The Business and Craft of Animation Writing
Jeffrey M. Howard discusses Disney’s adoption of the Pixar way
by Ari Eisner
Jeffrey M. Howard’s been a member of the Disney family since 1998. Although he started on the executive side of the business, being a creator is what he’s really always wanted to do. Howard tells us, “I grew up loving cartoons and drawing my own comics and things like that. I studied Film and TV at Syracuse University and moved out to LA in ’95 and started working as a PA. But I was also writing my own stuff on the side. For my first eight years at Disney, I was a creative exec, so I was on the other side of it.” He goes on to explain how being a creative executive broadened his knowledge of the industry and focused him on what he really wanted to do. “I was the guy hiring the writers and helping them develop the stories and working with the directors. But writing was what I still wanted to do, and my bosses knew that. So around 2006, I was given a chance and shifted over to being a staff writer.”
Howard was given his career-changing opportunity just as winds of change began to blow through the studio. “I worked on some smaller projects as a writer and was put onto the first Tinkerbell movie we ever did. This is around the same time Disney bought Pixar. Pixar was brought in to help us basically make it good. And we revamped the entire movie under their leadership, and it turned out to be really successful. Now we’ve made three more of them, and there’re gonna be more on the way.”
[Check out this interview with Jeff Howard on writing Planes.]
Working under Pixar’s leadership was arguably the greatest learning experience for the executive-cum writer. He attributes the secret of their success to collaboration. “The great thing about working with Pixar is how they set up the studio. When Disney bought Pixar and put John Lasseter and Ed Catmull in charge of animation, the guys wanted to come in and reshape the Disneytoon Studios in the mold of Pixar. This is in terms of how they develop story, where they put their focus and most importantly, it’s how the studio is set up regarding the creative collaboration between the filmmakers and writers. For instance, at Pixar, you’ll see in the end credits of their movies, they have the Senior Creative Team. It’s basically all their directors and that’s their Story Trust, and we have a group here as well, and the idea of the Story Trust is honest peer review of everybody’s project. From the pitch stage through the script stage through the story reels through animation, everybody is looking at it. Everybody is lending their brains and ideas to it.”
Howard explains how the Pixar process works, starting with the inception of an idea. “When we first come up with a story, we pitch it to John and everybody else. Being creatives themselves, they’re able to give more appropriate notes. It’s so great for getting feedback, things you never thought of, solutions you never thought of, pointing out problems you’re not seeing because you’re too close to it. And you get a lot of inspiration from other people in the studio.” This is a vast change from the way the studio once operated. “A lot of times before, it was very siloed and you might not see a movie that’s being made right down the hall from you until it was almost done. There wasn’t this sense of collaboration, from dialogue to plot points to characters to visuals to themes. But now, one of the guiding philosophies of this studio is you listen to everybody’s ideas. No opinion is left behind. I think it’s made our movies much better.” Pixar’s collaborative nature is so ingrained in its infrastructure, it even affects the physical layout of their offices, “Steve Jobs set up and designed the bullpens and common areas to open creative dialogues between everyone in the office. You can’t get to the bathroom without running into a colleague, which can be good. Unless you really have to go,” Howard laughs.
Howard thinks the landscape is ripe for animation to broaden out and become a medium that encompasses even more than family-friendly films. “My hope is that animation is always headed towards more and more innovative stories. It’s interesting to me that in other areas of the world, animation is a much broader art form than just family comedies, which is primarily what it is in the US. If you look at manga and anime in Japan, animation spans all genres. It would be great if American animation could reach that same broad spectrum of stories. I think we’re slowly getting there. The guys at Pixar are pushing that, as are other people around the industry.”
Howard knows how difficult it is to break into the writing business. In an industry laden with nepotism and politics, he explains how he navigated his way. “I was kind of lucky in that I was in the right place and the right time,” but he also says he was prepared for the next step. “I’d been writing stuff on my own, I had developed relationships with people here who had given me a chance.” He also attributes his career success to following his passion. “That’s one of my guiding principles. There’s the old cliché of ‘write what you know.’ But I think that has a lot of truth to it. Especially in animation, where you better like the idea because you’re gonna be spending the next four years of your life on it. And if you’re writing something you’re passionate about, it shows in your work. It’ll keep you writing when you’re stuck, or up against a deadline. It’ll push you forward.”
The other piece of advice Jeff offers for aspiring scribes is the idea of the Story Trust and getting feedback from others, particularly fellow writers and in writers’ groups. “You don’t have to take their notes, they’re not your bosses. But if you get a couple good ideas from someone who read your material, it was time well spent. Material gets to be good by sharing it with other people and getting feedback from people. There’s a notion here that we work by, and that’s ‘none of us is as smart as all of us’.” It seems to have worked out pretty well for them so far.
[Editor’s Note: for another interview with Jeff Howard on the craft of writing Planes, click here.]
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