Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Most Valuable Thing I Learned at Pixar: How to Fail

I worked at Pixar for over eight years.  The most valuable thing I learned there was how to fail.

Failure - it has such a negative connotation.  Our school system and society have turned it into a bad word.  It implies rejection, humiliation, and not being good enough.  I remember the video games I played as a kid and how crushing it was when you died.

But failure is absolutely vital to all creative endeavors.  It's part of being human - the only way we learn to walk is by trying and falling over and over.  Failure is the process of learning, of becoming.  Failure is about growth, not death.

I see it in my daughters - the fear of failure.  The fear of not being perfect.  Nobody's perfect.  Not celebrities, heroes, or even the greats of ancient history.

The Long Game Part 1: Why Leonardo DaVinci was once a loser from Delve on Vimeo.

This message that failure is bad does a disservice to budding creators.  They only see the polished end product.  They don't see the umpteen drafts that went into it.  The first seven books that didn't sell.  Most "debut authors" have written several unsuccessful novels that didn't find a publisher.  The "10-year overnight success" is a cliche for a reason.  People like to focus on success because it's attractive.  It's a dream.  "I could be that person," they fantasize.  And they think the first thing they write will be some massive breakout hit.  They don't see the failure that went into producing that hit.  The years of doubt and toiling in the shadows that led to it.  This is much more the norm rather than the exception.  But most people see that debut hit and think that's what will happen to them.  The first thing they ever write will be huge.  So they try to write their first thing and guess what - it's pretty terrible.  They can't reconcile the huge successes they see and their own lack of ability.  They think they're one of the unlucky ones who was born without talent.  However, "greatness isn't born, it's grown" - Daniel Coyle.

So folks give up instead of soldiering on through failure after failure, improving at their craft.  This is why many people don't write - they think they're not naturally good at it.  Surprise - writers don't come out of the crib spouting beautifully crafted lines.  They built the skill over years and years of practice.  Maybe they had some spark of initial talent but that's definitely not enough.  Persistence through failure is what it takes.  That's what I learned at Pixar.

Disclaimer: Not going to get into specifics but will talk about general process.  I was a tech guy there so take my view of the story process with a huge grain of salt.  This is not Pixar's opinion, only mine.

At Pixar, we constantly attempted to identify failure, correct weak spots, and not get too complacent.  This started from day one.  On my orientation several years ago, they walked me (an IT guy) and the other employees starting that day (barista, software engineer, etc.) into the beautiful Main Theater and sat us in row six, where the directors sit.  They told us "you're all filmmakers now."  And they meant it.  We, along with the other thousand or so folks who work there, were charged with identifying failures in the films (and in the company) and then "plussing" them.  Plussing = making it a little bit better.  The entire company had a voice and we were encouraged to e-mail our notes directly to the producer.  Pixar doesn't make films better than anyone else.  They just make them over and over until they get them right.  We averaged roughly 8-9 low-res visual drafts of the films (in storyboard form called "story reels") over the course of the several years it takes to make each film.  And the early versions of most of the films are frankly terrible.  This includes Woody being a jerk (see video below) in the early reels of Toy Story.  The films improve dramatically over those 8-9 rounds of screenings.  By the time we got to the final iteration after years of effort, it was usually working well.

The failure starts from the very birth of the film.  The simplified version of how a film starts is that a director or story artist comes up with three personal ideas and pitches them to John Lasseter.  John picks one of the three and tells them to develop that.  Right off the bat, there are two failed ideas.  After that, there are hundreds of "failures" as ideas about the story are pitched and discarded.  Then the story artists draw tens of thousands of temporary boards for the reels - that's tens of thousands of "failures."  The Braintrust (a group of peer directors and writers) weighs in with their opinions and blows up the reels again.  The beleaguered director and his/her team are constantly being confronted with the fact that the film's not good enough yet.  They collate the useful feedback, make some decisions, and then make it better.  And that's just the story side of it.  There are daily/weekly reviews of animation and other production elements where small teams analyze, find weak spots, and plus them.  It's a grind toward greatness.

