One of the studio's storyboard artists, Jason Katz, reveals the doodles that inspired its hit films, from Toy Story to Inside Out. You were never supposed to see these images. They offer a chance to peek behind the curtain at the wonderful, sometimes weird process of creation at Pixar: sketches, doodles, half-thoughts, crude one-liners, complete non sequiturs and a handful of brilliant ideas that were not intended to be shared with anyone outside of the story room in which they were created.
Every idea starts somewhere – Buzz Lightyear and the Toy Story gang crossing a busy road under orange traffic cones; or Mrs Incredible sailing her children to Nomanisan Island, her body stretched into the shape of a boat while her son’s feet churn the open ocean like a propeller. Before these moments made it to the screen, they existed as sketches, simple drawings created by skilled artists in the attempt to sell an idea. Often, in the development of our movies, the film-makers will have a problem to solve or a moment in the movie that needs more entertainment.
To remedy this issue, a team of artists will be assembled in the story room for what we affectionately call a “gag session”. The goal of this meeting could be quite broad – perhaps the director feels the second act needs more humour. Or it could be targeted – maybe trying to come up with 50 ways a room full of preschool toddlers could turn a toy’s life into a living hell. Ideas fly fast and furious and if the room is successful, the director will walk away with something that is sure to make the movie stronger.
The term “gag session” is nothing new to animation. Film-makers have been asking groups of artists to come up with humorous ideas for cartoons since long before the first animated feature was created. Early animated shorts were merely a handful of gags strung together to form a loose storyline. Walt Disney was notorious for paying cash on the spot to the person with a session’s best joke. Warner Bros’ animation would host “No No Sessions”, meetings in which people in the room were forbidden from saying “no” to any ideas (a tenet mirroring the “Yes, and” rule of acceptance in modern improve). At Pixar, the “gag session” follows our predecessors’ examples. The funniest people in the company work together to solve a problem, committed to the belief that there are no bad ideas. The only rule is to try to make the person next to you laugh. Anything goes, and many times gags that we deemed too “out there” when pitched made it into the final film with great success (Buzz Lightyear switching to “Spanish mode” comes to mind). It’s a shotgun approach to problem solving and a wonderfully spontaneous brain dump of creation.
Having been lucky enough to be in the room for many sessions myself, I can tell you they are one of my favourite parts of the story process. I love the energy of a group of artists building off each other’s ideas with a hive-mind level of efficiency. Egos are checked at the door and most of the time no one can recall the origin of a gag. I might get a laugh for a drawing that was inspired by something another artist said in reaction to a third artist’s doodle. A “gag session” is a true team effort – and a heck of a lot of fun.