Josh Cooley gives an in-depth look at Pixar’s creative process

One thing that is attributed to Pixar films is they are four quadrant films. This means they appeal to parents and kids, men and women. So, it came as no surprise that the audience to hear Pixar story artist Josh Cooley speak at KANEKO’s Great Minds Series last Friday, October 1st, was a four quadrant…

Josh Cooley, a story artist and director at Pixar Animation Studios, presents “Coloring Outside the Lines” at KANEKO’s Great Minds Series. Photo by Jordan Green.

“How was the chocolate factory today, dear?” – Josh Cooley’s wife teasing him after a day of “work” at Pixar

One thing that is attributed to Pixar films is they are four quadrant films. This means they appeal to parents and kids, men and women. So, it came as no surprise that the audience to hear Pixar story artist Josh Cooley speak at KANEKO’s Great Minds Series last Friday, October 1st, was a four quadrant audience. It was great to see parents bring their kids (or perhaps kids bring their parents) to hear about creativity from an employee of one of the most creative and influential companies ever. Josh has been a story artist on “The Incredibles,” “Cars,” “Ratatouille,” “Up” and is currently working on “Cars 2.” Josh’s talk was “Coloring Outside the Lines,” and it pulled back the curtain on the creative process of story with Pixar’s films.

Creativity is foundational at Pixar.

Photo by Jordan Green

Creativity is foundational at Pixar Animation Studios. Seems obvious, but a lot of companies talk about creativity. Pixar has it in its DNA. Josh showed us pictures of the Pixar campus and how it fosters creativity. When you walk into the animation studio, you enter into a huge atrium. On the right side of the atrium are the offices for the artists, creatives and story writers. On the left side of the atrium are the offices for those that work on the computer side of things. A humorous, yet intentional set up of right-brain and left-brain jobs being on the right side or left side of the building. Personal offices are right off of common areas, with the inclination being employees are forced to mingle and interact with one another. (They might mingle over a pool table, at the cereal bar, or in the theater.)

Pixar invests in its employees. It’s one reason why there is Pixar University, an opportunity for employees to take classes in sculpture, calligraphy, costume making, yoga and more. Fellow Pixar employees teach the classes. Josh remarked it’s one reason why his wife teases him with, “Do you ever do any actual work here?”

All the storyboards are drawn by hand.

Photo by Jordan Green

After a glimpse inside Pixar’s studio, Josh shared about his work as a story artist. He related his work to that of an architect looking at blueprints, that’s what a story artist does with storyboards. He creates the blueprints for the entire movie. It helps everyone who is working on the film know early on what is and isn’t working.

All the storyboards are drawn by hand. The storyboard can be comparable to a single image advertisement. A storyboard can convey the action, emotion and story in that single, hand-drawn image. A comparison Josh used was showing the image of a young Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) standing over a knocked down Sonny Liston. A black and white photo with no words, yet a powerful story. Single images can tell the bigger picture. They can show camera angles and poses. If you feel the emotion in the storyboard, you will feel it in the movie. (During this part, Josh showed a storyboard from “Monsters, Inc.” where Sulley is embracing Boo before they say goodbye. Seeing the storyboard instantly recalled the emotion of the scene, and the bond between the two characters.)

Josh then showed the progression from storyboard to final cut. The storyboarding process itself can be arduous. When story artists pitch ideas, they pitch to a story team and “El Director” (John Lasseter, Pixar’s chief creative officer). These meetings can turn chaotic as the story team suggests their own ideas and rearrange storyboards. In the end, the story artist is often wondering what just happened in the pitch meeting. They do have notes from the meeting, and start the storyboard process again. As Josh put it, “storyboarding is story [re-boarding].” (The record for redoing storyboards on a scene is 32. It’s from “Monsters, Inc.” when Sulley and Boo meet Yeti. When story artists are going over and over a scene, they’ll say they have a “Yeti’s cave.”)

There are a lot of storyboards in Pixar films. (Remember, these are hand drawn storyboards.)

  • 81,772 – “Ratatouille”
  • 110,972 – “Wall-E
  • 85,192 – “Up”
  • 92,889 – “Toy Story 3

Josh elaborated more on the power of the drawn image by showing a story reel from “Up.” (A story reel is where you edit the storyboards sequentially, and then add vocals and music to give a closer sense of the movie.) He showed the scene when Carl releases the balloons that lift his home into the sky, and then compared it to the scene in the final cut of the film. Even in the story reel, the story, emotion, and tone were communicated.

Mistakes are part of the process.