Sometimes a film will even make it to production and then get canned.  That's an expensive failure.  But it's more important than putting out a subpar film.

In a sense, Pixar displays and celebrates their failures.  Their art galleries are full of concept art, character design, environment design, and gags that didn't directly make it into the movie.  But there's a beauty in the process of discarding, and out of those lovely "failures" the final film emerges.

Ed Catmull (Pixar co-founder and president) was always saying the danger is that we rest on our laurels.  We get complacent.  He sat the whole studio down right after our first billion dollar movie.  We thought it might be a celebration or something, but it was quite different.  He said something to the effect of: now was a dangerous time for us and "success hides problems."  The temptation is to play it safe and conceal failure from each other.  But it's vital to get trouble spots into the open so they can be corrected while the problems are still small.

Andrew Stanton (director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E) has a mantra "be wrong as fast as you can."  That failure is in the DNA of the place.  It's why I love collaborating with Pixar people - because they get it.  They know it's not going to be perfect right away.  They're willing to fail their way forward to something better.

But even at Pixar, I saw people afraid to fail.  Afraid of not being perfect.  Even in the place where failure is part of the culture.  I saw many talented people there afraid to try their own creative endeavors or obsessively working on "perfecting" a project for too long when they would be much better off declaring it a learning experience and moving on to write something new.

My own writing process is filled with failure.  It takes me 8 or 9 drafts of a screenplay to get it to a place I'm happy with.  I've written so many failed screenplays and failed children's books.  My brother Jonathan and I tried a children's book concept for years that just didn't work.  We finally wrote it off and moved on to a new project.  Then we took an earlier failed idea called Disaster Cowboy, retooled it, and it's now the basis for an ongoing children's book series.  I'm not alone.  Most writers struggle with a story for multiple drafts before it finally yields.  Example: Ernest Hemingway from The Paris Review (1958) interview:

How can you use failure to help you be a better writer?  First of all, stop being afraid of it or treating it as a bad word.  It's vital to fail and move on.  It's helpful to get a straw man out there to play off of and start to define the project.  Much better to write a terrible first draft/outline and retool than to be paralyzed by the blank page and have nothing concrete to work from.  Get the story out in a low-res form (e.g. logline, rough idea, 2-page synopsis, beat sheet) and then refine the resolution as you go.  I often trick myself into writing by saying that I'll write the bad version first and refine later.  Then I'm not stuck in fear of the blank page, because I know this draft is only temporary and no one has to see it unless I want them to.  Having said that, it's important to show folks your early rough work since it's much easier to change things at that stage than when you've already sunk months/years into a project.  Just get something bad down and fix it later.  This is the concept of the "vomit draft."  For me, I ease my way into writing the actual draft via half-formed notes and outlining.  I sometimes write over a hundred pages of notes about a project before writing a single script page.  Outlines are another good way to test the script before committing to script pages.  I tried once to write a screenplay without outlining - it was a failure.  I got too far in to want to redo the whole thing but I could tell it wasn't working.  It fizzled out because I didn't know where I was going.  But I learned from that failure.  I learned that I'm definitely a plotter, not a pantser.  It's important to fail in your writing process as well, to test your boundaries.  Try new things out to find what works for you and doesn't.  That's how you improve.

I'm a failure.  I've written 30 projects over 14 years and none of them have been hugely successful.  A few of my children's books have started to sell but there's a long way to go.  But I'd rather be a failure with 30 projects under my belt than someone who's never failed because they've never tried.  Someone with zero projects to show because they're too scared to start.  Or with one unfinished project they're too scared to show the world.  They'd be much better off finishing, getting it out to the world, and moving on.  Pixar taught me how to fail and for that I'm grateful.  I hope you all learn to fail too.