Pixar’s Storytelling Process

I watched this before I’d heard of The Hero’s Journey but it’s interesting to look back and see how similar the structure is. I’d also heard of this structure in Brian McDonald’s book Invisible Ink (2010) which I need to read again.

The structure:

  1. Once upon a time…(your protagonist)
  2. And every day…
  3. Until one day…
  4. And because of this…(events correlate/happen for a reason).
  5. And because of this…
  6. Until finally…
  7. And ever since that day…

The Bancroft Brothers Animation Podcast #11: Billion Dollar Stories


Sometimes when I’m on the bus I like to take notes of podcasts that I listen to. These are some points I took from the Paul Briggs interview on the Bancroft Brothers podcast:

  • Students are competing with people who have 20+ years of experience so cut your teeth at smaller companies.
  • Find mentors to critique the test work you produce.
  • If you meet with someone always follow up with a thank you letter.
  • You’re a writer with your drawings. Pin up your sequences on a board and put post-it notes on all the story beats. Make the beats as tight as possible. Check out Bill Pete’s boards for Tarzan for a good example of this. Economy: capture a simple idea with as little sketches as possible.
  • Head of story wrangles the team. Ask: Why is story here? Why is sequence here? Why does this moment work? The head of story is a conduit between crew and director and should therefore work on boards too as well as supervise.
  • Why are you making this movie? What message are you trying to convey?
  • Choices are what define us. Talk to old people about their lives.

Channel 101: Story Structure

Oisin suggested that we research Dan Harmon’s essays on story structure as, although they’re based on Campbell’s and Vogler’s writing, Harmon has adapted his story structure to be used for creating short pilot episodes (for Channel 101).

These are my notes from Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details

Harmon vs. Campbell

The diagram above shows where Campbell’s Hero’s Journey relates to Harmon’s.


1. You (A character is in a zone of comfort): Establish a protagonist.

“the audience is floating freely like a ghost until you give them a place to land”. This imprinting is easier to achieve when you provide the audience with a character which they can relate to (especially someone you can feel sorry for).

2. Need (but they want something): Something ain’t quite right.

Show that something is off balance in the character’s universe. This could be something that the character wishes for within him/herself or something that is happening externally (a call to adventure). Refusal of the call is sometimes used as we can relate to being afraid of change.

3. Go (they enter an unfamiliar situation): Crossing the threshold.

Figure out what your ‘movie poster’ is. The threshold will set off events that will lead to the ‘unfamiliar world’ that you want to sell to your audience. Contrast between the ‘familiar world’ and the ‘unfamiliar world’ is important.

4. Search (adapt to it): The road of trials.

This is where the character is ‘put through the digestive track’ and broken down. “We are headed for the deepest level of the unconscious mind, and we cannot reach it encumbered by all that crap we used to think was important.”

5. Find: Meeting with the Goddess.

The road of trials is to prepare the protagonist for this point in the story. It’s considered a major pivot point and a time for great revelations and total vulnerability. From what I understand of Harmon’s essay this should be where you show a definable moment describing what your character has become as a result of the journey so far, a moment where the protagonist learns something about themselves and in doing so can actively decide to ascend to the next part of the story.

6. Take (pay it’s price): Meet your maker

This part of the journey has it’s own ‘road of trials’ in order to prepare you for returning to the ordinary world. This is where the protagonist will shed her/his last remnants of ego thus completing what Campbell calls “Atonement with the Father”. “In the first half of the circle, you were reacting to the forces of the universe, adapting, changing, seeking. Now you have BECOME the universe. You have become that which makes things happen. You have become a living God.”

7. Return (and go back to where they started): Bringing it home.

This can be as easy as a hug goodbye or it can be more difficult, what Campbell calls ‘The Magic Flight’.

8. Change (now capable of change): Master of Both Worlds

” …the protagonist, on whatever scale, is now a world-altering ninja. They have been to the strange place, they have adapted to it, they have discovered true power and now they are back where they started, forever changed and forever capable of creating change. In a love story, they are able to love. In a Kung Fu story, they’re able to Kung all of the Fu. In a slasher film, they can now slash the slasher.”

Wired: How Dan Harmon Drives Himself Crazy Making Community

Oisin suggested that I look up Dan Harmon’s essays on narrative and the ‘Channel 101’ website. While searching, this interview on the Wired website caught my eye as it explains how Dan Harmon has adapted the structure of the Hero’s Journey into his own workflow:


Harmon uses “the circle, an algorithm that distills a narrative into eight steps.” The article itself also uses this structure to relate Harmon’s career path.

