Disney's storytelling and creativity guide: deep emotional engagement

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Disney's storytelling and creativity guide: deep emotional engagement


Andrew Millstein, president of the Walt Disney animation studio, talks through the secrets for storytelling and creativity at Ad Week

Storytelling is one of the current advertising buzzwords, considered by many to be an essential component of modern marketing.

Andrew Millstein spoke at Ad Week, talking about the need to keep a company creative, and the secrets of storytelling.

Hint: it's not about the story...

"Since the beginning of mankind, the fable-tellers have not only given us entertainment but a kind of wisdom, humour and understanding that, like all true art, remains imperishable through the ages" Walt Disney


"The story goes a long way back. We draw information from the legacy of the animation division, which is woven into the company. Disney started as an animation studio 90 years ago.

"We are the current trustees and we look at our legacy as a springboard, a start point not an end point. We look backwards to look forwards."

How creativity lapses

"Look at organisations. It’s natural that they have ebbs and flows. Today, we are in a new phase, a vital, creative phase. Looking back, there had been golden eras and dips.

"Post Lion King in the mid 90s, the films were not as dearly and fondly remembered. In success you sometimes lose that spark that made you successful.

"You need creative risk taking. Pushing the edges and boundaries of what is expected of you."

Acquiring Pixar

"Bob Iger in 2006 had the wisom of acquiring Pixar, which had close to 20 years of success. They have a wonderful approach to thinking about, supporting and sustaining a creative environment.

"So we have been working with [Pixar executives] John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, leaders of fiercely vital creative organisation.

"What is it, that on a film by film basis, kept that creative freshness? What is it that made Pixar such a vital place, and could we weave that into Disney animation? What could be built on?"

Considering closing and creative turnaround

"Was there the thought of closing down? Yes – not openly or broadly. It [animation] was a division [of Disney], but Pixar outpaced us and made pictures more vital.

"That was it – a juncture. Some said, 'Now we have Pixar and their characters, let’s make films with them'.

"There was an extended moment where there was an existential threat to Disney animation. They [Pixar] said no. Creative diversity under Disney was a good thing for the company, provided we could turn it around."

Creativity work in progress

"There was a moment maybe three years after John [Lasseter] and Ed [Catmull] came on board where they gave a keynote in Los Angeles on running a creative organisation. They shared what they do - the crown jewels.

"Now, you can understand the ideas. But implementing them? The last nine years has been an experiement at a deep cultural level."

Ownership and candour

"Prior to Ed and John, every film was really just managed and produced on its own. There was no collective involvement and ownership of the ideas.

"The idea was that they own each other’s films. My film is your film, and your film is mine. It was easy to say ‘yes I agree’, but much harder to apply.

"As colleagues, you ask people to give me feedback. They say, 'no problem'. Until they do - directly and constantly. It was not easy at all."

Brain Trust

"So, the idea is directors and writers are committed to giving each other honest feedback. From early concept to the big screen, we screen each film eight to ten times. Each time it’s like putting a patient on the operating table. You have to step back and accept the feedback your colleagues give you.

"The problem is you no longer see what’s working and you rely on others. This happens constantly.

"The feedback is a free-for-all. A melee. We have a 200-seater theatre and invite people from the company to come. There is a core of 30-40 of writers, producers and directors who watch every screening. They are the Brain Trust, but we solicit notes from every person who sees the film.

"Then we break to another smaller group and go off to a room. Face to face, notes were given to each other over a two to three hour session. But a couple of hours to give notes on 90-minute film is not enough. We had to take creative off-site, and go through the film for 1-2 days."

Dismantle and reassemble

"We take the film apart, go through it in entirety, and put it back together.

"We own and synthesise the notes, and apply them to the film going forward. We do that every 12 weeks."


"First film we did this to was Bolt. We screened the film and had a note session. It was crickets [silence] – nobody knew what to do. It was hard to apply.

"John and Ed said, 'If you do that again, we will have to close the studio'.

"The only way to lift each other’s films is to own the film and take each others’ feedback."

Blowing-up the film: Big Hero 6

"Sometimes we blow-up films too late in the process. We try not to move the release date but we are 100% commited to the quality standard.

"In Big Hero 6, way late in the game - five or six screenings into a ten screening process, we decided the introduction of Bemax [the balloon-shaped robot] was not resonating.

"Originally this character was introduced at a technology show.

"Bemax would be surrogate brother to Hiro [the film's main character]. We needed to have emotional impact to move the film. We had made heavy investment in time and money.

"Late in the game, we had to rethink this introduction. An emotional connection was not formed between characters. The introduction was too public.

"We realised this didn’t have the enotional resonance we needed. We are marching 400 people, so if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. It has to resonate on a deep emotional level. The change had huge impact." [in the final film, Bemax is introduced in a university office with just two other main characters]

Blowing-up the film: Frozen

"Normally deadlines dictate. The deadlines help a lot. They are very inspirational. But, we are willing to chuck something if we have to.

"Late in the game in Frozen we did something similar. In Frozen, the relationship between Elsa and Anna was originally based on fear and evil. Elsa was an evil character, and the relationship was not based on love. She was a different kind of villain. But she was not really a villain.

"That shift can come about. The feedback may tell you it’s not resonating. But the feedback, the solutions can come from anybody in that process."

The secret of storytelling

"The truth is that when we start our process, we are not focused in that way, the way the story should take. It’s a deeper place and an emotion that defines the structure.

"We ask people for their input. It’s arduous. It’s the initial passion of the idea which has to fuel the film. It could be loss, of a parent, a sibling. We ask people to think about that initial inspiration that is personal, and that’s the fuel.

"As we get lost on the way, that’s the guiding light we return to.

"Look at Up! – the emotional resonance was so poignant and so emotional and set up where the film went that you couldn’t imagine at the beginning.

"We learn constantly at the beginning of the process. What is it about a story that resonates? It's about deep emotional resonance. Finding the emotional truth."

Favourite Disney film?

"I like Dumbo."

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