The story department at an animation studio serves as the middle ground between the screenwriters’ written word and actual animation. They take the ideas from the script and put them into visual form, to give the creative a better idea of what the movie will look like in its final form, and to provide a basic groundwork of shots and sequences for the animators to work from.
During my visit to Pixar‘s campus this summer, I spoke with Dean Kelly, Lead Story Artist on Disney-Pixar’s upcoming feature “Coco,” about what it takes to perform this challenging but necessary part of the animation process, and how he and his team members brought “Coco” to life.
ITM: When you first came aboard this project, did you consult any other media that focused on similar subject matter, as an inspiration?
Dean Kelly: No, I didn’t. When I came on [director Lee Unkrich] pitched me the idea. It was going to be set in Mexico, and I [was] like ‘Cool, cool.’ Here’s a story about this 12-year-old kid who wants to be a musician. It’s changed from [what it was then to] what it is now, but I looked at it as just, ‘Okay, here’s a kid that wants to be something that his family doesn’t support.’
So yeah, you start to look at reference [materials], things like that, [but] it didn’t change my approach of ‘You just want to be honest with the story. What’s the story?’ It’s set on this backdrop of the [Dia de los Muertos] holiday, but when you’re trying to solve story problems, you don’t want to look at other films that deal with this kind of imagery or this kind of narrative. [You don’t want them] to influence you to solve these problems. You want [the solutions] to come intuitively and figure them out [on your own].
I’d look at ‘Cars,’ or I’m on ‘Incredibles 2’ now, [but] it’s just like, ‘Here’s my role on this film. I’m going to try to approach this in the best way to cinematically get the story up on screen, that people can relate to.’ But this one is not [about] cars or superheroes. You’re dealing with real people. There were films that I looked at just to immerse myself with the [Mexican] culture, but nothing that steered me toward making focused decisions as a storyteller.
ITM: Lee Unkrich mentioned how the story evolves after each screening every three months, can you elaborate on that process?
Kelly: Every three months we put up our reels, and then after that we have meetings and we go over story problems. And then after that we dissect all the notes that we get. So my role there is to support, [to decide whether] I agree with this note or not. In small groups in the story room, we look at some of these notes and go, ‘Do we want to approach that? Do we want to deal with that?’
But still [we] just let the notes pile up [and] organize them for Lee to go ‘This is where we’re going to move forward.’ We have X amount of time to get this done, so my role is basically to come in and either execute the [storyboards], draw them, or help other story artists that are coming on.
Because usually within the screening cycle, we have people that come in, new story artists will come on to the project [as others wrap]. So my role is to go, ‘Okay, we’ve got these notes. We’ve got new folks coming in. Here’s where we are right now. I think you’d be great at this,’ and just delegating pieces to attack those big structural story issues, those problems we’ve come up with from the screening.
My role is to just be a proxy to Lee. It’s managing, so that falls on my plate, but a lot of it is ‘Well, we know that we need this scene to be shot.’ And when I say ‘shot’ [I mean] we draw everything, but in live-action terms. Lee will go, ‘I want you to do this.’ So part of my job is I’m sitting at my desk and I’m actually storyboarding a scene that he wants me to do because he trusts me.
But then because I’m the lead position, I have to make sure that the other story artists that are on it, that are getting those notes that we’re getting from those screening cycles when stuff is changing, [I have to say] ‘You guys good?’ Just delegating but [in an organized way], making sure that stuff is maintained. Mostly so that if Lee is driving home at night, he knows ‘Okay, I know that Dean has got a scene I want him to visualize for me.’ So that’s primarily my role. I delegate some stuff in terms of where people need work, but mostly it’s me shooting sequences and solving story problems.
ITM: Can you talk about the story department’s relationship with the screenwriter, and how that collaboration works?
Kelly: When Adrian [Molina] took the reins of being the writer, he took a step forward. We were at a point in the story where it wasn’t moving forward. We were like, ‘This has got to be better.’ And then Adrian came in and was like, ‘I have this idea for a [new] version of the story.’
So he came up with this outline, pitched it to Lee and [producer Darla K. Anderson] and they were like, ‘Yes, this is great.’ And they trusted Adrian because he was a story artist. He grew up here, and they worked on previous projects with him. So Adrian knows the process of story. Usually when we bring the writers in externally, we bring people in from the outside, they know how to screenwrite. But because our process is very long, you need that endurance to be able to do that. Adrian already knew that, because he was familiar with how our ‘put it up, tear it down’ process worked.
So that interaction, if I had stuff with Adrian, I could go directly [to him], which is great, to have someone in-house. You could go directly to Adrian and go, ‘Hey man, I saw your pages that you wrote for this scene. I’m going to attack this scene right now, can I run this by you?’ Go directly to the source, and not have these channels to go, ‘Is that okay? Am I overstepping?’
So that relationship with Adrian is very fluid. He became that conduit that I feel like you need, especially in animation because it’s such a long process. With story we keep reworking stuff. You have to reboard it, rewrite it, reboard it, rewrite it. You get notes, and at some point some person says ‘Uncle’ and they’re like, ‘I’m done.’
It’s either the writer or the story artist [who says] ‘I need to bounce.’ The writer’s like, ‘I’m tired.’ It’s a long process, but once that [got] going, my relationship with Adrian was so fluid. Going back to him and going, ‘This is what I’m going to do with this, what do you think?’ ‘That sounds great. Yeah, do that.’ So it wasn’t a surprise to Lee when I would then pitch ideas, or pitch a sequence to him that he knew on paper, but I went in this new direction with it.
ITM: Finally, what would you say the ratio is of ideas and work that you develop, to what actually ends up in the movie?
Kelly: It’s [been] four years, so I would say there’s a [much larger] pile of discarded ideas and sequences than [what ended] up on screen. I would say, at least from my experience, probably for every third sequence I receive [in] script form, a version of one of them makes it into the film. It’s always, ‘That scene feels pretty good, but it’s not full conceived. Let story take a stab at it.’
It’s one of those things where you want broken pages. A script isn’t bulletproof, but you want to try to make [it] work. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. There’s a lot that works on its own, but doesn’t work as part of the whole thing. I would say, from my experience, for every one sequence that makes it into the film, there’s probably three or four that are the cutting room floor.
You have to just go, ‘Alright. Yeah, I did my best trying to make that work.’ It’s for the best, and usually something from that then translates into something else. If that scene does get thrown out, there’s an element within that, that they go, ‘Maybe we should pull from that.’
Disney-Pixar’s “Coco” arrives in theaters nationwide on Wednesday, November 22nd.