The Alchemy of Storytelling

More than a few years ago, I was making my early morning round of the Walt Disney Studio. Specifically, the animation building of the amazing entertainment facility. I walked into an upstairs story room to find several curious storyboards and multiple charts on the walls. A group of newly minted production executives occupied this special meeting room and it would appear they were given an impossible task. They were charged with finding the secret of Walt Disney’s successful story telling technique.

Now, how would one 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 the mystery of Walt Disney’s secret of story telling. Naturally, these creative executives had been sent on a fools errand because sadly, there is no secret to Walt’s story telling technique. There are no short cuts when it comes to creating a classic animated motion picture. There is only hard work, constant iteration and dedication. Even then it’s doubtful you’ll have any idea whether you’ve succeeded or failed. Trust me. This is our amazing story telling process, and it hasn’t changed all that much since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

I’ve been in this business a while and I’ve seen more than my fair share of storytelling gurus and “experts” attempting 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 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. Mr. Rich worked in the UK on some pretty impressive films. He’s done everything from “James Bond” to “Superman,” and he speaks of the convoluted movie making process with a droll sense of humor. “In animation, we’ve a good deal more time,” said the clever Brit. In live-action we’ve got to make our bad movie faster.” Much like Denis, 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. In time, our movie moved through production and was suddenly on the big screen. We couldn’t have been more surprised when 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 conclusions will eventually be reached. The eager audience will either love, hate - or totally ignore your hard work, 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 is alchemy, after all.”

Walt and Jaxon. Walt Disney in a serious story session with director, Wilfred Jackson.

Walt and Jaxon. Walt Disney in a serious story session with director, Wilfred Jackson.