The Story Experts

More than a few years ago I walked into an upstairs story room to find a group of curious boards and charts on the walls. A group of newly minted production executives occupied this special meeting room and it would appear they were given a fascinating task. They were charged with finding the secret of Walt Disney’s successful story telling technique.

Now, how would they do this, you might ask? Of course, if you know the executive mind, you’d know that they would begin by analyzing the Disney storytelling method. They would attempt to deconstruct the classic Walt Disney films with the hope of learning Walt’s secret of story telling. Naturally, these creative executives had been sent on a fools errand because there is no secret to Walt’s story telling technique. There is no short cut to creating a classic animated motion picture. There is only hard work, and even then you seldom have any idea if you’ve succeeded or failed. Trust me. Nobody knows.

I’ve been in this business a long time and I’ve seen more than my fair share of storytelling gurus and “experts” attempt to analyze animated storytelling. While I’m often impressed at the serious thought given to these matters, most seem to focus on successful films rather than the failures. Perhaps it’s simply more fun to discover why a film is successful rather than the alternative. My old storytelling colleague, Denis Rich defines filmmaking as alchemy. Hardly a science, you never truly know what’s going to work. I’ve been doing this job most of my life and I confess I still have little idea why some things work while others do not. I began my storytelling career on a motion picture that most viewed as marginal at best. We sat in screenings that often felt embarrassing, and we left the sweatbox thinking we were working on a turkey. However, after a few months had passed and our film hit the screens, audiences embraced our little movie and thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Who knew?

I’m sure, there are storytellers at various studios today engaged in the same amazing process that I’ve been through for years. While I wish them well, I know there are no easy answers and over time a conclusion will eventually be reached. The waiting audience will either love, hate - or totally ignore your movie, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. I’ve often joked that we work just as hard on the bad movies as on the good ones. As my old friend, Denis Rich would probably say - “It’s alchemy, after all.”