  1. A character is in a zone of comfort.
  2. But they want something.
  3. They enter an unusual situation.
  4. Adapt to it.
  5. Get what they wanted.
  6. Pay a heavy price for it.
  7. Return to their familiar situation.
  8. Having changed.

Archetypes in Mythic Structure

Kerry, Tasha Pelan, Oisin and I spent a lot of time this week discussing The Hero’s Journey, thinking of how our archetypes apply within films and trying to structure our research/presentation on the whiteboard. This is a very new subject for me and I felt lucky to be teammates with Oisin as he’s very passionate about this subject and helped me understand it more.

Shapeshifter Overview:

  • Shifting or unstable: Shapeshifters change appearance or mood and thus their loyalty is often questionable. This serves a dramatic function in bringing doubt and suspense into the story.
  • Psychological function: Shapeshifters serve to express the energies of the anima and animus. These are described by Jung as the female and male elements found in males and female respectively. These elements are often repressed by society but may be expressed within us as opposite-sex dream characters. Encounters with these characters in dreams or fantasy is said to be an important part of psychological growth.
  • Projection: Sometimes in reality we project our internal idea of the opposite sex (i.e. our anima/animus) onto another person even if those qualities don’t exist on that person. The anima or animus encountered by the Hero may be helpful or destructive.
  • Catalyst for change: The Shapeshifter may bring out certain attitudes or repressed qualities in the Hero.
  • Love Interests: The Shapeshifter is often a love interest. Vogler talks about the Femme Fatale and Homme Fatale tropes – tempters and destroyers – and also a love interest’s power to dazzle and confuse the Hero.
  • Masks: Like the other archetypes the Shapeshifting can be worn as a mask. This can serve in situations such as getting past a Threshold Guardian or, if you’re a villain, winning the trust of the Hero.
  • Campbell’s “Hamlet-Oedipal revulsion”: the thing you desired turns our to be bad for you and your desire turns to revulsion. This idea is based on the Greek tragedy where Oedipus unknowingly kills his father and sleeps with his mother without realising until the end.

Shapeshifter Examples:

Spike (Buffy) and Mystique (X-Men): although both these characters literally change shape they also act as Shapeshifters through their shifting loyalties and unsure relationships with the Hero. Spike’s relationship with Buffy is always complicated by his evil ideals/nature. Spike is also a good example of where the dark triad comes into his design which are the three traits: narcissism (egotism and lack of empathy), machiavellianism (manipulation, do anything to achieve your goals regardless of moral implications) and psychopathy (antisocial behaviour, remorseless). Studies have shown that these traits are initially seen as attractive which ties in with the homme and femme fatales where you are attracted to something which is potentially harmful to you.

Ramona Flowers (Scott Pilgrim Vs the World (2010)): Scott sees Ramona as a Manic pixie dream girl. Ramona represents Scott’s anima. Scott projects the image of his ideal girl onto her and is blinded to her flaws. His ideals of her are destabilised when she dyes her hair and in this regard she is also a literal Shapeshifter. Ramona is also a good example of a Shapeshifter as a catalyst for change. Scott rises to the challenge of defeating her evil x’s and literally levels up and gains the power of self respect.

  • Kovu (The Lion King 2, 1998): the dark triad, homme fatale, Kovu and Kiara’s journeys represent the coming together of two worlds.
  • Faith(Buffy, 1997 – 2003): femme fatale, her allegiance is always shifting between Buffy and the side of the Shadow. Faith is also a Shadow to Buffy and represents what Buffy could be. Elements of sacrifice and the ability to grow and learn seem to be important traits that distinguish the Hero from the Shadow.
  • Sirius Black (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 2004) : Is introduced as the shadow but is revealed to be an ally.
  • Jessica Rabbit (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, 1988): femme fatale whose relationship is untrustworthy.
  • Petyr Baelish (Game of Thrones); the dark triad, particularly machiavellianism.

Faith, Kovu, Sirius Black and Roger Rabbit also highlight the idea that they’re not necessarily bad/evil, they’re just drawn that way.

