Story drives entire operation at Pixar

Studio's back-and-forth creative process allows every conceivable question to be aired

If you eavesdropped on a Pixar Animation story session, you’d hear discussions of what director John Lasseter calls “The Rules.”

In no small way, adherence to Pixar’s storytelling “rules” accounts for the studio’s perfect string of hits — from 1995’s “Toy Story” to 2006’s “Cars” — and suggests things to come from Disney Animation, now that Lasseter serves as the studio’s creative chief.

“To make these films work, you have to do three things,” Lasseter asserts:

“Tell a compelling story with humor and heart that keeps people wondering what will happen next.

“Secondly, populate it with memorable characters. If audiences invest in your main character, they’ll travel that character’s journey. Even the bad guys have to be likable, because you’re asking audiences to spend the equivalent of a nice long lunch with them.

“Finally, put the story and characters into a believable world.”

In Lasseter’s book, the “CG look” has never accounted for any animated film’s success. Instead, he thinks of computers as “multimillion-dollar pencils” for telling great stories: “Nobody thinks a live-action film is good because of the camera lenses.”

What is crucial, he believes, is Pixar’s back-and-forth creative process, during which every conceivable question gets aired. “For ‘Cars,’ we questioned the simplest things, like having a character pick something up. But cars just have tires; they can’t grip anything. ”

Everyone can offer suggestions, but the final decision is always entrusted to the director, who has total creative control. And even if the directors should get lost along the way, Pixar has the patience to stick by them until they figure it out. The result: an astonishing one-to-one development ratio in which every script developed has been made into a movie.

“Rather than hiring eight writers sequentially and keeping them isolated from each other, Pixar brings their eight major writer-directors together to review each other’s projects and offer feedback and suggestions,” says Michael Arndt, who landed a writing job at Pixar on the strength of his “Little Miss Sunshine” script. “Writing a script at Pixar is like trying to build a house, and every six weeks somebody comes and throws a hand grenade into it. You’ve got to build it really strong to survive this continual assault every six weeks. And if it’s weak, if it’s flimsy, it’s just going to get blown apart.”

“The people in our ‘brain trust’ are 100% honest. We all gravitate toward ideas that make a story better, no matter whose ideas they are,” Lasseter adds.

Pixar commits whatever time it takes to achieve that, even if it means postponing a release (“Cars” slipped from a 2005 fall release to summer 2006, and Disney’s “Meet the Robinsons” got pushed to 2007 after Lasseter took over) or allotting lengthy development schedules.

“We spend four years making a movie,” Lasseter notes, “so we work every waking moment to tweak it the best we can. I always joke that Pixar films are never finished — they are just released!”

(Bob Verini and David S. Cohen contributed to this report.)