or not and 2) do they have new pages.  People with no pages are welcome to attend, as they can still read dialogue and offer feedback.

Writers typically bring 8-10 pages.  To determine the order, we usually have the person who hasn't gone the longest go first.  Otherwise, we pick an order.

The writer starts off by giving a little backstory to make sure we know where we are in the script.  E.g.  "This is right after Bob and Janice hook up for the first time, just after the midpoint..."  Then the writer casts the roles to have people read.  Typically, the writer will read the narration and pick up any small parts that weren't cast.

We read the whole thing out loud, which is enlightening for the writer.  Some things that read great on the page are difficult to pronounce or don't flow well when spoken.

After the read, people offer feedback to the writer.  Notes range from structural to dialogue to character to tone.  This can be hard for the writer to take, as writers are naturally defensive about their material.  But feedback and "plussing" are such an integral part of the way we work at our Pixar day jobs that they understand it's all in the spirit of elevating the material.


The workshop has evolved quite a bit from its origins.  We used to only workshop screenplay pages.  Now people bring in short stories, outlines, loglines, short films, and any other creative material to get feedback.  We've also done things like strategize on which Austin Film Fest panels to attend, prep writers for pitching, show and tell about our working methods, and do a Q&A session with Pixar's head of development.  People will even pitch a few ideas before they start writing just to see what people respond to.


Two of the reasons our workshop works is because we have an organizer and a dedicated core.  Laura organizes us: sends out the reminders, books the conference room, brings treats, etc.  Though we have about twenty people on our mailing list, there are a core of six to eight of us who show up most weeks. That group has become close and it's been really rewarding to see each other grow and take on new challenges over the past couple of years.

Speaking personally, it's hard for me to imagine writing a script without getting feedback from the workshop.  There's nothing like having a room full of talented writers help to make your script better and cheer you towards the finish line.  I love you, Pixar writers!