Shadow Overview

  • Shadow represents: energy of the dark side, repressed, unrealised or rejected aspects of something
  • External Shadow: These qualities can be projected externally as antagonists, villains and enemies.
  • Internal Shadow: The Shadow can stem from psychoses and repressed feelings that threaten to destroy us if we don’t come to terms with them.
  • Shadows make the Hero rise to the challenge. It is said that a story is only as good as it’s Shadow because of the qualities it draws from the Hero. Symbiotic relationship.
  • Masks: Other Archetypes may shift between the Shadow such as a Mentor or the Shapeshifter femme fatale.
  • Humanize the Shadow: Adding admirable traits to the Shadow or making the Shadow seem vulnerable can add interest to the narrative as we can empathize with the Shadow. Remember that Shadows do not see themselves as Shadows.
  • visual representation
  • Campbell’s ‘tyrants’

Examples of Shadows

  • Scar (Lion King, 1994) represents what Simba could become. Campbell (1949, pp 311) says

“The tyrant is proud, and therin resides his doom. He is proud because he thinks of his strength as his own; thus he is in the clown role, as a mistaker of shadow for substance; it is his destiny to be tricked. The mythological hero reappearing from the darkness that is the source of the shapes of the day, brings a knowledge of the secrets of the tyrant’s doom”‘

Simba initially rejects his role as King but changes and eventually learns to take responsibility for his past, thus empowering him to return and defeat Scar. Scar, as a Shadow and tyrant, never grows or learns, traits which lead to his defeat.

  • Tyler Durden (Fight Club, 1999) Acts as Shapeshifter, Ally and Shadow. He is literally an external projection of the narrator’s internal “unrealised, repressed and rejected aspects” and even states this plainly in the movie:

“All the ways you wish you could be, that’s me. I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.” (Tyler Durden)

It is only when the narrator accepts Tyler Durden as a part of himself that he can defeat this inner Shadow.

  • Voldemort (Harry Potter): Similar to Scar, Voldemort is an example of where Shadows are defined by their choices. Voldemort and Harry are literally connected by Harry’s scar and the similarities between both of them are repeatedly highlighted. It is Harry’s choices which set him away from the path of the Shadow.
  • Darth Vader (Star Wars): Vader represents Luke’s fears that he will be a bad person. Vader is also humanized by being revealed as Luke’s father.
  • Joker (Batman): The Joker is a good example of a Shadow which forces the Hero to rise to the challenge. Their relationship is almost a symbiotic one where the Joker’s chaos is in equilibrium with Batman who represents order. It could be argued that the Shadow wins in this case as the Joker corrupts Harvey Dent which realises his goal to bring chaos to Gotham.
  • Avatar (2009): Even the Hero can wear the mask of the Shadow as we see when Jake Sully reports to the military, an action which is in conflict with his own survival later on. The military is the main Shadow.

Ally Overview

  • Psychological function: The Ally in dreams and fiction might represent the unexpressed or unused parts of the personality that must be brought into action to do their jobs.
  • Allies come in a wide variety of form and act as companion to the Hero.
  • They can be a source of comic relief and their relationship with the Hero can be a source of drama.
  • Introduction to unfamiliar world: Allies can come from the ‘familiar world’ such as Sam Wise (Lord of the Rings) or they can come from the world beyond the threshold and thus be an educator or source of knowledge for the Hero and audience.
  • Campbell draws the connection to Godparents being allies in baptism.

Ally Examples

  • Snowy (The Adventures of Tintin, 2011): Animals and pets are a common form of ally – the on-screen bond reminds us of our own connection with our pets.
  • Mushu (Mulan, 1998): Spirit guides are another popular form of ally. Mushu also illustrates that the Ally-Hero relationship is often mutually beneficial as Mushu first helps Mulan in order to regain his own status. We also see this relationship with Timon and Pumbaa (Lion King, 1994) where they first help Simba because of the benefits of having a lion for a friend. However, this relationship inevitably grows into genuine friendship.
  • Dorothy’s Allies (The Wizard of Oz, 1939): Multiple allies. Allies often share a common goal with the Hero giving them a basis for their friendship.
  • Dobby (Harry Potter) and Alfred (Batman): Allies can take the form of helpful servants who feel indebted to the Hero or their family.
  • Hans Solo: Ally that aids Hero over the threshold. Introduction to the special world.
  • Willow and Xander (Buffy, 1997-2003) : Allies/sidekicks where the interactions with the Hero are also a source of drama.
  • The Crow (1994): Bird Ally from beyond the grave.