Photo by Jordan Green

Mistakes are part of the process, and Pixar has never had the film right the first time. It’s one of the reasons why a Pixar film takes four years to make, and why Andrew Stanton (director of “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E”) says “I want to fail as quickly as possible.” To emphasize this point, Josh showed an early story reel from “Toy Story.” It was Woody, voiced by Tom Hanks, and he was on top of Andy’s bed. However, instead of being the lovable character from the film, in this story reel he was a bully. He was ordering other characters (Hamm, Rex and Mr. Potato Head) off the bed in a menacing manner. He was emphatic that the bed was his place and no one else’s. Woody then ordered Slinky to come up on the bed and get them off. As Slinky wonders if he should, Woody says, “Your job isn’t to think spring wiener!” And then Slinky says, “Why is the cowboy so scary!” When the story reel ended, Josh tells us that they went down the wrong path, but they learned from it. It’s all part of the creative process.

Of course, there are brainstorming sessions throughout the creative process. One of the most important things Josh stressed within these sessions is limitations. It’s important to know your limitations, to know the direction you’re headed in with the project. It’s one thing to say “draw anything”, but another to say, “draw a dog.” Even in drawing a dog, there are limitless ways to draw it, but it’s moving the creative process forward.

Making movies is collaborative. However, throughout “Up,” Josh would revisit an idea he had for two minor characters in the movie. He pitched an idea and he was given the green light to come up with a short about the characters on his own. The only trouble was he had to do it on his own time, and with no budget to work with. The result was “George & A.J.,” which Josh wrote and directed. They style of animation is similar to storyboarding.

Q&A with Jeffrey Koterba

Photo by Jordan Green

Omaha World-Herald’s editorial cartoonist Jeffrey Koterba then asked Josh some questions. One thing he asked about was a film’s script and if the story is written before they receive it as story artists. Josh said how they differ from Hollywood is the script is really a jumping off point for them to create the story. In “Ratatouille,” Remy falls from the skylight into the kitchen. The director, Brad Bird, said to “have the mouse fall in and almost get killed. Figure it out.” Well, that gives “complete freedom” to the story artist, and what you end up with is so much more than “have the mouse fall in and almost get killed.”

Jeffrey asked about his parents and the influence they had on his life. Primarily his mom, who is a cellist. Josh talked about storyboarding a lot of action sequences. When he is drawing those scenes, he is often listening to soundtracks (he gets distracted by lyrics) with similar scenes and thus draws appropriately.

Audience Q&A

Photo by Jordan Green

Jeffrey Koterba then moderated a Q&A with the crowd. This was entertaining because you had people of all ages asking questions. One of the questions was if it was Pixar’s intention to make the audience cry at the beginning of “Up” with the montage scene. Josh said it was. He explained that you can make a funny movie, but to connect with an audience you need emotion. To connect with the character is the goal.

Another person followed-up on the opening to “Up” and asked about the risk with having such adult emotions and creativity with the scene. Josh said it was a pivotal scene. If the scene “worked,” then people would buy into the rest of the film. Originally, the film didn’t have that scene. The movie was going to start with Carl, as an old man, getting out of bed and being grumpy. However, no one had any context as to why Carl was grumpy. Josh thought the montage was the coolest way to do it (show context) since you can show a life, and the love between Carl and Ellie, through it.

Josh was also asked about deleted scenes, if it’s hard to remove them, and if he ever wonders about what could’ve been with them. He said that “Toy Story 2” has a lot of scenes that didn’t fit into the first “Toy Story” film. “Cars 2,” the movie he is working on now, has scenes that didn’t make the first “Cars” film. A number of deleted scenes find their way into being used.

He was asked about how it’s decided who gets the job of voicing a character. Josh said they never start with the actor, but rather start with the character. Are they a comedic character? A dramatic character? You go from there. You don’t want to hire someone with comedic sensibilities and then realize you need someone more dramatic. He then shared some insight into how he helped cast the character of Muntz from “Up.” He was watching a movie at home with his wife, and the movie had Christopher Plummer in it. He thought he’d be good for the role of Muntz. He mentioned it to others on the team and they said, “Yeah, he’s not bad”. A few weeks later they told Josh, “Hey, we hired Christopher Plummer.”

Toward the end, Josh was asked about creativity and how to foster it in students today when many of them feel uncomfortable with various restrictions in place. Josh talked about the importance of parents. His own parents were creative so they supported him in his art. However, one coworker of his at Pixar has a different experience. He’s one of the most brilliant minds at Pixar, yet his parents refuse to see the movies he works on because they don’t agree with his job choice. Ultimately, you need to do what you love. Do what comes naturally to you. If you try to do something you don’t want to do, it’s not going to work out.

Photo by Jordan Green

The evening wrapped up, but not before a long line of people waited to talk to Josh one on one. He graciously talked with anyone who waited, posed for all the pictures and signed autographs. And while he didn’t reveal spoilers about “Cars 2,” he did say, “It’s gonna be awesome!

The night was one of the more entertaining events I’d been a part of with KANEKO’s Great Minds Series.

To see more photos of Josh Cooley at KANEKO taken by Jordan Green, visit:

This story is part of the AIM Archive

This story is part of the AIM Institute Archive on Silicon Prairie News. AIM gifted SPN to the Nebraska Journalism Trust in January 2023. Learn more about SPN’s origin »

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